It's Time To Take A Stand . . . In Your Marketing

When marketing leaders come to me looking for feedback on their messaging and value proposition, it usually sounds like this (with blanks inserted to protect the guilty):

“We were founded in 19__. We’re the leading provider of _____ products serving the ____ industry. Our products are faster, more reliable, easier to use, more full-featured, and deliver better ROI than any of our competitors.” 

Painful to listen to. Marketers have to realize that in the age of the customer, business buyers don’t “buy” your product; they “buy into” your approach to solving their problem. Read that last sentence again. Your products aren’t as unique as you think. In fact, in most markets, the products and services are fairly commoditized. Buyers want to do business with firms that share their outlook on the world and have philosophies on solving key problems that align with their own. Yet so many marketers only talk about their features and benefits.

What do you do about it? Establishing a position of thought leadership in your market is becoming the next arena for differentiation in B2B marketing. When done right, thought leadership marketing is a way to stand out from the competition, create interest, and earn the trust of potential buyers early in their problem-solving process.

Of course, it is easier said than done. Many companies already practice content marketing, but thought leadership marketing takes it much further:

  • It doesn’t just educate people on an issue; it provides your firm’s strong point of view and insightful thinking on the issue. It is provocative, challenging conventional thinking.
  • It is conversational, delivered in a tone and through channels that invite people to join the dialogue, expand on the ideas, and even disagree.
  • It makes no mention of your products.

Think about UPS. It ships packages. But it is building a thought leadership platform around “New Logistics” — how small business owners need to embrace new global trade practices to drive growth, with bold positions on issues such as improving customer service through better distribution. iCrossing is a marketing agency but is becoming a recognized thought leader in how CMOs must engage consumers across the digital world with content.

Most firms don’t have a process or framework for managing thought leadership marketing initiatives, so they practice what I like to call “random acts of thought leadership” . . . an occasional white paper, conference presentation, or byline article. In my most recent report, "Thought Leadership: The Next Wave Of Differentiation In B2B Marketing," I introduce the four-step IDEA framework used to develop a thought leadership platform and mobilize the experts in your firm to share these ideas through digital, social, mobile, and offline channels.

What companies do you think of as thought leaders? What are you doing to demonstrate thought leadership in your market?


Great (insightful) post. I

Great (insightful) post. I think a lot of the problem is that marketers want to play it safe and are afraid to say or post anything that could be considered controversial - whether in their ads, on their blogs, wherever. I actually posted a blog this morning about how so many marketers are "disrespecting" B2B, and not providing insightful content is a major part of that.



You're the man! This is the Best Piece I read today about marketing. Interestingly I was fumbling on this very topic in the last few hours.

Thank you.


Jeff, your post is bang-on.

Jeff, your post is bang-on. It's what I've been thinking for a while: that in abundant marketplaces where there are similar types of companies offering similar types of services or products, Thought Leadership is the way to stand out from the crowd. Whether B2B or B2C, customers are increasingly interested in the personality/ DNA/ ideas of the company they're transacting with. Thought leadership marketing acts as a magnet to attract - and retain - customers.
Great post, thanks Jeff!

We're all selling experience now

Totally agree. You don't sell in B2B, they Buy. If they can't understand WHO you are, then no matter WHAT you are selling, you will struggle unless you've got a truly disruptively superior product. They may defer to obscure 'rational' reasons for the reason they went to the competitor, but the truth is far more human than that.

Behavioural Economics tells us hugely powerful active emotional triggers revolve around trust and uncertainty - and when you are selling an experience, which is in fact what most B2B sales are, you must use trust to overcome uncertainty. And saying that X of the FTSE use you is not a way to achieve this. Most of the FTSE use everything, somewhere. Doesn't mean they endorse it, nor even know they are using it. Using facts to try and overcome uncertainty is akin to persuading someone to like you as a person through quoting your facebook statistics. Would you?

So today, tell your story, and if you don't have one, find one. Thought leadership is a grown-up B2B way of describing this most powerful of persuasions - story telling - giving the listener value, entertainment, and a plot that's relevant, insightful and memorable. Do this today, and then tomorrow you too will start enjoying being part of a better story.


Jeff, nice post. I particularly like the "random acts of thought leadership" quote. That is pretty typical of most experiences (including my own, despite my best efforts to avoid it!) That said, and since you are encouraging marketers to take a stand, I think you missed a pretty big point. Thought Leadership marketing isn't new, or even going through some sort of revolution. The tools are better, for sure, but chasing "becoming a thought leader" has been around forever, and is about as valuable as putting up an ad in Times Square for a B2B Services company.

Back in the mid 90s every pitch we put together at the PR agency where I worked included a component called "becoming a thought leader." Every pitch I have received from an agency since then included the same. I wrote about this topic as well in 2009.

Pick your list of thought leaders in a given market, or macro market. I am reasonably certain the majority of the people on the list you just created either a) created a revolutionary idea and then put a company around it (Linus Torvalds comes to mind) or b) saw a huge opportunity, attacked it and because of their market influence created a lasting impression (Marc Benioff). Your UPS example is interesting, but who is their thought leader on this subject? You could argue that the most important thing they did recently to advance their message was the ubiquitous "guy on the whiteboard" advertisements. Brilliant marketing for sure, but not thought leadership.

My point is simply this: Yes I completely agree that its important to take a position in the market, to use the available channels to share your vision for the market such that your customers and prospects are able to achieve a 360 view of your company, and to drive that same point home consistently throughout all of your activities. But in the end, that doesn't make you a thought leader. That is simply taking a position and being consistent with your messaging.

In my humble view, calling it "Thought Leadership" creates the wrong goals, implies the wrong metrics and sets everyone up for disappointment. Well, unless of course your name is Steve Jobs!


Jeff I have to agree - Aaron I'm not so sure

Jeff, some excellent points raised. Aaron forgive me if I've lost something in translation but if a company's content or point of view is delivering insightful, new ideas to your market as Jeff suggests, it is without doubt thought leadership. More importantly it should be provoking your clients to use it in order to deliver those valuable insights reqiured to solve their business issues/challenges. If it can do this then it is truly making a difference.

My concern, is that too much content these days is labelled as thought leadership when all it is a clever PR idea or great content. I'm not undermining great content but it's wrong to call it thought leadership if it's not, particularly if its curated content. After all how can someone else's content be claimed as your thought leadership material!?

its all in a name

Thanks Craig, I do think we are all talking about the same thing in the end.

For me, it centers on the term "Thought Leadership" and how it gets used carelessly by many of my peers. If the definition of Thought Leadership is to take a position on things germane to your industry and then advance that position across all of your marketing and communications channels, then I am all in.

Where things get a bit funky for me is when we use Thought Leadership to mean that we are going to somehow contrive to tell the market that it "should really be over here" and that the market will follow. In my experiences, that looks good on a strategy slide, but isn't that achievable in practice.

I am of course taking the extreme edge of the discussion to make the point, the right answer likely is somewhere in the middle.


On the same thought leadership page

Aaron, as I suspected we are all pretty much on the same page and I am in total agreement with your concerns about thought leadership. But then again nothing is ever pure is it?

Great post Jeff, thank you. I

Great post Jeff, thank you. I am responsible for marketing at SAP and for us "thought leadership" is a hot topic. Thought leadership implies that your perspective is a reference in the market, a point of view everyone is interested in: your customers, prospects, media, competitors, just anybody. Because you provide perspective and guidance around a topic that is fresh, inspirational, forward-thinking, revolutionary, thought-provoking. In short, it is exciting and engaging. And as you rightly say it makes no mention of the products or services that you sell. Our mission at SAP is to make every customer a best-run business. In order to achieve that we constantly analyze the big pain points that keep our customers busy, problems they try to resolve, innovations they try to achieve. And we provide our point of view on this with a bigger perspective than just the software solutions and services we sell to address these pain points. Our goal is to have everybody who wants to improve his/her business think "I have to see what SAP has to say about this". If that happens we are a thought leader for that person.

Excellent debate on the definition of "thought leader"

Aaron, I like your point-of-view, as you are pushing the definition of "thought leader" to be what I would call a "market maker", an entrepreneur or innovative organization that introduces disruptive technologies or business models.

I've been using "thought leader" to describe people or organizations that take strong positions on problems their customers face and offer bold new insights on how to solve those problems. I serve CMOs in $1B plus sized companies, and not many of these companies have the support systems or incentives in place to create revolutionary ideas that make new markets.

What do people think? Can an established company earn a position as a thought leader?

Definition of thought leadership

I've spent ten years explaining thought leadership to product marketers in B2B technology marketing, and twice that much time working hard at the effort to be seen as a thought leader. Here's my description of the

A thought leader is someone who understands the buyer's problem so well, and from so many perspectives, that s/he can present the PROBLEM in a way that causes the buyer who has been living with the problem to take notice, and to say, "I never thought of my problem that way, but that makes perfect sense."

And since all thought leaders also make a living selling something, the success of thought leadership is when that buyer then realizes that the company's products/services/solutions are the best, most trusted answer to the problem.

I'd love your feedback.

No "best" please


I agree with your observation, however, I'm not exactly for the "best", Harvard and Yale are the best, how many of us go/went there (of course back then I was in another country...). Benz is the best car, how many of us drive it?

Product/service etc. must be a fitting solution to our problem(s). Let this be an example of "Elastic Thinking"...

Don Li
Knowledge NoteBook

You misunderstood my usage of

You misunderstood my usage of the word "best" -- I meant the "best answer to the buyer's problem" and/or "the most trusted answer to the buyer's problem". Harvard and Yale would not be the best answer to every college applicant's problem -- earning a high quality, affordable degree at an institution that would accept their credentials.

In fact, it is quite a bit of work to get a handle on what different buyers view as the best answer to their problems. I've written on this topic in my ebook -- The Buyer Persona Manifesto --

Thanks for taking on this important topic Don. Thought leadership is a very under-leveraged asset and the interest in content marketing is likely to exacerbate the problem if we can't clarify what it is, and what it is not.

So are you a thought leader on thought leadership?


not just IN your marketing....AROUND your marketing also

Indeed an interesting topic Jeff.

Its all very well taking a stand from a marketing point of view. Unless you back that up with action then what you end up with is a serious congruence issue. Its easy to say a bunch of stuff. Unless you believe it and act in that manner also, you've just got more false promises. Full circle complete once again.

Marketing isn't just whats on the outside, its whats on the inside also.

Being in the world of marketing and a partner, I'm biased. However HubSpot is a company that continues to do as it says and has taken a stand on marketing issues in a market that appears to be pretty crowded, yet they've had enormous success.

In bottled water I love the brand One (one water) who offered a very different value set in a crowded market, and again have been very successful. They are changing the way consumption of bottled impacts others, by directly helping others in great need of clean water.

OK there are lots of times when well meaning messages / marketing and ideas don't get followed through in action because of genuine problems or issues that got in the way. That's life.

Then there are those marketing ideas and messages that in no way reflect how the company or organisation actually acts or delivers or ever will.

Seth Godin hints at thought leadership as being your ability to create ideas that spread and which I would add cause change.