The Complexities of Thought Leadership

By David Sauter, CEO

Published: March 13, 2019

Are you a thought leader or a fast follower?

This question may seem like a personal one; however, true thought leadership is about more than a single individual, but rather how you position your brand to keep moving forward. Is your brand known for taking risks and creating entirely new categories within your industry? Or do you closely monitor the industry and jump in when others have already proven the opportunity?  No judging here, just definition!

Thought Leadership Explained

Thought leadership is one of those notorious buzzwords. What does it really mean? Basically, thought leadership is about being a trusted expert on the cutting edge of a particular topic or industry. As it relates to brands, being a thought leader is about having a strong brand identity, taking risks and delivering truly new and unique ideas or products to customers.

Apple is a strong example of a brand that embraces thought leadership. Apple doesn’t follow suit. Instead, they push the envelope and invent new categories within the technology industry. In contrast, Microsoft is a good example of a fast follower. They see opportunities to improve upon what other companies have introduced and enter new product categories swiftly, but not first. For example, Apple created the incredibly popular iPod. Microsoft followed five years later with the Zune in an effort to compete. Neither way of thinking is necessarily better or more effective than the other, rather one is embracing thought leadership and one is not.

There are countless examples in other industries of thought leaders and fast followers. For instance, when it comes to streaming, Netflix is a thought leader that changed that way we consume our favorite TV shows and movies. Now, companies like DirectTV and Disney are offering streaming services to serve up their content in a fast follower fashion.

Risks of Thought Leadership

While it may seem like being a thought leader is something every brand should strive for, that’s not always the case. Thought leadership is not without risk. It can be painful to be a highly innovative thought leader. The ideas of a thought leader are not always purchased or funded, and taking a risk on an entirely new product or service offering may not always pay off. One of the hardest things about thought leadership is to not romanticize every idea. Just because something can be done, doesn’t mean it should or that the timing is right.

Different Levels of Thought Leadership

True thought leaders focus on adventure and innovation, but you can still embrace thought leadership elsewhere on the path. When it comes to pushing a business forward, you have options besides innovation: invention and iteration. Invention is what we first think of when we think of thought leaders. Invention involves creating something entirely new. In contrast, iteration is a step-by-step approach to improving an existing concept.

There are countless examples of both invention and iteration. Dating back to the early days of invention, we’ve seen iteration be just as, if not more important, than the initial invention itself. Take the combustion engine for example. While early versions of it were groundbreaking at the time, it took many iterations before it was an effective way to power automobiles.

Fast-forward to today and we are still seeing iteration as key in our technological world. Think about augmented reality. Early versions were introduced as early as 1968, but it’s taken many, many iterations to become the augmented reality we know today in our Snapchat filters and video games. An exciting thing to consider is where it is heading next!

Embracing Thought Leadership

Ultimately, there’s always an appropriate level of thought leadership for every brand in every market to embrace. Our goal as a guide is to help our partners discover where they should be innovating, iterating or inventing to best meet their customer’s needs while also growing the business.

Wondering where your company falls? Fill out our contact form and let’s chat!