Thought leadership has changed. This is why it’s relevant again.

The term ‘thought leadership’ has joined the great pantheon of boardroom terms guaranteed to get eyes rolling but it can actually be a powerful driver of brand discovery or loyalty.



The term ‘thought leadership’ has unfortunately joined the great pantheon of boardroom terms guaranteed to get eyes rolling. But don’t be put off by connotations that thought leadership is a slick gimmick rolled out by uninspired marketing agencies.

It can actually be a powerful driver of brand discovery or loyalty.


A brief history of a contentious term.


The term started being bandied about in the early 90s, with Strategy and Business Magazine’s Joel Kurtzman defining that “a thought leader is recognized by peers, customers and industry experts as someone who deeply understands the business they are in, the needs of their customers and the broader marketplace in which they operate.”


The first marketing-led iterations of thought leadership saw businesses strategise to get their CEOs recognised as individual thought leaders and this was really where the problems for the term began. It’s hard to respect something that reeks of egomaniacal tendencies. As Dorie Clark wrote for the Harvard Business Review, the whole thing was just “very icky”.


By the time we got to the mid-noughties, Chris Kelly’s ‘I am a thought leader’ parody TED talk went viral and as we all shared it, we each contributed to killing off another atom of this marketing strategy staple.


Thought Leadership 2.0


Over the past two years however, the whole concept has seen something of a rehabilitation.


Some companies have realised that there is some good stuff to be taken from the theory. And in a nutshell, this means re-engineering the concept to apply to a brand rather than an individual person.


If you do a good job, it’ll naturally follow that the leadership of your company will be seen as vanguards in any case.


Take a blank sheet of paper.


Think about what you want to achieve and then think about how your brand can get ahead of the chasing pack.


To get ahead, think broadly about the issues that your brand’s customers care about or need help figuring out.


Carve out some space, via content, in which you engage directly with those matters.


In doing this, you’ll be expanding the bandwidth of areas that your marketing can reach or touch. Every time you address broader (but relevant) topics from a leadership position, your brand’s net will be cast wider and you’ll reach larger audiences. Create the right material and your audience will organically return to you again and again, not for the product or service at first, but for the leading intelligence.


If you can become your own industry news, you can create the weather, and over time, increase or create demand for your brand’s offering.


Let’s look at three excellent examples of contemporary thought leadership in action in three diverse companies.


1. Millboard’s architect portal.


Millboard is the UK’s premium wood-free composite decking material. Moulded from real antique timbers, these superior boards have been used on builds as prestigious as the 2019 Wimbledon renovation and the Burj al Arab luxury hotel in Dubai.


As a high-spec and exclusive material, Millboard’s relationship with professional architects and designers is paramount to the company’s continued success.


To reach this audience directly and organically, Millboard launched its own ‘Outdoor Design Hub’, an education and information resource designed to be a ‘go to’ for specialists.


The site contains the latest news and regulatory updates that architects need to be aware of, but also lots of downloadable fact sheets and mood boards covering everything from design aesthetics to the effect of global warming on building materials.


The site now organically draws in a perfectly curated mix of professionals who know that the Hub is a one-stop-shop for all their edu/inspo needs.


2. The ‘Dulas Academy’


Dulas is a world-leading renewables consultancy based in Wales.


One arm of the business specialises in installing solar powered medical equipment in developing nation countries. The company also provides in-country training to ensure that people on the ground can continue maintaining their systems long after Dulas’s personnel have headed home.


Over recent years however, it’s been difficult for Dulas to take their training programme to no-fly zones which made them think about digitising their offering. When Covid19 struck in March of last year, logistics became even more difficult, accelerating the company’s need to create an accessible curriculum.


Over the past few months, Dulas’ team has created a comprehensive suite of digital modules that can now be accessed from anywhere in the world. Participants can learn about solar power, how to reduce costs whilst maximising output and how to understand electricity consumption.


This facility will be crucial to the development of medical and energy provision in thousands of hard-to-reach parts of the world, and as an added bonus, gives the Dulas brand added prestige.


3. Vestd’s wellbeing research.


Not every company can create its own training academy or news hub. But every brand will be aware of hot topics of conversation in their industries.


By getting ahead of the conversation, you can shape it and become the source material for so many white papers and talks.


Vestd is the UK’s first and most advanced equity share platform, and as such, attracts customers wanting to enhance their benefit and compensatory packages. An excellent example of ‘expanding the bandwidth of the conversation’ is to recognise a sales driver like that and then to broaden brand participation in that topical area.


Vestd did this in December 2020 when they engaged leading research agency YouGov, to complete a general survey on workplace wellbeing needs. The results were published in a whitepaper in January 2021 and this document now constitutes the latest and most comprehensive research in the area.


Takeaways.


Thought leadership has become ‘knowledge leadership’, a better and less bolshy version of its younger self. If you’d like to experiment with thought leadership 2.0, think broadly about your inhouse knowledge.


How can you be more useful to your audiences? How can you get them to organically find you without knowing your brand name? How can you get them to share your brand name and logo without being salesy?


Education, education,education. Be at the forefront and you’ll naturally evolve your brand to thought leader status, minus the ego.


Jemma L. King is a writer based in Wales. Her work has won and been shortlisted for The Young Welsh Writer of the Year, The Dylan Thomas Prize and the Wales Book of the Year. She has worked with a number of businesses across the energy, manufacturing and fintech industries.