I came across an insightful definition of thought leadership in a 2013 Forrester article: "Nurture Thought Leadership to Nurture Your Brand." In it Laura Ramos writes: “…true thought leadership ventures into uncharted territory to expose real struggles with thorny customer issues and the firm’s passionately-held beliefs about how to solve them.” Ramos recommends brands achieve this by “[defining] enterprise thought leadership goals around customer concerns” – and speaking to socially significant issues that reflect them.
Increasingly, we expect brands to do this. To provide value through their products and beyond them, and to show through their actions that they care about larger social and/or environmental issues as well. Take Starbucks, in its “Race Together” campaign and its new plan to give (along with 16 other companies) internships to 100,000 young people through its “100,000 Opportunities Initiative,” as just one example of many brands acting on larger concerns.
Ramos’ definition of thought leadership is an equally apt description of storytelling, which many brands are attempting in order to engage customers by creating an emotional connection.
As with thought leadership, the best storytelling does as Ramos suggests – “expose[s] real struggles” and “passionately-held beliefs about how to solve them.” I call it “Invested Storytelling,” content that conveys the substance and commitment arrived at through thought leadership goals that are defined by customer concerns.
Obviously, it isn’t enough to say your brand supports a larger concern, there must be transparent evidence of the actions you’ve taken, and measurable results.
Evidence of how difficult this is – the degree to which it requires organizations to nurture thought leadership and have a clearly defined culture, principles and system for change management in place – can be found in the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) sections of some organizations’ websites.
Many brands are good at illustrating how they’ve solved customers’ problems through product storytelling that employs concrete product definitions, measurable results, and customer testimonials. But things get mushy in their CSR sections. Here some brands resort to generalizations and clichés (“we’re committed to giving back”) and talking about principles and concepts such as “environmental leadership” and “reciprocity” without supporting (and measurable) proof.
Then there are brands such as women’s clothier Eileen Fisher. The “Behind the Label” section of eileenfisher.com uses specificity and examples to transparently lay out the environmental and social logic, and the greater initial cost, of using organic cotton versus GM cotton. The Behind the Label information and stories back up the company’s claim that they’re “supporting clean air, clean water and a healthy environment for workers and wildlife.” For Eileen Fisher, thought leadership (expressed through its “VISION2020”), Invested Storytelling, and business results work together.
The upshot is that consumers expect corporations to be involved in social good. And, they’re seeking the same degree of problem solving in a brand’s CSR initiatives as they expect to see in its consumer products and services.
Most importantly, they’re looking for information on the “thorny” socially significant problems brands care about, and Invested Storytelling that conveys brands’ “passionately held beliefs about how to solve them.”