Is your thought leadership really building your brand?

Lizzy Knights-Ward03/02/2020

Thought leadership can be one of B2B marketers’ biggest brand assets - but only if it’s planned and executed in the right way. Here, Lizzy Knights-Ward, Group Marketing Manager, Content Marketing, EMEA at LinkedIn Sales and Marketing Solutions, outlines exactly what kind of content will build a brand in the long-term.

Ask a group of B2B marketers what thought leadership is for, and you’ll get any number of answers.

There will be lots of mentions of generating leads, of inbound marketing, of setting the agenda for your sector, of demonstrating leadership, of the value exchange with your customers or potential customers.

Somewhere along the line, one of these marketers will mention that thought leadership builds brands. But they will probably mention it in passing before getting onto some of the more detailed, specific, bottom of the funnel objectives that I listed above.

It’s very, very easy to take the brand building elements of thought leadership for granted. We assume it’s got to be happening in the background somehow, almost by default; that because people are watching or reading our stuff, it must automatically be generating some brand equity for us.

Brand building is seen as a beneficial side effect and it’s very rarely the objective that we sit down and plan our approach to thought leadership around.

The missed opportunity for B2B brands and thought leadership

This is a real pity, because thought leadership can and should be one of the most powerful brand strategies that B2B businesses adopt.

It’s capable of building famous brands; brands that people aren’t just aware of but which they think about instantly and instinctively whenever they ponder a given topic; brands that deliver very real bottom line benefits in terms of sustained profitability.

However, thought leadership won’t build these types of brands by chance. It requires a strategy that intentionally focuses on producing the type of emotional response and influential memories that brands depend on. A lot of the evidence that we have on the current state of B2B thought leadership suggests that too few businesses are doing this.

LinkedIn’s B2B Institute has just published one of the most in depth studies ever into how different marketing strategies drive growth for B2B businesses.

One of the clearest findings in Binet and Field’s research is that, although investing in brand will increase the effectiveness of activation marketing over time, activation marketing doesn’t repay this by contributing to building a brand.

Activity that’s focused on generating an immediate response doesn’t build long term brand equity. It isn’t designed to appeal on an emotional level or be memorable and therefore it can’t have any brand impact.

Something very similar applies with thought leadership strategies: if your thought leadership strategy isn’t designed to be memorable, then people won’t remember it. And if they don’t remember it, it can’t build your brand.

What memorable thought leadership looks like

The best thought leadership passes this memory test with flying colours and builds powerfully salient brands in the process. For example, it’s hard to imagine a discussion of trust that doesn’t make reference to the Edelman Trust Barometer, which has been tracking levels of trust in brands and institutions for almost two decades.

When SEO marketers ponder how to move their page into the top three spots on Google, their minds often visualise the Whiteboard Fridays that search agency Moz has made famous.

And then there’s Binet and Field themselves. I know that if I’d asked these two researchers into my hypothetical conversation back in the first paragraph, they’d have brought the whole discussion to a very swift conclusion.

As far as they are concerned, thought leadership is brand marketing– and the best evidence they have is themselves.

When Binet and Field started work on The Long and the Short of It, their seminal study of the role of brand and activation in B2C marketing, they were just two researchers. Now they are two of the most sought‐after consultants for businesses interested in balancing their marketing mix. Impactful, memorable thought leadership on an issue that marketers really care about hasn’t just made them famous, it’s taken care of most of their future lead generation for them.

This is more than just a missed opportunity. Unlike most mediocre ads, which end up swiftly forgotten, the evidence suggests that poor quality thought leadership has an ongoing negative effect for B2B brands. In fact, 38% of decision‐makers say that poor thought leadership has decreased their respect and admiration for an organisation. The current standard of thought leadership could well be undermining as many B2B brands as it benefits.

Mixing up activation and brand in thought leadership

Why are consumers of thought leadership disappointed? It’s not that the content they’re served is wrong or inaccurate; the problem is that the content is disposable.

Audiences want the type of thought leadership that’s planned, prioritised and invested in as part of a brand strategy. What they tend to get is thought leadership that’s delivered as part of an activation strategy. That’s the cause of the disconnect and the reason that so much thought leadership is currently a missed opportunity for B2B brands.

What distinguishes brand building thought leadership from activation thought leadership? Here are the five things to look for and the five questions to ask of your content strategy if you want it to deliver long term business value:

1. Brand building thought leadership deals in original ideas

The ability to provide a new perspective is the top characteristic of high value thought leadership, according to decision makers. The top characteristic of low‐quality thought leadership is that it merely repeats what everyone else is saying.

One of the most powerful, original ideas in thought leadership was the one presented by Fred Reichheld of Bain & Company, in a 2003 Harvard Business Review article entitled The One Number You Need to Grow. His idea was that somebody’s likelihood to recommend a company, product or service can tell you so much more about the health of your brand. It was so striking and original that it’s dominated thinking on brand measurement (in the form of NPS) ever since.

An original idea doesn’t have to relate directly to a new product or solution, though. It can simply be a viewpoint on your area of expertise that stands out from the received wisdom and resonates.

2. Brand building thought leadership invests in authority

When brands invest in generating a substantive insight through credible research, they make their ideas difficult to ignore. Weight of evidence increases emotional impact.

McKinsey’s Why Diversity Matters research fits into this category. Before this research, lots of people had argued that more diverse companies were more effective, but nobody had quantified it in a way that was succinct, impactful and memorable.

Mapping the relationship between financial performance and the diverse make‐up of boards took a matter of opinion and made it a fact. This approach helps to make the thought leadership itself more salient — the useful fact is the memory that first comes to mind when thinking about the issue. This, in turn, increases salience for the brand behind the research.

3. Brand building thought leadership invests for the long term

Brand marketing is a longer‐term investment than activation marketing: it takes longer to build the memories that make a brand salient, but the flipside to this is that those memories then persist for a long time in return.

Something similar happens with thought leadership. In our survey with Edelman, we found that businesses that had invested in thought leadership over a longer period were significantly more likely to describe their output as ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’.

Only 9% of companies producing thought leadership for less than a year rate their content this highly; this rises to 29% for those doing so for six to ten years, and 35% for those producing content over a 21‐year period.

4. Brand building thought leadership consciously aims for fame

Successful thought leadership doesn’t just come up with original ideas and build authority around those ideas over time. It consciously aims for fame by focusing its thinking on the issues that will resonate with its target audiences and then distilling those ideas into content formats that communicate them with impact.

Moz’s Whiteboard Fridays are a great example of simple, distinctive, visual presentation of thought leadership that makes ideas more memorable.

5. Brand‐building thought leadership invests in fame

The way that most thought leadership content is promoted and distributed is the biggest indicator that it’s being treated as an activation asset rather than a brand asset.

It’s pushed out quickly, often to a narrow target audience, and then left to slowly sink into the background pages of a corporate blog. There’s no follow‐up, no sustained campaign, and no intent to secure an influential share of voice around the topic in question.

For thought leadership content to fulfil its true potential as a powerful brand asset, it needs a campaign that’s designed to make its ideas famous. If you believe in the depth, originality and value of what you’ve created, that’s often an investment worth making.

Key takeaways

  • Thought leadership doesn’t naturally aid brand building – it has to be designed to do so in the first place. Only well‐planned and executed thought leadership will lead to long‐term brand equity.
  • Most of the thought leadership decision‐makers see falls short. Only the content with the most original ideas, authority and creative execution will cut through the noise.
  • The best brand‐building thought leadership aims to be famous – with a campaign strategy that has been designed to get the most reach, share of voice and engagement as possible.