How Thought Leadership Is Changing: The Big Idea Before the Brand

How Thought Leadership Is Changing: The Big Idea Before the Brand

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What’s your big idea?

What’s the key message, controversial take or revolutionary promise that your company is taking to the market?

How is it different from your competitor’s big idea?

And, umm, why am I asking?

I’ve worked in content marketing since “content marketing” as a buzzword was born. And I have seen the evolution of content marketing best practices … with the rise of “thought leadership” as the gold standard.

I always tell people that I knew things were going to have to change for marketers when my dentist started sending me blog posts. As more and more companies started publishing content — as we reached blog overload and peak podcast and oh-my-God-please-don’t-send-me-more-emails-about-your-latest-articles — just publishing was no longer enough to grab attention. As our Facebook feeds and blog readers (RIP) and inboxes became more crowded, it was no longer about saying something. It’s about what you have to say.

That’s especially true in B2B marketing. Your clients work with you for your ideas. You’re selling expertise and business results, so you better be able to back it up. If you don’t have a perspective, what do you have?

It’s no secret that I’m obsessed with how thought leadership is changing — I’m burning down my longtime agency job and I started my own solo firm to explore it. So to think more about where thought leadership came from and where it’s headed next, I called Jason Mlicki. He spends a lot of time studying thought leadership as the principal of Rattleback, a marketing agency for professional services firms. He also runs an annual conference about thought-leadership best practices.

I asked Jason how thought leadership is changing.

The Shift from Brand to Big Ideas

Twenty years ago, Jason says, the focus for professional services marketing was all about branding. His clients asked: How could we position our brand differently, relative to peer firms? How is our brand and our value proposition different? In other words, it was all about making big claims. “Branding back then was, ‘Let us explain how all the features of our service are better than yours’ or ‘Let’s share all the benefits that come with working with our firm,’ ” he says. For companies, the marketing message was “all about us, us, us, us.”

These days, though, Jason is having different conversations. Now clients are asking “How do we distinguish our point of view from the sea of noise around a topic?” The conversation is still about differentiation, he says, “but it was masked as ‘branding’ 20 years ago and now it's masked as ‘thought leadership development.’ It’s less about how we distinguish relative to peers and more about how we distinguish relative to our peers' thinking.

Now, he says, the conversation isn’t about how you’re different or better than everybody else — it’s about how you see the world differently or better.

And instead of thinking about “us, us, us,” marketers have become laser-focused on the clients they serve. “Now it’s all about the client, the client, the client,” he says. “We’re asking, ‘What are the client’s unmet needs? How do we solve them? And how do we distinguish the way we solve them?’ ”

The evolution from hollow branding to more idea-based, solution-focused marketing is good news for marketers, leaders and their customers, Jason says. “Firms have finally recognized that it’s not about them; it's about their client.”

The Democratization of ‘Thought Leadership’

Thought leadership as a practice isn’t new. Many firms have operated this way for decades — Jason points to the first edition of the McKinsey Quarterly way back in 1964. But broad adoption of thought leadership is new.

In fact, Jason says he remembers when “thought leadership” felt like a dirty word. Marketing was for everyone, but thought leadership had the stereotype of being high-falutin’ — just for academics and intellectuals. He recalls working with a midsized firm whose leaders argued they weren’t “thought leaders”; they were doers. They were operations people, not intellectuals.

“And I remember distinctly having a consulting firm client — this wasn't even that long ago, probably eight years ago. I brought up thought leadership and the owner got really upset because he didn't want to be that. In his view, it was almost arrogant to claim that they were going to produce thought leadership.”

That attitude has shifted, Jason says. “Now thought leadership is the client engagement strategy for just about every firm of every size and in almost every discipline.”

How Thought Leadership Is Changing: The Message Is What Matters

Here’s something else Jason shared that really made me perk up. He says thought leadership used to be an extension of the core brand. It was almost an afterthought. But now, thought leadership supersedes the brand. As Mary Ellen and I told marketers at MarketingProfs’ B2B Forum, content should go first. Instead of lagging behind the brand, or supporting a bigger brand message, the ideas have become the leading factor — putting the leader in “thought leadership.”

At Rattleback, that means their advice to clients has actually inverted. They focus on the message before the medium. He asks clients, "What are the issues you want to be known for and what's your unique take on them?” Then, he says, the brand follows along.

“A firm that has a really distinct point of view on a really important issue is going to get remembered for that issue and remembered for that point of view. It can supersede the firm’s culture, even its work,” he says. “The thought leadership is, in essence, the brand — much more than any messaging framework we would have put together 20 years ago or any identity system that we would put together now.” Those creative elements of branding are “shells, carriers, for the message, and the message is the thought leadership,” he says.

Here’s an example he shared from a prospect call. “I had a call this morning with a midsized strategy consulting firm and they wanted feedback on their web property. I said, ‘Well, yeah, your web property is kind of lousy. It looks terrible. It has a lot of redundancy and some broken issues you need to fix and that's all well and good. But really the bigger issue is you have no point of view. You have clear positioning — it's really clear where your firm competes — but you don't have a compelling point of view on why clients need that. Get that first and let the web property fall along behind that.’ "

He goes one step further: “I said, ‘I don't even know that you need the website. You need the point of view. Get that down and then do whatever you want with the web.’ ”

What the Research Shows About How Thought Leadership Is Changing

In early 2019, Rattleback surveyed around 300 B2B marketers in the U.S. who either were responsible for thought leadership or had influence in thought-leadership development. Jason and his partner in the research, Bob Buday, published their findings in a report called “Following the Leaders.” In the study they identified seven capabilities of the most successful thought-leadership programs.

In our conversation, Jason pointed to three of his favorite takeaways from the study:

A Focus on Research

He says the top firms have a “seeking” mentality — a recognition that they don't have all the answers, and that they need to invest in some amount of research to understand how the marketplace sees an issue. And, he says, they recognize that the research has to be paired with deep reflection. “They say, ‘We can't just do research around this topic. Just about every topic has already been studied in one way or another already. We have to think really deeply about our angle on the topic. How are we going to study this topic in ways it hasn't been thought of before?’ ”

An Uncompromising Devotion to Quality

“The best firms have high editorial standards. They treat thought leadership like a publishing function. They hold themselves to standards that are exceptionally high and they don’t compromise. Even when faced with demand from the business for more and more quantity, they find workarounds to keep quality high,” he says. The best thought-leadership programs aren’t run by writers who take notes from subject-matter experts — they’re run by “argument shapers” who ask tough questions, road-test the ideas and dig deeper to really unlock the core message.

A Partnership with Sales

Jason says he was pleasantly surprised to realize that the most successful thought-leadership programs are closely aligned with sales. “A lot of editorial and marketing leaders think their job is to extract the insights, get all of the content handed off and walk away. They think of this as being all about getting new content into the system. But it's loud and clear in our research that the best firms actually think that enabling the sales team is more important than the quality of the content. So even though we have high-quality standards, the difference between success and failure is are we going to teach the salesforce what this stuff means and how to use it and give them tools to do that … or not? If we do those things we'll be successful, and if we don't we won't. Even if the content is phenomenal.”

In other words, he says, marketing leaders need to get involved in the activation of the big ideas — not just creating them. Marketers need to be “intimately involved” with what happens with the content, because the people who created it know the insights better than anyone else.

In sum, I think Jason’s experiences and his team’s research point us toward a future of thought leadership, and marketing in general, that is much more interesting than our past. The future of thought leadership is about unlocking the best new ideas, marketers leading the way instead of taking orders, and looking more holistically at marketing results measured by changing attitudes and perceptions over time. I’m in.

Lee Price is co-founder of Managing Editor. After 7 years as a content marketing consultant at Rep Cap, she started a thought leadership consultancy to help visionary leaders dig up and develop their big ideas. She's a proud University of Virginia fan, Twizzler enthusiast and feminist. She lives in Georgia with her husband and two young daughters. When she's not reading or writing, you can find her on Twitter @leevprice.

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