Thought Leadership for Consumer Brands

Time was, thought leadership was considered mostly the stuff of B-to-B, corporate and not-for-profit PR work. Not anymore. With a proliferation of digital publishing platforms and tools, and consumers’ desire to know more about what a brand stands for and the products they purchase, thought leadership activity for consumer brands is on the rise.

The social media revolution that has made publishers of everyone creates an opportunity for powerful and frequent one-to-many dialogue. Moreover, it has become the expectation, and no longer the exception, that consumer enterprise leaders have something to say, about not only their own business, but often about bigger issues. While that may feel daunting, there are tangible benefits from incorporating thought leadership into your brand communications strategy. Thought leadership makes brands more discoverable online and blazes a path for forging deeper, more emotional connections.



The question becomes not if you should be engaging in thought leadership, but how to get started? First, nail the “why,” considering your business and communications objectives, and “why my brand?” You may already have a clear vision of your brand’s purpose in the marketplace. But what added value does your brand bring to the larger conversation? What expert insight are you willing to share and does it have the potential to advance the conversation, awareness of an issue, or an entire category of goods and services?

A recent example comes in our work for illy, the premium Italian coffee brand, that gave us access to Chairman and founding family member Andrea Illy, and an open-ended mandate. Together, we determined that the purpose for raising his profile would be to enhance illy’s reputation as the industry’s leader in quality and sustainability. In fact, our work goes deeper by connecting the two, in demonstrating how illy’s purpose-driven, 100% direct-trade model, geared to achieving ever-higher quality, creates fundamentally healthy enterprises for the farmers from whom illy purchases coffee, and better experiences for discerning coffee lovers. That is territory that few other consumer-facing, agri-based enterprises operating on illy’s global scale can claim, and that comprises a broadly applicable, compelling story -- one that resonates with business partners and consumers who regularly encounter it in influential traditional and digital media, and other forums.



We live in the age of the Celebrity CEO, whose declarations are followed like never before by the media and consumers. We’ve learned that first-hand, working with the team at Virgin Atlantic on their “Business is an Adventure” event series in which Virgin Atlantic Founder Richard Branson discusses entrepreneurship with a new generation of business leaders, something he’s authentically passionate about and expert at.

No doubt CEOs and founders are logical choices to spearhead a thought leadership effort. That said, sometimes a team approach makes sense, especially when there are specific areas of expertise worth leveraging and given the time constraints of a CEO’s schedule. That might entail a Head of Mission, which some of our clients have named, a CCO, CTO, or VP of R&D, Quality or Sourcing, for example. We’ve also helped clients in a range of sectors – from children’s media to food and beverage and pet – form advisory boards and identify third parties who have special expertise and can serve a brand and its consumers well, illuminating a topic in new ways. When there is a deep bench to tap, develop distinct thought leadership “personas” for each participant to enhance their appeal, and keep roles well differentiated. Apple is masterful at this multi-headed hydra approach.



As for the “what” — substance and tactics — establish a context that is bigger than the business or brand at hand, steering clear of advertorial territory and rote messaging. Start by interviewing the CEO or other leader, to get a feel for her or his distinct voice and to tease out their passion and expertise that can add the depth and color that leads to an emotional connection. And when there is a fit, i.e. when it serves set goals and not simply to be provocative, put forth a contrarian point of view that can be supported by facts. Doing so opens up a direct path to talking company specifics, down to brands, productsand services, in a credible, intriguing and natural way.

Many of the tactics that typically comprise thought leadership campaigns, like bylined articles and blog posts, keynote speeches and videos, inherently come with a healthy level of control. For bigger efforts, consider a thought leader-authored book or e-book, or even documentary film project that establishes and provides full control of a bigger narrative, and that in themselves can make news. Short of instances where the thought leader is already a household name, or close to it, back your tactics with well-targeted digital buys to ensure frequency and reach beyond byline placements and speaking slots. Be sure that social media channels, both the brand’s and thought leader’s, are fully integrated into the campaign.



Take a programmatic and not an episodic approach. Make sure the CEO and others designated are fully bought in in order to guarantee the frequency of activities and output necessary to move the needle. Be ready to strike at moment’s notice, too, when a story breaks or other circumstances arise that create an opportunity for his, her or their voices to be heard. We have leveraged EU news and and agricultural commodity price changes as occasions for Andrea Illy to appear in major American outlets with quick turnaround time.

Big wins are there for the taking for consumer brands embarking on thought leadership campaigns. Take a methodical approach and claim those victories.

For more information contact 360PR+.