4 Ways Your Brand Can Become a True Thought Leader

As buzzwords go, few phrases curl writers’ faces into snickers and eye rolls as consistently as “thought leadership.” But what do you call the content brands produce that shares information from a unique point of view, but is not specifically about their products or services? Non-product content? Meh. Knowledge marketing? Maybe. In any case, the buzzword lives on because no one’s coined a better term. And whatever you call it, showcasing expertise and positioning yourself ahead of competitors is an essential strategy for any brand that operates a range of businesses and not a single consumer product.

The best thought-leading marketers continuously build their brand through stories and events, giving life to their brand’s value across a vast ecosystem of paid, owned, and earned channels. GE lives for innovation. IBM brings its smarts to the planet’s biggest challenges. Google realizes the most powerful marketing and advertising insights through its data. You see these brands’ stories wherever you look.

That ubiquity doesn’t happen naturally—it’s earned through telling great stories. Here are four critical factors to establishing a successful thought leadership presence for your brand.

1. Find a topic you can own.

What does your brand know best—and better than most? Find exclusive areas of expertise within the organization that your brand can legitimately claim. A bank that deals often with mortgages knows more than most companies about the state of the housing market. A video-streaming service like Netflix can claim knowledge about the speeds of different broadband providers.

What do you want to be known for? Your brand may have expertise across a range of interesting topics, but not all will be appropriate for establishing thought leadership. Life insurance companies possess intimate knowledge of how people die, but that’s probably not how they want to present themselves to customers. In contrast, Nike knows the environmental impact of all the materials its designers could use in manufacturing sneakers or sunglasses, and making that knowledge available in an app for designers fits with the brand’s identity as the foremost innovator in sportswear.

Where is the white space? Survey the landscape and find the unmet customer need that your competitors won’t or can’t help them with. What anxieties do customers have, and how can you offer reassurance? Johnson & Johnson’s BabyCenter allays many fears of expecting parents with week-by-week updates on what’s happening with the mother’s body and their child.

Find the intersection of your expertise, your brand’s core values, and how you can help make customers’ lives better, and you have a winning strategy that will be hard for others to emulate.

2. Partner with the players.

Even with a topic you can own, chances are there are like minds already working this territory. Every field has established and rising stars who are also trying to build relationships with the customers you want to reach. You can’t beat ‘em, so join ‘em.

Find the influencers and give a hand to the up-and-coming challengers. Unite them with your own experts. Sponsor them and collaborate with them. Make them your friends and they’ll be your best advocates. At a recent conference, I heard how GE’s director of global digital strategy described its strategy as “promiscuous”—they sleep with anyone and everyone to achieve ubiquity.

(Full disclosure: GE is a Contently client.)

Look at who has connections to the audience you want to reach and feed, or if you can, buy them. Vans partnered with IMG to sponsor the US Open of Surfing, reaching its surfer, skate, and BMX pro fans. Johnson & Johnson didn’t start BabyCenter, but instead bought it from eToys in 2001.

Compartmentalize competitors. Credit Suisse holds regular conferences on the global investment outlook for particular industries and economic sectors, inviting leaders from competitor banks to present and share knowledge. As the organizer and sponsor, Credit Suisse positions itself as the leader, with the other banks following.

If other experts in your field are going to rally, make sure they rally around you.

3. Flood the zone.

There is an old marketing adage that you have to say something five times in five different ways before you can break through. To succeed at thought leadership, you need to go a little further and dominate the topic to a point no competitor can match. Flooding the zone requires a significant investment of resources; it can’t be an ad hoc initiative.

LEGO has made its brand omnipresent among young children. Not stopping at partnering with the Star Wars franchise, Lego reaches kids through cartoons for its Ninjago and Chima series, LEGO Club magazines, comic books and early-reader chapter books—even theme parks.

GoPro built a team of 50 producers to select, enhance, and curate insanely amazing videos of base jumpers and snowboarders. I’d bet that more than half of the extreme sports videos you’ve seen in the past month came through GoPro. They’ve now gone public as a media company and are producing original content like this series celebrating Brazil and the World Cup.

LEGO and GoPro have made the kind of commitment great content marketing needs to transform mere thoughts into thought leadership, and it gives them a dominant footprint that no competitor can match.

To flood the zone you also need to pull your big stories apart into smaller pieces—individual moments that are interesting enough to stand on their own—that feed your ecosystem of owned, paid, and earned channels. Look for pull-quotes, data, profiles of people who created the story or are featured in it, glossary items, and maps. Look for background information that can supplement the story or provide context. Share the story with key influencers to get their quotable reaction; find the story behind the story, and link to it.

Another way to get more from a story is to serialize: Break it into a sequence, revealing one chapter at a time and giving the audience time to grow as they find the story. Insert breakpoints in the chapters that create suspense. You can tease every new offering so each release becomes an event.

4. Beat the drum.

Great content can make a splash, but the ripples dissipate quickly. Establishing workstreams for different cadences—daily, weekly, monthly, or evergreen—enables the continuous effort needed to cement a brand’s dominant position as a thought leader.

Consider the newsroom: There is a daily team covering the tick-tock developments of the top stories. There are dedicated beat and section reporters, as well as columnists providing in-depth focus on a given subject, perhaps one to three times a week. There is a reporting team that may work on an investigation or special section for weeks or months. There are magazine-style teams that create weekly or quarterly supplements.

Each team has its own editors, writers, researchers, photographers, illustrators, and data visualizers, creatively collaborating from conception to production.

Investing in multiple teams with a combination of content expertise makes the brand drumbeat sustainable. The 2012 Obama campaign famously demonstrated how developing content for multiple channels at different cadences made it possible to keep the drumbeat going through the long grind of politics and the never-ending campaigns that have become the norm.

These principles guide the best thought leadership programs and give brands a commanding position built to last. It works for the biggest content marketers like GE and IBM, as well as the smallest, from a dynamic religious congregation to the local real estate broker. The point is to find your drumbeat, play it as well as you can, and never stop marching.

John McCrory is a Vice President, Content Strategy at Huge.

Contently arms brands with the tools and talent to become great content creators. Learn more.

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