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Getting to grips with thought leadership

By Robin Hackett, Account Manager, Ingredient Communications

The term ‘thought leadership’ has existed for a quarter of a century, which has proven more than enough time to establish itself as a staple among ‘annoying business jargon’ lists. Yet while the term’s reputation may have suffered a little in certain quarters, the concept behind it remains undiminished.

It was coined in 1994 by the American economist Joel Kurtzman, who said a thought leader is “recognised 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 ‘thought leaders’ he showcased in Strategy+Business magazine were marked out by their “distinctively original ideas, unique points of view and new insights”.

When it comes to media coverage, thought leadership remains incredibly useful. During my time as a B2B editor, I would constantly seek out opinions from industry insiders in the hope of providing new perspectives.

Incisive opinions and analysis would invariably make for engaging content. If a company can provide a journalist with genuine insight and context on the benefits of its latest ingredient, for example, it helps form the basis of something more thought-provoking than straightforward promotion.

Thought leadership doesn’t have to serve as a Trojan horse for product promotion to deliver benefits. An ingredient company might share its thoughts on a key issue, such as how the clean label trend might develop or how consumer attitudes are evolving. If it is sufficiently thought-provoking, that could raise the company’s profile and demonstrate the depth of its expertise, which may make all the difference when manufacturers are weighing up their options.

The 2019 Edelman-LinkedIn B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study demonstrated just how impactful it can be. Of the 1,201 U.S. business decision-makers and purchase influencers it surveyed, 55% said they used thought leadership as an important way to vet organisations they were considering working with. In addition, the research showed that high-value decision-makers are more willing to pay a premium to work with an organisation that had articulated a clear vision.

The flipside is that bad thought leadership has negative consequences. Forty-six percent of respondents said they had lost respect for an organisation as the result of thought leadership, and 29% said it had led them to decide not to award a piece of business.

However, the research showed the opportunities outweigh the risks. Respondents rated 71% of thought leadership pieces as excellent, very good or good; 92% said thought leadership had increased their respect for an organisation; and 58% said they had decided to award a piece of business on the basis of thought leadership.

It appears to gaining in importance, too. Edelman-LinkedIn’s research found that the proportion of decision-makers who spent at least an hour a week reading thought leadership had increased from 50% to 58% from 2017 to 2018, and the biggest increase came among those who spent at least four hours per week.

Quality thought leadership is not easy: it requires originality and expertise as well as a clear understanding of the target audience. If your company has the skills to get it right, though, it represents a highly effective way of driving new business.