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Warning! You Probably Don't Need Thought Leadership

If you read the press releases companies put out, and visit their home pages, you could be forgiven for thinking that as everyone is doing thought leadership you need to leap aboard the TL train before you’re left behind, waving as it leaves the station bound for market glory.

Well, pause before you leap. For many companies, that’s not a glory-bound train at all; it’s a bandwagon, heading nowhere fast. These companies don’t need thought leadership, and you might not either.

Pardon? A TL pundit telling me I might not need TL? What’s going on?

I’m trying to help and perhaps save you from wasting some marketing dollars on people like me. (After all, honesty, my dear old mum always told me, is something or other; I forget, but it’s a good thing.) Let me illustrate with a few examples of businesses for which TL makes no sense.

Anything B2C: Consumers don’t have time to conduct a literature search every time they want to buy something. Take a can of beans. We might read the label, but we aren’t going to read a white paper about best practices in legume processing before we decide to purchase Boston’s Best or Mama’s Favorite. And for a big ticket, complex transaction like buying a house, we’ll generally retain a realtor because it’s too time-consuming and risky to do it ourselves; we will not (I’ll wager) immerse ourselves in articles about property valuation models.

Here’s an example of a very large B2C company that jumped on the TL bandwagon. This microsite about the global water crisis is hosted by Nestlé. It’s TL, and it’s aimed at consumers; it contains a blog by the company’s chairman on its own domain, here. Now, Alexa Traffic Rank is a blunt tool by which to measure site traffic, but when the company is $90 billion in revenues and its chairman’s blog about water is two millionth – that is the two millionth most (least?) visited domain in the world – one can safely conclude that people who care about the global water crisis are not using Nestlé as a primary (or secondary, or tertiary) source, and whatever time, effort, and money Nestlé has invested in this TL might have been better spent on . . . just about anything.

Anything that’s sold on its features: Bearings, special epoxies, greases, basic and specialized chemicals, and so on, are purchased by specialists (engineers and chemists) and they will buy, say, an epoxy based on its set time, opacity, tensile strength, conductivity, or whatever the engineer needs for a specific application. There’s certainly a lot of research and thought leadership involved in the development of these products, but the buyer doesn’t need (or care) to know about any of that. Does it do the job? Does it do the job at a reasonable price? Done. The same goes for catering, utilities, real estate management, and so forth. Again, there might be a lot of leading edge thought involved in providing these services better than the competition can. FedEx, for example, could produce not just white papers, but books about the theory, technology, and delivery of packages globally. But, again, do you care? Do the businesses that use FedEx care? No. We use FedEx (if we do) because it provides a better service at a better price. No amount of published TL content will affect FedEx’s business in the slightest.  

So what businesses should promote themselves with thought leadership? Here’s a simple rule: Companies that are B2B and advisory – either purely advisory, such as management consulting firms, or service businesses, such as IT with a large advisory component. For example:

McKinsey, which probably produces the best, most voluminous and longest-running thought leadership there is. Why does it do so? Because that’s what it sells; in the opinion of the firm, being a thought leader is the very foundation of its reputation.

SAS specializes in big data and analytics and for a long time has differentiated itself from its key competitors by doing a better job of explaining to customers what big data analytics is and what it can do for them. When something is terribly complex – and costly – it behooves the buyer to be informed and the seller to do the informing.

Quintiles, a clinical research service provider, aims to distinguish itself from its two main competitors with a steady flow of thought leadership. A pharmaceutical company will want to know that its service provider has new, trenchant ideas about conducting breathtakingly expensive and highly complex clinical trials.

However, this simple rule for who will and won’t benefit from creating TL content is not, in truth, quite so simple in practice.  

Some sectors of professional services that you might have expected to have embraced thought leadership haven’t. Law firms have long felt inhibited from shouting their expertise from the rooftops for fear that their claims might be held against them in court. And perhaps accountants’ clients are more comfortable with their books being kept in conventional ways than innovative ones. On the other hand, there are some companies that are not obvious candidates to benefit from TL but have. Herman Miller, in office furniture and interior design, has used TL to position and differentiate itself quite effectively as a leading provider of comfy chairs and spaces by being a thought leader in ergonomics and the optimal use of office geography. HOK has done something similar in architecture, especially in the healthcare space. And Thomson Reuters uses TL to position itself as an expert in how its clients – small law firms, for instance – can better market themselves and be more profitable in ways that are, of course, compatible with the firm's products and services. 

So, on the one hand, the set of companies that should naturally benefit from thought leadership is not (unfortunately) significantly wider than it was 20 years ago when IT service providers joined management consultants as donors of free expertise. On the other, especially given the relentless pressure for quality content from online search, there are opportunies in almost every industry for a company to differentiate itself from its competitors with carefully conceived thought leadership marketing. But TL remains I think, a strategy suited to a focused and dedicated few. It is not something that any company can or should distract itself with, despite the blandishments of those who would seek to profit by helping them do it.