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Are You Building Thought Leadership for Your Brand or Just Following the Crowd?

Consider "story leadership" to build your brand.

Arthur Germain

August 24, 2023

6 Min Read
Story leadership vs. thought leadership
Kunal Mehta/Shutterstock

Germain-Arthur-150x150.jpgOne of the first things that prospective customers say is that they, “want to get their name out there.” I usually politely nod and tell them that I can do that — even though I don’t know what they want to say and where they want to say it.

When we get into a deeper discussion, it often turns out they have no idea either. OK, that’s a little unfair. Most marketers have an idea about what they want to say and who they want to hear them. But when it comes to content marketing – blogs, articles, podcasts, e-books, videos and other content prepared for the buyer’s journey – what they want to say often lacks a specific perspective, vision or purpose. It often sounds like the business just wants to build content “like everyone else, but differently.”

What Is Thought Leadership?

The phrase that everyone uses is “thought leadership.” They want to develop and share their thought leadership with prospective customers along the buyer’s journey. They want to make industry presentations and be invited to speaking engagements where they can promote their thought leadership. This makes perfect sense; however, what often happens is the marketing, product, services and executive teams have not developed a thought leadership platform – what I call a “brand storybook” – that the company can use as a guide to nurture and develop its own perspective, point of view and leadership. The problem can be compounded by the number of individuals and the number of topics or perspectives involved.

Here’s an example: Say you’re at a midsize IT solutions firm and you have four practice areas where you deliver solutions and services to clients. Each practice area is headed by a practice leader who leads a team of specialists — often solutions architects who deliver services to clients based on their needs. Inside of each group there may be one or two people who stand out as what the marketing team calls “subject-matter experts” (SMEs) who really understand the technology, services and clients. Sometimes these SMEs are terrific presenters and salespeople as well. These team members are perfect candidates to develop thought leadership content based on direct interviews, podcasts, presentations and webinars. Across the hypothetical organization I’ve described, that gives the marketing team approximately eight SMEs (four practice areas X two SMEs each) to tap for insights, perspectives and knowledge.

However, their perspective or domain expertise is based on their own individual experience and it may not be colored by the organization. In other words, it may be great personal branded thought leadership, but not necessarily company-branded thought leadership. What about your executives and founders? What insights do they provide that are similar, but different, from the SMEs that make your company stand out? When others in the organization begin to quote the content created by the SMEs, are they now “thought leaders” or “thought sharers”?

Focus on Story Leadership Instead of Thought Leadership

Here’s my take: Thought Leadership isn’t necessarily the right focus for developing content that supports, highlights and differentiates your brand. Instead, I recommend a hybrid approach that I call “story leadership.” Story leadership incorporates personal branded content from your SMEs and executives as well as company-branded content. This includes the many stories that your company collects in the form of customer success stories, customer testimonials and employee, partner and customer anecdotes that are often shared by your employees. When prospective employees or customers ask about your “company culture,” it’s these types of stories they want to hear. Story leadership embodies the written or oral tradition of describing what the company values, how the business works, who it serves and the little stories about that service that employees can share.

Here’s an example. I worked with a small consulting firm that was contracted by a midsize financial services firm to upgrade a series of servers across multiple data centers during the Christmas holiday season. More than 300 servers were expected to be delivered, installed, deployed and ready to run when employees walked through the doors in January. However, there was a hitch as often happens during a large-scale rollout. The vendor at the last minute said that not all the required systems would arrive to the customer in time. At this point, things could have gone in any number of directions. Instead, the server practice head and the project manager for the engagement contacted their consulting company CEO and …

… outlined the issue. The CEO sat on the Small Business Partner Advisory board for the server vendor. He contacted the vendor’s CEO directly and explained the problem. He made the point that issues like this were exactly why there was a Small Business Partner Advisory board and that this could become a perfect example of demonstrating what customer commitment means from both their perspectives. The vendor CEO agreed and promised that the financial services customer would receive every server that had been ordered — on time. He kept that promise, my client kept its promise and the customer was elated to have a functioning and brand-new set of servers as a Christmas present.

This is the type of story that demonstrates multiple things much better than vague sounding phrases like “customer-centric” and “we understand your problems.” This story can be shared by anyone in the consulting company – or the vendor company for that matter – to demonstrate how the company works under pressure, meets its difficult commitments, understands how to balance the challenges of vendor supply and customer demand, not to mention the technology intricacies of installing and deploying the right servers into multiple customer data centers.

And while it’s not any single individual’s personal thought leadership, it has become a part of the company’s story leadership — it is part of their history and weaved into their presentations and discussions.

Story Leadership and Story Curation

Another plus about focusing on story leadership is that once you are seen as providing these types of stories that demonstrate company knowledge, values and customers successes, you can also begin to purposefully curate and share other individuals’ and companies’ stories as well. You become a story leadership “curator” for your connections.

For example, my earlier hypothetical technology provider company can begin to focus on its four core areas of expertise and share content from their vendor partners that align with their company values, benefits, industries and stories. They can share articles into those areas that offer additional insight into the practice areas they offer as well.

I often share articles, stories, infographics and similar material from other branding agencies and graphic designers that support my views on brand storytelling and story leadership – and often they will share my content in kind. This type of targeted or purposeful content curation is much more useful to your communities and LinkedIn followers than simple likes and shares. You should be strategically sharing meaningful content – including content your marketing team is sharing on your company pages – and provide your own thoughts and perspectives rather than simply reposting or adding a half-hearted “like” to a post.

More articles from this author:

Arthur Germain is the principal and chief brandteller at Brandtelling. Follow him on LinkedIn.

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About the Author(s)

Arthur Germain

Brandtelling

Arthur Germain is the principal and chief brandteller at Brandtelling. He has recently authored a book called "The Art of Brandtelling: Brand Storytelling for Business Success," available in paperback, Kindle and e-book formats. Visit TheArtofBrandtelling.com for information.

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