Sergey Brin, one of the co-founders of Google, was recently asked what would derail the growth of his search engine. His first answer was brushed aside by his questioning audience. His second was much more telling: 'a failure to communicate clearly' that has led to people 'misunderstanding Google's intentions'.
Not for the first time, the multibillionaire was right. It's all about 'clarity' and 'purpose'. Brin's insight also reflects the collective wisdom of UK opinion leaders captured as part of our annual Thought Leadership Index series (a league table Google has topped since it was launched in 2007.) The index, sharing its name with PR Week's essay series, ranks thought leaders according to the views of UK opinion leaders.
The index's stakeholder research highlights two significant trends. First, 'clarity of communication' is the primary driver for achieving recognition as a thought leader - among five key behaviours. Second, there is a significant correlation between brands that opinion leaders rate as thought leaders, and brands they refer and defer to as having strong reputations.
CEOs recognise that a stronger reputation increases their business' licence to operate and permission to grow. Increasingly they recognise that a route to building reputation is thought leadership: the best means to that end.
The index research makes this accessible by identifying the key behaviours common to successful thought leaders, which, in turn, provides insights to improve and measure performance. In contrast, tracking other factors, such as 'trust', readily turns into an end in itself. Arguably, trust should be a by-product of a strategic brand plan, not its sole purpose. The index demonstrates that trusted brands are not always leaders or, indeed, successful (think Woolworths, Rover and ICI).
TLG's consultants have distilled six lessons for businesses aiming to build their brand through thought leadership, based on insights from the Thought Leadership Index. They are: being big is not enough; brand personality is not a substitute; issue advertising will not deliver; being young and innovative is no guarantor; challenger brands face the biggest challenge; and sector leadership does not equate to thought leadership.
The index asks UK opinion leaders which businesses are thought leaders, defined by five distinct behaviours: purpose, pioneer, rigour, authenticity and clarity, which is paramount.
In other words, the corporate position (in terms of being a pioneer, rigorous, genuine and authentic) is only as important as the communications. If you cannot communicate what you're doing, why you're doing it and why it is a good thing, how will anyone be able to follow your lead? This bias may explain why UK opinion leaders have placed Apple, M&S, Virgin, Facebook and Twitter in the 2009 top ten. These businesses communicate a core proposition in a clear, compelling and consistent way. It may also help explain why Scottish & Southern, moneysupermarket.com, Unilever, Starbucks and Innocent, all of which possess the first four attributes of thought leaders, are not ranked as such by UK opinion leaders.
Finally, it is worth returning to Brin's point about Google's 'intentions'. If stakeholders distrust a company's motive, the brand is flawed. Communicating benign intent is key, and a thought leadership campaign can positively leverage brand attributes. If successful, it will have a positive effect on reputation by raising brand awareness, and changing attitudes and behaviours.
Market leaders should aim to be thought leaders, and vice versa. Put simply, thought leadership builds brands in which people can believe.
Views in brief
- How would you advise that the Royal Bank of Scotland tries to repair its reputation?
Migrate to the NatWest brand for all consumer-facing activity. Develop a consumer champion agenda. Ensure everything the company does rebuilds faith in the motives and mission of banking.
- How are you advising clients to pursue a sustainability agenda this year?
First, demonstrate the short-term value for consumer audiences. Second, show that it is part of the business model and as such delivers tangible benefits for all stakeholders.