The most successful companies have traditionally risen to prominence using strategies based on long-term planning. These ideas can drive strong results through differentiation, market penetration and overall brand reputation. Today, in an age of quarterly capitalism that demands businesses provide evidence of return on investment to their shareholders more often than ever before, a new form of strategic positioning has emerged: thought leadership. Companies are tapping into their experience and passions to show the expertise their brands have in answering some of the biggest questions facing business and society today.
But how do companies maintain their focus on the long term in a fast-paced business world? And what is the role of communicators in positioning their companies as thought leaders? According to Thomas Oury, global business director at DuPont Performance Solutions, even in an atmosphere of financial pressure and accelerated change companies have to engage with customers and employees in order to meet shareholder expectations. Speaking at an event to mark the 10-year anniversary of the European Association of Communication Directors held at the headquarters of Zurich Insurance Group in April this year, Thomas told Communication Director “You have to provide a vision and a purpose. This is going to serve for successful long-term strategies but it is also going to serve for aligning and motivating all your forces on the short term as well.”
“What is the role of communicators in positioning their companies as thought leaders?”
Thomas suggests that thought leadership programmes not only provide an appealing value proposition for employees – especially those of younger generations – but also give companies a competitive advantage. “Thought leadership provides a great opportunity for long-term investment in cutting-edge innovations, which in turn lead to a strategic positioning of the company and a differentiation from its competition.”
Beyond a long-term company positioning, thought leadership can also bring the short-term benefit of attracting external companies to collaborate. As Thomas explains, “Innovation is getting faster and it’s less and less something you can do alone in isolation from the rest of the world. You need to create an ecosystem of companies working together.” A recent example of collaborative thought leadership is the cooperation between Zurich Insurance Group and the World Economic Forum on the release of their 2016 Global Risks Report. The strategic partnership was designed to position Zurich as a thought leader on political risk and climate change, with a fully-integrated communication campaign focusing on promotion on paid, earned, shared and owned media, generating strong stakeholder interest in the launch of the Global Risks Report ahead of World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos.
Also speaking at the #eacd10 event in April, Maeve Gallagher, global head of external and digital communications at Zurich Insurance Group, explained to Communication Director that, although the report was disseminated through multiple channels, the message was synchronised and the information always easily digestible. Maeve also points to the Zurich Knowledge Hub and the transparent spokesperson role of Zurich Insurance chief risk officer Cecilia Reyes for the campaign as vital assets for driving engagement.
Following the high level of engagement generated by their communications campaign, Zurich is once more looking to identify important stakeholder concerns to help drive the momentum behind their report into 2017, as Maeve explained: “We have a series of both online and offline events where we talk to clients to better understand what their concerns are. We can use that information – filtering it also with the feedback we get through social channels – to understand what concerns people and what risks we need to consider for the next time.”
Zurich’s focus on clear stakeholder messaging is also evident in another company’s approach to thought leadership.Unilever’s director of European external affairs, Christiaan Prins (@Christiaan1978), believes that “a good position statement should fit in one tweet”. In explaining the idea behind the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, Christian explains that, because no company is truly invisible in the age of social media, they must be prepared to be part of the discussion and be bold in their thought leadership strategies.
With Unilever’s transparent commitment to making a positive social impact, Christiaan sees his work in external affairs as an opportunity to use advocacy for solving and not just managing issues. As an example of how thought leadership can drive this change, he points to issue coalitions such as the collection of entities promoting the European circular economy package: “The strength of issue coalitions is that you get likeminded partners on board so the agreement on the route to take is already there. That allows you to really drive forward very clear messaging that actually will drive change rather than just issue management”.
Aligning and integration
As a business director at DuPont, Thomas Oury knows the importance of executive engagement in thought leadership. “Though leadership can only succeed if it originates or is supported by the top management of a company,” he says. “The CEO or the business manager has to be on board. It is also crucial that the programme is fully aligned with the corporate strategy.”
But how to ensure that thought leadership programmes align with the business strategy of respective companies? Christian Prins argues success stems from true integration of programmes into a company’s business plan, using the example of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan.
“It’s a central element of the business strategy, because Unilever’s growth strategy takes into account that we have to invest in sustainable business in order to allow the company to grow,” he explains. “The Unilever Sustainable Living plan clearly sets out that its goal is to grow the business while halving our environmental impact and increasing our positive social impact. There is a direct link between reducing your environmental impact and growing the business.”
This integrative approach can also be seen in Zurich Insurance’s focus on flood resilience research in their corporate responsibility programme. “Floods are the natural disaster that affect the most people globally on an annual basis so it is very important for Zurich as an insurance company to make sure we can help the communities operating in flood-prone areas mitigate and better make themselves resilient against flooding,” says Maeve Gallagher. “It helps the communities. It also helps Zurich. “
At DuPont, thought leadership is based on the idea of creating lasting impact rather than incremental change. As Thomas Oury explains, they do this by aligning with what he calls the “mega trends”. And as he asks “Is there a larger mega trend than feeding the world?” By creating the Global Food Security Index, DuPont built a benchmark model for NGOs, businesses and governments in relation to food insecurity. The aim was to position DuPont as a leader for a number of powerful stakeholders.
The communicator’s role
With many large organisations implementing such programmes, responsibility falls to in-house communicators to ensure stakeholders are engaging with the strategies. Thomas Oury argues that “these days thought leadership is one of the most exciting communication tools”. He is eager for communicators to take the initiative in thought leadership programmes by contributing to defining business strategy, identifying issues and relevant stakeholders, and developing the tactics and tools to support the implementation of campaigns. “As you are representing your company’s image in thought leadership,” says Thomas, “it is very important that the approach is thoughtful and credible. A good communications team is required to carry out these campaigns in a professional manner.”
"These days thought leadership is one of the most exciting communication tools."
Maeve Gallagher points to another important role of communications in thought leadership – providing a factor of measurement for the programmes’ success and influence on perceptions of the company. This is evident in Zurich’s approach. “We look at the statistics in social terms by analysing their resonance in the media,” she explains. “Every year we have a global brand study that goes through the typical metrics of what constitutes a brand in the specific markets that are of relevance to Zurich – key markets. We use those findings to then better understand the reputation of the company.” Even in an age of quarterly capitalism, demanding quick answers to meet financial goals, organisations see the value in going beyond business to engage with societal issues. For the successful implementation of such strategies it is critically important that aims and activities are communicated clearly to those stakeholders across society and business.