Putting some thought into your thought leadership

How to ensure your content stands out from the clutter of corporate voices

By Marianne Blamire, Managing Director, salt Singapore

Whether you’re an ambitious sole trader or CEO of a multinational, thought leadership is likely to be on your to-do list, if it isn’t something you’re doing already. But it can be intimidating. What hasn’t already been said? What if we get it wrong? Are my thoughts fit for mass consumption? It is easy to see why more time is spent pondering the need for thought leadership rather than doing it.

Successful thought leadership ensures differentiation. The clutter of corporate voices, clamouring for the minds of an increasingly attention-deficient audience, requires a clear and compelling point of view. 1,500 blog posts are published every minute on the web, so your carefully-crafted article is unlikely to have you headlining the BBC News. Genuine agenda-setting thought leadership takes time; a marathon, not a sprint.

What makes a thought leader

defines a thought leader as an individual or firm that clients, intermediaries and even competitors recognise as a foremost authority in a selected area of specialisation, resulting in it being the go-to individual or organisation for that expertise. The Global Thought Leader Index examines the world’s most influential voices, those who shape the way we think – and how their ideas spread. “Thinkers that are known and influential beyond their own knowledge areas”. In other words, they hold a regular job in their area of expertise, but their sphere of influence extends beyond their sector. This is why the list includes authors, biologists, entrepreneurs, futurists, doctors, lawyers, politicians, statisticians…and Pope Francis in pole position. (The Dalai Lama is eighth).

If you’re the head of a long-established religious institution or a moral philosophy, the transition to ‘thought leader’ is relatively straightforward. You are already widely known as an expert in your field; your members make for a captive audience; the issues you deal with have universal appeal. For corporates, it’s less obvious. There are the visionaries – like Unilever or EY; the problem-solvers such as McKinsey and Deloitte, or the innovators like Apple and IBM. How do you join the thought leaders? 

Defining a big thought

When we work with companies to develop thought leadership programmes, we spend time upfront unearthing an issue or topic that:

1.       Is directly relevant to its customers. Start with a hypothesis based on what your customers’ existential questions are and provide the most meaningful answers. Keep your audience front of mind, test your thoughts on them and find ways to involve them. To support the launch of its 2015 sustainability report, Heineken invited vocal artist Kevin 'Blaxtar' de Randamie, a Dutch rap star, to transform the report into something that would engage millennials.


2.       Matters to the world and could lead to lasting changes in society if realised. This is a key difference between content marketing and thought leadership. Patagonia did it when it called out consumerism gone berserk and advocated “Don’t buy this jacket.” It caught people’s attention, but it was more than just a strapline: it’s their company philosophy. A thought leader changes the business landscape, and the best way to do this is by exciting people with what you’ve got to say.


3.       Can interest the media. Thought leadership needs to be worthy of widespread dissemination by others. Nothing better than an article in the Huffington Post to do so. Thought leadership only matters if people read it, and people only read and share if it has personal value to them. What’s the fresh perspective you bring to your industry?  


4.       Is being talked about now by experts or academics...but not more widely. The notion of leadership implies being ahead of the game. Social media monitoring and online listening are good places to understand where the opportunities are.  

Walking the Talk


Companies that ‘do’ thought leadership well do so at all levels of the organisation – from CEO to corporate affairs, via marketing and through to customer service. When Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, persuades shareholders that quarterly reporting is unsuitable for his long-term sustainable growth aims, this means that Unilever’s product brands such as Lifebuoy, Dove, Knorr need to deliver on sustainable purpose over short-term sales spikes, and that procurement must source ingredients with minimal environmental impact. In other words, all business decisions are anchored in the central idea of sustainability, the company’s thought leadership position.


Polman is now rightly regarded as a catalyst among CEOs of the world; a thought leader making sustainability a core part of business strategy. He has also created a company focus that enables employees to become thought leaders in their own specific areas, such as sustainable supply chain.


Be Brave


Tips to start your thought leadership:


  1. Examine your DNA and company history – what do you stand for?
  2. What big issue is your industry grappling with – can you dramatise it, or answer it?
  3. What topic can you revisit year on year to build momentum?
  4. Can you coin a new phrase? ‘Millennials’ and ‘metrosexual’ started life small!
  5. Set your objectives to measure your impact – do colleagues and bosses have the right expectations?

Thought leadership is cumulative. Yes, it’s comprised of tactical elements – white papers, speaker platforms, Twitter content – but without strategic planning and a fresh insight or a big brave idea that changes how people view your industry, or indeed the world, it will never have a lasting impact. A healthy dose of bravery is required, but done with passion, it can be as valuable to your company as the product or service you sell.


About the Author

Marianne is the Managing Director of salt Singapore which she co-founded in 2012. She leads global and regional programmes to improve communications and promote sustainability, always making the complex simple and the simple compelling. With 15 years’ experience working for some of the world’s biggest brands, she is passionate about driving behaviour change for complex multinationals.  Recent industry awards for her Singapore team include: Best Use of Bloggers, Best Place to Work, Best Culture, Best Employer Brand and Best Onboarding Experience. In September 2015, Marianne was voted one of ’40 Under 40 Ones to Watch’ by Campaign Asia. 

Find out more at www.salt-communications.com