Thought Leadership – Who Needs It?

Lots of companies actually.

Especially those that:

  • Primarily sell expertise: I.e., professional services firms, especially management consultancies and IT services companies
  • Sell complex products with associated services: E.g., call center telephony systems, business intelligence software
  • Sell complex products with advantages the market needs to be educated about: E.g., targeted marketing data, intellectual property, ergonomic office furniture, industrial bearings

It wasn’t always this way.

Thought leadership (though it wasn’t called it at the time) originated perhaps as long ago as 1911 with the publication of Frederick Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management. By the 1960s, the management consulting firms McKinsey and BCG were publishing their points of view in their own publications. Management thought leadership then pretty well stayed in the consulting industry until the 1990s when IT services firms picked up the banner. They found themselves with ever more complex products to sell, and about the same time were adding services and migrating to selling solutions rather than products. They had to educate their buyers about what they could do for them, and they turned to thought leadership, mostly in the form of a torrent of IT white papers (of varying quality, of course), which continues to this day.

And now we are seeing more and more companies in other industries adopt thought leadership. SAS in business intelligence software, UPS in small business logistics, and Epsilon in targeted marketing data, for instance.

Why is it now catching on in other B2B sectors too? I can think of three main reasons.

  • Rapid advances in technology: Allows for more solutions to more problems. So companies can differentiate themselves with a better offering, but may have to educate the market about what it is and why it’s better.
  • Vertical disintegration: Companies in every industry are hiving off ever more of their work to specialists, thanks to ever better communications technologies. The specialisms are often deep and technical. Those companies can differentiate themselves with superior expertise and approach, but they too may have to explain it to buyers.
  • Online search: Driven primarily by Google, the quality standards for content to appear in search results are going up. It’s no longer enough to publish pabulum – content has to be good enough to attract interest.

All of which leads to an increasing demand for complex issues and their solutions to be explained in terms that senior buyers can understand. If an issue and its solution are already well understood, there’s no need to publish on them. If they are not, then material that contributes to the general understanding is thought leadership.

I’m sure that thought leadership isn’t a must-have for every firm in a sector. SAS has it for its business intelligence offering; SAP really doesn’t. Herman Miller has it for its furniture; Steelcase really doesn’t. UPS has it in the small business sector; FedEx really doesn’t. (These examples can all be debated because all these firms have at least some thought leadership. But in my opinion these pairs are respectively at opposite ends of the spectrum).

So it’s not essential to have one. But it’s increasingly something a firm has to make a conscious decision about.

Add new comment