Thought Leadership Requires a Bold Stance

Every year, thousands of companies approach a PR agency saying something along the lines of “we want to be a thought leader.” And, most agencies will promise to make you or your company known as a thought leader. While good agencies certainly will help raise the visibility of your company around its areas of expertise, true thought leadership is something far different.

Most companies, and frankly, a lot of marketers, look at thought leadership as a chance to talk about their own products or the benefits of the key features they provide. What if they talked instead about issues and technologies completely separate from their core business? What if they spoke to the technologies, regulatory changes and major trends transforming every aspect of business and society – like AI, data privacy laws or net neutrality? This is not within reach of every executive, but for those willing to take a bold, public stance on bigger issues, the rewards can be great for everyone.

I first gave this thought back in 1995, when I caught the buzz around Oracle’s Larry Ellison and his vision for a $500 network computer that would free the world from Microsoft’s monopoly. Ellison’s theory was that no other network used smart endpoint devices. Utility companies use simple switches to allow consumers to access the powerful grid. Telephone companies use dumb phone terminals to allow users to access the powerful telecommunications infrastructure. Why, he pondered, did the computer industry think that computers should be these incredibly smart terminals that required huge expense and training at the endpoint.

Fast forward to 2017 and Ellison’s bold vision did not come true – intelligent endpoint devices are all the rage and have generated huge amounts of money and future innovation. But, Ellison truly was a thought leader. His vision was bold, it broke with convention, and challenged a status quo where Microsoft ruled, which many could not imagine.

While the outcome was not quite what he predicted, many of the core elements of this prophecy did happen. Microsoft’s dominance in the OS space is completely different than it was 20 years ago. The network computer he described sounds suspiciously like cloud computing and clearly influenced the Chromebook and app models.

Ellison exemplified a thought leader because he went way beyond what his products could do at that time and looked into the future. That 30,000 foot level vision got a lot of people talking and debating what would come next. I bet it inspired some of the most creative minds of the time to either prove him right or wrong. And, Ellison and his company did not suffer from the failed prophecy.

No marketing team can make an executive a thought leader. That’s inherent in their intelligence and vision of the future. Our job is to help those few amazing visionaries to communicate their unique and inspired perspective.

For most companies, however, that level of thought leadership probably does not exist – and that’s okay. What most companies want is to sell more products. What they really want is to be known as subject matter experts (SME). Make no mistake, content that talks about higher level themes around products and the benefits they provide to customers is a powerful tool for generating sales leads and building brand equity. It should be part of every marketing program.

But, for any company that hopes to secure high-level business or broadcast media and widespread industry attention for their vision, the SME approach will not be enough.

Thought leaders need to think far beyond the logical outcome of their products and get to the core issues of business, workers and society at large. This may not have a direct effect on your day-to-day business in the short term, but it can put your executives and your company into the sphere of those that are sought after for their opinions, both in their core area of expertise and on what technology means at a much deeper level.

When Mark Zuckerberg stopped talking about social networks and started talking about universal basic incomes, and when Sheryl Sandberg challenged women to Lean In, they crossed into the realm of thought leaders, and their individual and corporate images definitely benefitted. Think about what path your executives are on and if they have the desire and the wherewithal to be the next, great thought leader.

Let’s talk.