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Crafting your reputational awe-factor with thought leadership 

Some argue that most of a brand’s market value comes from intangible assets, including goodwill, brand recognition, R&D, and reputation. We look at how to leverage thought leadership to grow your reputational awe-factor.  

Ensuring a good reputation and minimising and managing reputational risks is a bottom line for companies today. It’s why companies invest so much in PR.  

Reputation is distinct from a company’s actual behaviours, and this is where things can go wrong. Eccles et al., for example, write about the ‘reputation-reality gap’ and cite BP as an example of a company that has portrayed itself as a responsible corporation, only to be undermined by environmental accidents such as a pipeline leak at its Prudhoe Bay oil field in Alaska in 2006 near wildlife sanctuaries.  

Thought leadership can help close the ‘reputation-reality gap’. How?

Digging deeper

Thought leadership is a great way to build reputation. Thought leadership can:

  • Show that you understand the challenges your clients and sector are facing.
  • It allows you to differentiate from your competitors, particularly in the B2B sector, where service offerings tend to be similar.
  • It can enhance corporate responsibility by digging deep into socio-economic challenges like DEI and ESG, reassuring your clients that you have the expertise to minimise risks.

These factors help a company build trust with its audience and, ultimately, sales. But thought leadership can only play this role if it goes deeper than conventional content marketing styles. When we ask how thought leadership can craft your reputational awe-factor, we are really asking what makes thought leadership, thought leadership, rather than ‘content’ or PR.

That’s where the collective wisdom of our panel of experts at Thought Leadership for Tomorrow, New York 2024, grew the ‘reputation conversation’. We share five of their insights about how thought leadership should be created to deliver that intangible reputational asset.

One: Thought leadership should cut across organisational silos

Contrary to its ‘blue skies’ reputation, the best thought leadership draws from the knowledge-sharing well of company strategy and cross-departmental resources.

Our panel argues that an effective thought leadership strategy requires connecting with organisational strategy and business alignment.

Josselyn Simpson, VP and Global Editorial Director at Heidrick & Struggles said they reported to the chief strategy officer, and together, they discussed the big thought leadership themes, who they were trying to reach and with what.

Both Simpson and Serge Perignon, Global Head of the Thought Leadership Institute at Tata Consultancy Services, said it was vital to talk to customer-facing consultants or sales to determine the questions clients were asking. Perignon described thought leadership as a “relationship-engagement tool” that creates value and nurtures opportunities.

Marketing and PR content can be a superficial veneer, leaving the company unimplicated. An example of this is greenwashing – making unsubstantiated environmental claims. If thought leadership is aligned with company strategy and specialisms across the organisation, it acts as a bridge between external reputation and organisational capital, keeping a company honest.

Two: Thought leadership needs quality control

Our panel agreed that quality matters. But how do you ensure your enterprise delivers quality thought leadership that enhances your reputation? Simpson said building a good team that cares about quality was vital.

But it’s also about process, said Ty Heath, Director of Market Engagement at the B2B Institute, LinkedIn. Teams need to exercise rigour when examining a question and to have a way of developing and structuring the stories they tell.

We know that thought leadership teams can need help with innovation, such as finding good topics or evolving new insights. In recent research commissioned by iResearch Services, 38% of leaders said their primary thought leadership challenge was finding the right topics and themes.

Perignon argued teams need a ‘thinking process’, for example, where ideas can be opened up to challenge. Heath agreed, arguing that companies must find a way to cultivate their ‘scenius’ or collective genius.

Is your thought leadership produced in haste, or is there an organisational process to encourage collective working and a thinking method? Establishing a systematic approach for ideation and insight-generation can help encourage innovation across the organisation. And that’s great for reputation management.

Three: Avoid the hype

It’s a danger with any thought leadership that an organisation will try to talk about everything that’s current.

Brittney Williams, VP of Editorial & Content Operations at iResearch Services, chairing the discussion, brought up AI and how everyone wanted to write something about it. How do you navigate that, she asked.

The panel was unanimous in saying that you should write about what you are known for and where you can add value. That might be, in Simpson’s case, what skills leaders need to work with AI or, in Heath’s case, what it means for B2B brands.

Ultimately, it’s about taking your time with topics, says Perignon. “Take a breath,” he proposed. Heath said her department prioritises topics that are true over time, and that people can invest in to create value. That’s why they focus on longitudinal studies and large data sets. “You can’t ignore the shiny objects, but ideas must stand the test of time,” she said.

It is not about rushing to offer an opinion about everything but covering the new in a way that makes sense for your audience and company.

Demonstrating your expertise rather than casting too widely enhances your reputation for consistent, meaningful insights that add value to your company and sector.

Four: Be bold but also right

It can be difficult for companies and their thought leadership teams to know whether to play it safe or be provocative. Be too safe, and thought leadership lacks impact. Be too bold, and your reputation may take a hit. As Williams asked the panel, where is the ‘bold enough’ line?

Simpson offered an example. According to their research, 48% of board members and CEOs have little or no confidence in the executive succession planning process. That is a bold finding, and they talk about it. But what’s critical here is that it’s the data-driven content that’s bold. Use the data to take you to the line.

But perhaps bold is the wrong word. Perignon argued that ‘thought-provoking’ and counterintuitive insights were more interesting than bold.

Heath drew on Howard Mark’s notion of the ‘contrarian matrix’.

According to this model, you have to be provocative if you want to aim for higher returns. But you also must be right.

Thought leadership is an ideal arena for boldness, but teams need to ensure that they deliver accurate, insightful content and analysis in the right form.

Five: Pursue the authentic

Authenticity can be a nebulous term, particularly when applied to enterprises. Just how authentic can you really be? So Williams asked the pertinent question: How does a brand show its authenticity?

The keywords from the panel were trust, integrity, consistency, clarity about what you stand for, honesty, strong culture and values reflected across the organisation. If everyone in your organisation behaves in that way, says Perignon, it reflects itself in external reputation.

However, when we bring this down to thought leadership, it means avoiding the ‘bait and switch’ of tagging a call to action at the end of thought leadership. Thought leadership, said Simpson, is at the top of the marketing funnel. It is a reputation- and relationship-builder, not a direct vehicle for sales – an ecosystem, not a transaction.

The message is: Thought leadership can enhance your reputational awe-factor, so long as you see it in the right way and have a process in place to develop truly insightful work.

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