Published in Mar-Apr 2022
The business of building brands and communicating messages is not quite as simple as many think it is. Several branding and positioning aspects need to be covered and various external factors need to be considered – and then there is audience perception to be taken into account.
Although most brands are fixated on figuring out ways to enhance their equity while driving business results, some brands have established themselves as leaders in their categories. These are the brands that maintain the strongest top of mind with staggering awareness scores while sustaining themselves as reliable, trustworthy names. They include Amazon, Apple, Google and Meta. What do they have in common, apart from being tech giants? The fact that they are thought leaders.
The Right Position
Every week, I receive at least two emails from Think With Google, offering me insights into audience trends and articles containing expert advice on enhancing the brand experience of my clients. Additionally, soon after making a purchase from OLX Mall, I started receiving emails from the company containing articles on the best ways to buy and sell cars, along with leading automotive trends. Emails like these are not just part of a company’s content plan – they come from a mindset of authority and a vision that includes building brand credibility before engaging audiences directly to sell their services.
Thought leadership goes a step beyond informing audiences about a company’s product and why they should buy it. It educates them about the industry’s best practices and inspires them to make smarter, more informed decisions. When brands take up thought leadership as a communication strategy, they project an ability to see things from a different perspective and inspire audiences to believe and follow them. To do this, brands must establish themselves as experts in their field, with the authority to speak with experience and vision – all the while displaying a deep understanding of the matter at hand. They showcase an undying passion for the work they do and are geared to take audiences along with them. Thought leadership is a great way to make any brand’s expertise and knowledge available to audiences interested in the respective business sectors.
Not Content Marketing
Thought leadership may sound a lot like a simple content marketing plan requiring content based on the technical details of the industry or the products involved. However, although good thought leadership does comprise some content marketing aspects, this is not enough to consolidate a position of authority.
Real thought leadership comes with an exclusive take on what interests the brand’s customers. For example, while in the business of selling athletic apparel, Nike positioned itself as a brand geared up to ‘break barriers’ and in the process talked about the different ways it believes barriers can be broken. Be they societal, political or internal, Nike built its narrative not only through its campaigns but by showcasing actions and strong opinions on various subjects within its sphere. It built on its core beliefs to educate audiences about the difference that can be made by ‘just doing it’.
Fill the Gaps
Thought leadership is not only about picking up important industry topics and disseminating opinionated content through emails, blogs, articles and newsletters. There is a method to the madness – and includes first understanding exactly what it is that interests audiences, and why it should matter to them. When American Express launched OPEN Forum – a platform aimed at supporting small businesses – it first looked at the data regarding what its customers were reading about and then proceeded to provide them with ideas, insights and connections to grow their networks and businesses. Over the years, the platform became a popular source for business owners to learn new ways to grow. This not only established credibility for the brand, it also set the ground to position American Express as a partner in their business.
Once brands have a better understanding of what resonates with their audiences, they must then figure out exactly what they are going to establish themselves as experts in. Apple, for instance, establishes itself as an expert in design thinking, among other things, and by creating educational content around this while integrating it with other aspects of technology, the brand carved a niche for itself in the minds of customers. Another aspect of thought leadership is to look at what competitors are talking about. The race to become the best thought leader is real – your competitors will be trying to do the same in one form or the other. Study their content and take note of what they are talking about; look for gaps or differences in opinion. Create strong opinions around your area of expertise, but maintain your exclusivity.
LinkedIn talks about building brands by using any of three types of thought leadership.
1. Industry-Wide Thought Leadership: Content revolves around trends, news, technology and industry insights. For example, Think With Google builds on the top trends in search and audience analytics, along with expert opinions.
2. Organisational Thought Leadership: This type of thought leadership represents the purpose of your brand and embodies the narratives and opinions you build in pursuing that passion. Brands such as Nike have done well in this category.
3. Product Thought Leadership: When a brand’s products are top-notch and can be substantiated, product thought leadership educates customers about why they are able to offer the best solution.
In establishing your brand as a thought leader, do not lose sight of your authenticity – staying true to what you are really an expert in and projecting real knowledge and command over your field of operations. Building a thought leader brand is not an overnight task and takes a significant amount of time and energy. However, with the right approach, a complete understanding of your audience, a specific area of expertise and a unique narrative, you too can become a reliable, authentic thought leader.
Muhammad Ali Khan is Associate Director Creative & Strategy at Spectrum VMLY&R. He also teaches in the Media Sciences department at SZABIST Karachi.