How thought leadership impacts your business's bottom line

This week, I ran across an insightful Forbes piece compiled by Cari Sommer, which presents the thoughts of five technology executives on the value of thought leadership.

Thought leadership is one of the most important tools in any company’s arsenal, but because the concept can sound vague and unquantifiable, it is all too easy to be skeptical. In fact, for most companies, it’s far more appealing to generate interest in a new product using classic PR tactics like a press release than to undertake a thought leadership initiative. That’s because a press release seems like a more tangible tool to generate awareness, which in turns drives consideration and (hopefully) ultimately converts prospects into customers.

But when PR professionals pitch the idea of a thought leadership piece—perhaps a bylined article, or a blog post on a trend or topic influencing the broader industry—companies often push back and question why they are spending PR budget on something that doesn’t map directly to their business’s bottom line.

Here’s why: Thought leadership plays an instrumental role in the overall perception of a brand and, more specifically, how audiences feel about a brand.

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We are increasingly seeing audiences look to brands for superior accountability and ethical leadership. This is the point that Mike Allen of Axios recently made in “Culture wars are raging in corporate America.” “In the social media age,” writes Allen, “corporate reputation and corporate image matter as much (sometimes more) than the delivery of your product or service.” Issues such as sustainability and diversity are now top of mind, and any business that cares about younger demographics has to ask, “Do you want to be associated with my company when you're making a purchasing decision?”

Consumers today have heightened expectations for the standards of behavior they expect businesses to adhere to. The past year or so at Uber is an excellent illustration of a company whose brand perception—and bottom line—was impacted dramatically by a series of scandals that portrayed the company and its leadership as unethical.

Of course, taking a stand on divisive issues is not without risk, and I don’t necessarily recommend proactive engagement on highly controversial topics. But Sommers, Allen and others point to a clear trend in which consumers are less likely to view the products they purchase in isolation, but rather as an extension of the company that makes or markets them.

There are plenty of topics that brands can offer thought leadership perspectives on that are considerably less controversial but no less impactful. Elon Musk managed to bring much-needed attention to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico—and more broadly to the issue of sustainable, renewable energy resources—when he suggested via Twitter that Tesla could help rebuild the entire Puerto Rico power grid using solar power and batteries. In doing so, he generated considerable positive publicity for Tesla as a brand, positioning it as a company adding value, igniting debate and solving problems.

Thought leadership also plays a key role in humanizing a company—telling the story of your business through the people who built it. Fran Hauser, one of the contributors to the Forbes piece I cited at the beginning of this post, consumers are interested in stories of success, but they are also interested in stories which shed a light on the journey of the business—its highs and lows—and  the lessons they can learn from it. This kind of leadership is not about promoting your personal brand directly; instead, it is about leveraging your experience to help move others forward.

A final point: No matter how interesting or innovative your product or service is, there is a limit to the interest that the media—and the wider audience—have in a standard product announcement. In fact, it is commonplace for media to decline to cover a straightforward product launch unless it is grounded in the context of a broader issue.

Companies must take the time to consider their story from a multifaceted point of view. What are your customers’ pain points? What is the industry you operate in struggling with right now? How does your product change that? How can you weave a more contextual narrative that isn’t company- or product-first, but prioritizes issues and impact? Let’s say you represent a company with an AI product, for example. Embracing thought leadership may force you to articulate your opinion on the potential threats and possibilities of AI and its impact on future job viability. You’ll need to consider how you can tell that story effectively. In doing so, you’ll give your brand more credibility and people will pay attention.

Thought leadership is in many ways the foundation of a long-term, sustainable PR campaign. It plays a crucial role in creating a perception of a brand, and that perception plays a decisive role in customers’ ultimate purchasing choices.