Last time I wrote, I talked about how business leaders can use thought leadership to build their reputation. It’s only in the past few years – since personal brands became a business in their own right – that leaders have said to me they want to be known as a thought leader. In my experience, it’s been my corporate clients who say to me they want their brand to be known as a thought leader. In these instances, it might be the CEO or CMO of a mid-size company that’s doing great things for their customers and innovating their industry, but they don’t have the big budget or operational set-up to see a clear path to how they can build a thought leader brand.

Being a thought leader brand is a multi-layered and sustained project. No way around that one. It needs the commitment of senior decision makers in the business. It’s about knowing why you want your brand to be considered a thought leader and how it’s going to deliver results for your business. It’s worth it though, the 2019 Edelman B2B Thought Leadership Survey found that B2B buyers are happy to pay a premium to work with thought leader brands.

The CEO needs to be the sponsor for the brand’s thought leadership

A decade ago, the priority for being a thought leader brand was mostly about brand awareness, being positioned as the industry leader and the bottom line. Today, motivations for thought leader brand positioning also include transparency, doing what’s right, taking a stand on important issues, being an advocate for your people (internal and external), as well as doing it to build your business. All these combined will strengthen your business reputation, make your business more resilient and building your business easier.

The list below isn’t exhaustive. But if you’re a head of comms for a mid-size company or the head of marketing for a family run business that’s a leader in your industry but no-one knows about that and your CEO is telling you they want the brand to be positioned as a thought leader, these insights might help you give some strategy to what that will look like for your business:

1. Know why you’re doing it and what you want it to deliver to the business
What did we all do with ourselves before Simon Sinek’s ‘Start with why’? Some people think a brand can only be considered a thought leader if it’s regularly reported on by mainstream press. If that’s where your audience is and it’s going to support your bottom line, that’s great. But if mainstream media coverage is something your CEO wants so they can brag about it to their friends, there’s not much future in it and your thought leadership strategy won’t work in the long-term. Know why your brand should be positioned as a thought leader so that it delivers results for the brand in the short and long term.

Saturday night’s dinner party

2. Know who your audience is
Because they’re prolific (and well-funded) the brands we think of as thought leaders are global businesses with significant budgets: Apple, Patagonia, Tesla, Microsoft, Netflix… The mainstream considers these brands as thought leaders, but if you’re a medium size B2B business with say 500-1000 employees is this really relevant to you? If you’re going to be a thought leader brand, you need to be clear on who your audience is. Where they are and how you’ll reach them. How you’ll inform and educate them. What’s important to them. When you know who they are and where you can reach them, your strategy can take form and you’ll know how to measure its success.

Patagonia is regularly recognised as a thought leader brand

3. Have a position on key issues relevant to your product, business, industry and customers and be transparent about it.
What your brand has to say about social issues that are important to your business and your customers needs to be meaningful and it needs to ‘own a space’ in the eyes and minds of the audience you want your brand to influence. Carve out a space and messaging that’s unique to your brand and educate your audiences about why it’s important. Be proactive about communicating your brand’s perspective. Work it into the content planning for your brand platforms. Create a media strategy around it. Make it easy for your customers and partners to find it.

Company spokesperson being interviewed by journalist on camera

4. Allocate budget/resources.
It’s 2020 and this pandemic is unrelenting, so I’m not going to go on about the necessity for a big budget to deliver thought leadership. But it does take some money, and if you don’t have a significant budget, you’ll need to allocate time and resources. There are more and more SMEs popping up as thought leaders that obviously don’t have the big budgets of the globals. Locally, look at Who Gives a Crap? and Thank You Co (they’re a case study in thought leadership branding and their website is a great intro) are two examples of SMEs emerging as thought leader brands (their social cause products help that too).

5. Multiple platforms
The major global brands already see themselves as publishers (some are even transitioning into media companies). Building a brand profile with traditional media is highly relevant to becoming a thought leader brand, but it’s not the golden ticket it used to be. I recommend all the time to my clients to see the audiences they have via their website, eDM, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook/Instagram podcasts, webinars, blog etc as being as valuable or more valuable than being quoted in the media. Why? Because your spokespeople won’t be quoted in the media if journalists can’t see what the brand stands for via these other platforms. You also have more control over the messaging on these platforms. Plus, the audiences you’ve built on these channels while smaller are often more targeted and engaged.


Angela Cross is a reputation strategist who works with c-Suite leaders and brands to build and protect their reputations through PR, corporate social media, industry profiling, stakeholder engagement, and effective issues management. If you would like to build your reputation with purpose and authority, email her here.