The Growth of Thought Leadership as a Marketing Strategy

Posted on July 9, 2011 by


Thought leadership is growing in popularity. The growth of thought leadership reflects a new need to establish corporate credentials.  Enterprises have always been in need of credibility. Today though the need is different. The process is different. That’s because companies need to enter or indeed create new markets, markets adjacent to their experience and competency. Thought leadership is closely related to the challenge of establishing great credentials in these new markets.

The reason that companies need this new marketing tool is because of innovation. What we understand by innovation is also changing. We are going through a global product refresh in which hyper-innovation, the constantly changing nature of innovation itself, plays a key role. A consequence of  hyper-innovation is that companies are constantly searching for adjacent opportunities, new markets where they have no real presence but see opportunity, or where the markets are micro-markets in the long tail and have to be exploited rapidly; and where they are constantly at risk from new competitors entering their own markets.

Under those conditions thought leadership serves both as an aggressive market entry strategy and a defensive strategy.

The Thought Leader Paradigm

We’ve studied thousands of examples of thought leadership documents – articles, blog posts, white papers – and companies that use thought leadership in an attempt to bring some reasoning into how thought leadership actually works as a marketing strategy.

Thought leadership has to be clearly distinguished from what it is not.  It is not PR, it is not evangelism, and nor is it what people sometimes call an ambassador program.

What Apple has done successfully now for decades is evangelism – getting people across the web to express their admiration for Apple products. This is not thought leadership.

Thought leadership has to have one essential component.  It is obvious but overlooked. Thought leadership has to contain ideas that can lead. So, to repeat and perhaps overstate the obvious. Thought leadership must contain ideas that are in some sense leading a conversation, a market segment, a professional group. Task number one in designing a thought leadership program is to decide what conversation or market or group you want to lead and can lead.

As well as its evangelism Apple also uses thought leadership but in subtle and sophisticated ways. Nobody knows business platforms as well as Apple; they are unparalleled in the use of design to create devoted users; and Jobs has put his finger on a subtle change in how we view technology – Apple he says is at the junction of liberal arts and technology, a convergence he identified or invented and subtly exploits by allowing his product owners to identify with this new movement.

Jobs represents another apparently obvious but overlooked truth – thought leadership is really about thought leaders. People are thought leaders. Companies are not. You cannot build thought leadership around a company.

What this thought leader is telling us – or has told us – is that mobile phones need a new level of usability and that the convergence of phones and computing will allow us to create new product classes; that consumer choice is paramount but that we should not let it dictate because satisfied customers will wait, will give us room to deal with product defects, will accept onerous contracts; that business partnerships on an unprecedented scale are possible and profitable; that micro-markets are a winning source of revenues.

Apple’s the thought leadership, embodied by Jobs, is far from heavy-handed. Few people at Apple talk about their platform development skills – in contrast Google and Facebook are vocal about the issues around the search platform and the social network platform. Clearly the contrast means something – if you have deep-rooted thought leadership as Apple does around platforms you don’t need to flaunt it.

Facebook on the other hand engages a community around its server structure problems and is on the way to a bi-directional solution – giving experience out to the community and taking propositions back in. The sense of leadership is considerably muted – there are people out there who clearly know better than Facebook but nobody has had to deal with the scale of server challenges that Facebook does. So while it is not thought leadership it is leadership of a kind and it should not be overlooked as a potential opportunity to develop better services, products or kudos.

Thought Leadership or PR? Thought Leadership is a Product

Despite the requirement for leadership being obvious many companies approach thought leadership either as PR or as some form of evangelism. The thought leadership program becomes a PR exercise, an attempt to burnish the brand in public.

Another helpful way to look at thought leadership in order to avoid this problem is to ask what will thought leadership do for your product development and product sales. Thought leadership straddles the two. Good thought leadership is derived from your best products. You distill the thinking that convinced you to launch product or service A.  You search out the conversations around the problems and challenges you have addressed in product development. And you assess your scope for taking a lead.

And thought leadership goes back into improving your products – the engagement you get with markets is truly interactive – meaning that thought leadership is always productized. It is never abstract and never left in conceptual space. It goes into product and service improvements. Thought leadership is embodied in good people and in great products and services. It is not an abstraction.

That also means it has to be closely related to very specific, very concrete business objectives. If you do not think in terms of the market you are looking to penetrate, the market share you are looking for, and the competitive positions of your company, then what you are doing with your ideas is PR. Thought leadership is quintessentially a strategy for entering adjacent markets – markets where you, potentially, have low existing credibility.

The components of successful thought leadership?

  • Not just being heard in important debates but being able to lead and shape conversations
  • Not just appearing in leading publications online and off, but being seen as the go-to source of opinion
  • Not just thinking and expressing but integrating the thought leadership into new products
  • Not just marketing but entering adjacent markets

What does it take?

  • Knowing how thought leadership works and why it is different from PR and evangelism
  • Knowledge of and access to the analysts, influencer and communities that can amplify your message
  • Strong content
  • Being able to measure your impact
  • Shaping, leading, creating, distributing and measuring.


There are five reasons why thought leadership is essential now:

  • The rise of adjacency as a strategic necessity. As markets become more competitive and as innovation permeates more markets companies need to look at adjacencies. A company without adjacency strategies will not grow.  But adjacencies create credibility challenges. Thought leadership helps you overcome them
  • In the era of social enterprises and social media you need to lead rather than dictate. You need to persuade intelligent people that your vision is worth following and hence that your products and services are worth buying
  • Most great products and services embody ideas that are invisible to potential buyers. You have to make your advantages as visible as possible across your chosen markets. Great products embody great thinking. Great thinkers power new markets. You have to expose your thinking
  • The rise of smart people everywhere means products and services are reviewed by a bewildering army of influencers, thought leaders and analysts whose first-up analysis can be the make or break story. You are surrounded by vocal critics and advocates. You have to match up
  • The customer is more discerning than ever. They want to know the provenance of the product or service (how it originated), the company (its ethical stance), where it fits with their changing lifestyles, and how it adds meaning. Customers are thinkers.