How thought leadership drives brand reputation

In a ‘digital-first’ marketing environment, the role of thought leadership in building brand reputation is growing exponentially, but what is it, and how do you do it?

McKinsey does a lot of it, ex-Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill is one, and spend more than five minutes on YouTube, and you’ll bump into one of Simon Sinek’s Ted Talks.

Thought leadership is like charisma – hard to describe but much easier to spot.

Tough call

Joel Kurtzman of Booz & Co originally coined the term thought leadership twenty years ago in their publication “Strategy+Business,” and it caught on.

More recently, Forbes proposed reserving the moniker for people or companies “capitalizing on the dramatically enhanced brand equity attained by being a thought leader.”

So that’s a high bar then. But, of course, most professional services firms do lots of things, and markets break down into segments and sub-segments.

So while it’s a tough call to become the thought leader firm in your market, it is possible to aspire to be a thought leader in one or more areas of specialism.

Thought leadership is like charisma – hard to describe but much easier to spot.

Lead, and we will follow

Thought isn’t leading unless it’s original, provocative, and even inspirational. And to be a leader, you’d better have some followers or else you’re talking to an empty chair.

Most of what’s talked about in professional services firms as thought leadership is nothing of the sort. An update on changes in regulations might be a good thing to send to clients as part of relationship building, but it doesn’t count as thought leadership.

Neither does rehashing already-published data and packaging it nicely. Again, it may serve other purposes, but it’s not thought leadership.

‘Influential’ content is the ultimate level of thought leadership and the type that authentically deserves the label.

Inform, educate, influence

We use a simple but helpful segmentation model to differentiate between different types of thought leadership and help guide the work we do with clients to develop an annual editorial calendar.

‘Informational’ content plays a role in literally informing clients about news, data, and changes that they might welcome hearing out about. As I’ve said, this type of content has a genuine role, especially if you can be the first to market or add some authority and analysis to the raw material. It’s probably stretching the term thought leadership, but that’s ok.

‘Educational’ content takes a step up with the level of opinion, analysis, and curation. As people, we often find ‘how to’ guides useful when dealing with something new or challenging. And, from a marketing point of view, it’s not rocket science to see that a client with a need in an unfamiliar area might reasonably reach out to a professional who clearly knows the subject well.

‘Influential’ content is the ultimate level of thought leadership and the type that authentically deserves the label. This type of content can be transformative in terms of marketing and brand reputation, but it’s not easy to achieve, requiring teamwork, resources, and market-leading insights to pull it off.

The genuine article

Genuine thought leadership, like the McKinsey Quarterly or PWC’s authoritative annual CEO survey, aren’t easy to produce. It gets easier when you get the hang of it, but it takes large handfuls of both inspiration and perspiration – and it takes an investment of time or money or both.

That’s why only a few professional services firms have traditionally taken thought leadership seriously – but they’ve been getting the results.

Recently though, we’ve reached a tipping point as firms recognise that the digital media environment is now so rich, and so much more on the radar of their clients, that everyone is trying to work out how to get a piece of the action.

Platforms like LinkedIn help individuals gain confidence in their ability to develop and project thinking without jumping right in at the deep end.

Digital-first

Until now, many firms that limited themselves to pushing out information rather than thought leadership are upping their game.

Digital has made things easier, particularly in pushing the thinking out there via social media, blogs, etc.

Platforms like LinkedIn help individuals gain confidence in their ability to develop and project thinking without jumping right in at the deep end. Many find they quite like it and warm to it, creating a virtuous circle of content that marketing teams can help them channel to the right audiences.

Often inspired (or cajoled) by their marketers, some leading firms are effectively harnessing the collective LinkedIn networks of their partners and associates as a ready-made communications channel for their thought leadership content.

It’s not a simple task requiring a delicate combination of influencing skills, education, and reassurance. But the prize is tangible – imagine the scale and reach of the collective virtual client network of all your firm’s partners and associates added together.

And what’s more, the beauty of LinkedIn is that the clients in this network will, in the end, only be seeing valuable content from someone that they know personally.

Trade-rags reborn

The other platforms experiencing a mini-boom in digital saliency are the daily/weekly news alerts from what was once called trade magazines – The American Lawyer, Accountancy Today, Architectural Review – which have an almost endless appetite for good, topical, and salient content.

And then there are the aggregator platforms like Forbes, Wired, and Bloomberg, which curate and package up the best of this content for their audiences.

It can be overwhelming for the novice partner who’s more comfortable writing the odd white paper every other year for their alma mater’s Law Review.

However, most can be persuaded to try it out with support and determination. Many can be inspired to become regular content generators once they acknowledge the link between virtual content generation at one end of the pipe and real revenues at the other.


Ian Stephens

CEO and Founder of Principia, bringing deep expertise and experience in strategic branding to the unique challenges of the global professional services market.