How Big Companies Create Lasting Corporate Thought Leadership

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Since First Page Sage works with such a wide range of companies – from start-ups to Fortune 500s – I have the privilege of seeing how thought leadership works for companies both large and small. Although thought leadership content tends to contain the same elements no matter the size of the business (opining on big picture topics, sharing personal values, conducting original research & analysis), the one main difference seems to be that large enterprises aren’t doing it to attract individual customers. Their true interest lies in branding themselves as the industry leader amongst their main competitors. Often, an enterprise will only have a handful, or maybe even just one, main competitor. Think Coke vs. Pepsi, Virgin America vs. JetBlue vs. Southwest, or even Salesforce vs Oracle vs SAP. For these kinds of companies, thought leadership helps them stay at the top of customers’ minds, hopefully swaying a point or two of market share per year. In addition to trying to gain market share, large companies perform thought leadership for the following reasons: a) to make a good impression on the industry press that write the news stories about them each week; b) to attract potential employees; and c) to bring about merger & acquisition opportunities.

So what does corporate thought leadership look like? And who is doing it well?

Corporate thought leadership can occur through press releases, quarterly reports, advertisements, social media, or video campaigns. Essentially, it takes places anywhere that the company believes decision makers will see it. For example, for many years DuPont, a chemical manufacturer with a large branch dedicated to automotive paint coatings and finishes, put out an annual report on the popularity of car colors. While many companies could have published a similar report – including companies that are actually in the automative industry – DuPont chose to seize the moment and create its own Automotive Color Popularity report. Why? To confer thought leadership status upon itself. They want executives in the automotive world to e-mail around copies of their report each year saying “DuPont’s latest report says that White cars are more desirable in Japan – we should be shipping more of them… Oh, and when it comes time to order our coatings and finishes, maybe we should go with DuPont over Sherwin-Williams this year; they seem to really be on top of what’s best for consumers.”

While DuPont is a good example of a company that engages in B2B corporate thought leadership, it is far easier to see examples of B2C corporate thought leadership, the kind that leads to bumps in market share. Virgin America, JetBlue, and Southwest all do a lot of thought leadership via Twitter. While all 3 airlines, especially Virgin America, spend a lot of time on branding – that is, content that is meant to deepen the impression of their brand in the mind of consumers – look for thought leadership in expressions of their dedication to education, ideas, and values. Both JetBlue and Southwest contribute a lot to children’s charities, for instance. But we get closer to true corporate thought leadership in posts like this one on Southwest’s blog, where it announces its support of Asian Pacific Americans by sponsoring various conferences dedicated to that demographic.

Another way that corporations engage in thought leadership is through in-person events. I can’t think of a better example of thought leadership than the TED conferences that have become so popular in recent years. Well, Gannett, the parent company of USA Today and many other newspapers, hosts their own educational events featuring star-studded panels of politicians, commentators, athletes, and other thought leaders. By sponsoring events that are all about sharing ideas, Gannett becomes the steward of those ideas, enhancing its credibility as an organization.

While corporate thought leadership is exercised by most large companies nowadays, we rarely notice it. It just seems like something that happening quietly, as part of the fabric of their brand. That’s the magic of truly lasting corporate thought leadership: it quietly ties in with our impression of a company, creating reasons why we, and the business community at large, choose one brand over another.

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