How to Define Your Brand as an Industry Thought Leader

Do So Effectively and Marketing Opportunities Will Follow

By Published on .

Jim Kelly
Jim Kelly
You can do your part to stimulate the economic recovery and help build your brand. Here's how.

First, recognize that buyers holding tightly to their purchase orders must not only be encouraged, but also inspired to do business with you. Moving from persuasion to inspiration requires an investment of time and, yes, dollars -- though not always a huge amount. Success is more likely to hinge on marketing savvy and a brand strategy executed with precision.

The idea is to create such a strong belief system around your brand that buyers will find a way to buy what you have to sell, no matter what.

Consumers (both business and personal) believe in brands they know something about. Often they believe in brands they know the most about. And for various reasons, they form a loyal cadre around that brand.

Your goal is to continually expose your marketplace to information about your brand and the broader context in which it exists, remembering that today's consumers are especially knowledge-hungry. That's where a thought-leadership strategy comes into play -- showcasing expert voices that define your brand.

The trick is to develop and maintain an ongoing flow of thought-leading communication from your brand evangelists that is both relevant and interesting.

Sharing knowledge and enthusiasm
Take retailer REI, for example. REI has a strong brand that speaks to the company's love affair with the outdoors. On its way to becoming a top clothing and sporting-goods provider, REI began to educate the public on outdoor activities and on the proper apparel and equipment to use when pursuing those activities. Whether or not a customer has purchased products from REI, he or she is welcome to learn all sorts of skills -- from kayaking to bicycle repair -- at seminars the company offers across the country. The company has also collected over 350 articles and videos on its official website, available under the tab, "Expert Advice." This willingness to share knowledge and enthusiasm for the natural world has built trust in the REI brand and continues to engender customer loyalty.

Can you go a step further with your brand by making it a valuable resource for your customers as they face different life-changing events? Many companies have done just that, and Gerber is one of them. For decades, the Gerber brand has been the trusted and primary choice of baby food for many parents. Today the brand has expanded beyond simply providing baby-size jars of premade baby food; its destination is to provide help and information to parents on the importance of nutrition and development of infants and toddlers. The Gerber website provides video, articles, product offers, tools and expert advice around five milestones of child development, from early pregnancy through preschool age, under their "Start Healthy, Stay Healthy" commitment.

Consulting and professional services organizations are excellent candidates for a thought-leadership strategy, and most of the big firms already have one. Those in the profession have long understood the power of thought leadership, both as a conversation starter and as a reliable source of knowledge valued by customers. Either way, the brand is strengthened.

McKinsey & Co. offers the gold-standard example of this technique. The company's McKinsey Quarterly is a full-blown business journal with in-depth content available to visitors who register. Subscribers have access to additional premium content. The company's thought-leadership strategy is a defining aspect of the McKinsey brand, with articles written by McKinsey consultants who base their points of view on the firm's collective experience. Business executives can access a wealth of information, and the high-quality reporting reinforces the McKinsey image as a trusted advisor.

The value of your company's insight
Once your thought-leadership machine is in full swing, the role of industry expert may even take on a life of its own. Journalists and industry watchers are likely to call on you for commentary and thus provide publicity free of charge. However, bear in mind that the media is discriminating when it comes to content. For a thought-leadership strategy to work, the points of view you produce must rise to the top. There is no salvation in adding another layer of mediocre or poorly executed communications to those already flooding the marketplace, and "brochureware" is almost always destined for the media trash bin.

But for thought leadership that has merit, the audience is growing. So, too, are the channels of distribution. Google Trends shows dramatic, often exponential, increases since early this decade of unique visits to online-research sites such as Wikipedia. Also growing are the numbers of access to source pages on topics from the latest NFL trade to the merits of alternative energy. Blogs spring up daily -- some of them extremely well-researched -- and their authors can quickly take on an industry expert role.

With intellectual capital driving many of the remaining bright spots in the economy, your company's insights, research and understanding of an issue or topic may provide the edge that could help further a career or make a difference in someone's life. In return, your fans will remember where the information came from, come back for more, and tell others about you. By taking the trouble to create and share pertinent information, you fuel the belief system that sustains your brand.

Done correctly, a thought-leadership strategy will help your brand become the go-to source for audiences needing unbiased advice and critical thinking on issues they find important. And when that happens, your reputation will soar -- with marketing opportunities not far behind.

Jim Kelly is the U.S. brand leader for PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. With more than 20 years of branding experience in professional services, he believes in focusing on how the brand is seen, felt and understood by the people who come into contact with it. In the eight years that Jim has been with PwC, he has used his philosophy to impact the firm's advertising, web presence and thought leadership as well as its recruitment, human resources, and learning and education programs.
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