Types of Thought Leadership

Many discussions on thought leadership begin with a discussion on what it is. A more enlighting discussion is to examine the different types of thought leadership, illustrated in this diagram.

Types of Thought Leadership

Traditionally, thought leadership is correlated with futurism, making predictions about what the future will be like and the implications for how you should act in the present. However, looking at a wide range of case studies in thought leadership it is easy to see that the future is just one orientation. For example, it is quite possible to take thought leadership positions on what is happening in the present day. I recently came across a good example of this in form of a thought leadership article about the design of hotels and micro-rooms, arguing a need to cater for the attitudes of the increasingly influential millenial generation. There was nothing particularly futuristic about the leadership position, but it set the organisation apart by providing insight arising from a current industry driver.

thought leadership on hotel rooms

Even the design of a hotel room can be the subject of thought leadership

The hotel example gives rise to another dimension of thought leadership - being the creating/competing spectrum. Some people think thought leadership is all about creating a vision that is completely new to the world. By virtue of being highly innovative, the proponent of the leadership position are likely to be the technical leaders in the field, with an initial monopoly on the space and this is the basis of the competive position.

However, it is clear that the vast majority of thought leadership material is not original and is actually competing with others who may in fact be more technically competent. In this sense, it is possible to be a thought leader simply by creating the perception you are the leader, though the use of superior marketing. Indeed, this approach is what most campaigns run by marketers end up looking like. There is nothing wrong with this, but it serves as a warning for less sophisticated thought leaders who may invest significant resources in developing innovative new services and products, only to find others highjacking their success.

A final dimension is the cognitive-affective spectrum. Much thought leadership, especially that developed by technically oriented organisations, is based on a logical argument. Typically the materials are based on surveys, research and quantitative data used to back up any claims. Such thought leadership has its place and can obviously be compelling when presented clearly. However, there is a strong risk of losing the edge of influence through getting drowned in detail.

An example of thought leadership from Dove

The Dove campaign for real beauty is an example of an affective thought leadership campaign

This opposite end of this spectrum employs emotion to influence the audience. A great example of this was the Dove campaign for Real Beauty. This campaign took a stand on the unrealistic standards of beauty, driven by the fashion industry and entertainment industries. By taking a stand in a powerful way on this emotive issue of with innovative marketing tactics, Dove was able to increase the sales of its products by 9% in one quarter and double them over 10 years, without ever explicitly trying to sell its body care products.

By and large, most leadership positions are a combination of positions on these three dimensions. The hotel example is competing and now, while someone talking about quantum computing would be creating and distant.

Poster for Film An Inconvenient Truth

The film An Inconvenient Truth is an example of thought leadership at the bleeding edge

Each orientation of thought leadership has it own challenges. For example, a key challenge with future oriented thought leadership is to not to be too far ahead of the acceptance curve. Take climate change. If you had taken a leadership position on human-induced climate change even as little as a few years ago, you probably would not have gained much traction with your campaign and may even have done more damage to your brand than good. However, there is a tipping point where “who dares wins”. For example, Al Gore changed the entire debate around climate change with his film “An inconvenient truth”, arguably at a time when social attitudes to the subject were just starting to change to the broader consensus achieved today.

Other challenges include the need to be different without being esoteric and taking a stand without being too opinionated. Possibly the key balance that needs to be addressed is the size of the niche you are targeting with your thought leadership. If you try to target the whole world, your message may become too diluted to be influential. Conversely, if you target a very specific subject, your target market may be too small to justify the investment.

As you can see there a huge range of options to be considered in developing a leadership position. Trying to do them all my end up achieving nothing. It is better to be clear about what any given campaign is trying to achieve and do it well.

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