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Defining a Brand Through Thought Leadership

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Do you know what your company's brand is?

More importantly, do you know how to map out a strategic game plan for identifying your company's brand and how to communicate it effectively to your audiences?

The “Just Do It” tagline and the distinctive “swoosh” logo are instantly recognizable to millions as representative of Nike, yet are they the Nike brand? The Nike brand goes beyond a sign or symbol; it’s really a collection of perceptions held by the consumer. This is a truer definition and helps clarify that brand is not the product or service itself but an intangible that exists in the minds of buyers. Understanding brand in this approach weighs the importance of brand more accurately. It also shows that a brand, and brand loyalty, is built not only through effective communications or appealing logos but also through the total experience that it offers. As branding strategist Harry Beckwith notes, “It is not slickness, polish, uniqueness, or cleverness that makes a brand a brand. It is truth.”

Challenge: Good Company, Invisible Brand

When I joined K/P Corporation as its marketing director, brand was one of my foremost concerns. Although our company serves some of the world’s leading brands and had grown to become a successful marketing and business-process solutions provider over the course of its 75 years of business history (starting from humble origins as a family-owned print shop in 1929), the “truth” of K/P’s brand was this: it was virtually unknown outside of the company and our cherished list of industry-leading customers; it did little to convey the benefits that differentiate K/P from its competitors in the minds of potential buyers.

Your Company’s Brand: An Agreement with Your Customer

It is important to note that the perceptions in the minds of buyers that create brand can just as likely be bad as good. Thus, when building, maintaining, or repositioning a brand, you repeatedly make a unilateral agreement with your customers as to their satisfaction with what you will deliver to them-whether it is to be the least expensive, the fastest, the safest, the highest quality, the most functional, the most stylish, or what have you. As Howard Schultz, the genius behind Starbucks, said, “Customers must recognize that you stand for something.”

Today, you can communicate with your buyers across multiple channels-email, blogs, print and web advertising, direct mail, and measured media, to name a few-with increasingly individualized and relevant messaging. However, new channels and new communication methods don’t signal the death of brand, quite the opposite; it is only through a strong brand can you create the core tenet of any brand: credibility in the mind of buyers.

Credibility: The Brand Foundation

Credibility comes in everything the company does: it is not just “marketing speak” but the veracity of the representations that sales makes, the performance of the product or service and the value that they bring, operational excellence, execution, and so forth. Marketing’s role, then, is to create positive associations-credibility-to bring potential buyers into the sales funnel. While this is important to all brands, brands in the service industries, in highly commoditized industries, and in highly competitive industries need to pay close attention to not only capturing but also maintaining the buyer’s mindshare and therefore his or her emotional and psychological connection with the brand. If marketing-and the company as a whole-doesn’t bother to do this, then that cranial real estate is going to the competition.

First Step: Customer Focus

As I mentioned, K/P has lengthy experience with a large number of clients across many industries, including Fortune 500 clients such as Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, Chevron, Boeing, Washington Mutual, Kaiser Permanente, Starbucks, and Nordstrom. Our first step in re-branding K/P through thought leadership was to closely examine the best practices we had employed for some of these clients and what made them successful from their perspectives. Everything became customer focused and customer relevant: we wanted to stand in the customer’s shoes and to understand “What do they want? What is their reality? And how does the real value we provide as strategic partners extend the duration and breadth of our relationships with them?”

Once the brand was repositioned to be customer focused, the path for every other marketing activity became clear: to support the brand by increasing credibility and increasing credibility through thought leadership.

Brand Building Tool: Thought Leadership

Thought leadership is one of the most effective ways to build a brand and increase credibility. A thought leader is a person or company recognized for innovative ideas and the confidence to promote those ideas. In the words of consultant and strategist Elise Bauer, “…the thought-leadership company deeply understands its business, the needs of its customers, and the broader marketplace in which it operates.”

The Tactics Road Map: Thought Leadership How-To

The components of a thought-leadership program can be:
  • Exhibiting thought leadership. Demonstrate deep understanding of the client’s problem or need through any of these vehicles:

    • white papers
    • presentations at events, conferences, etc.
    • relevant marketing campaigns
    • articles
    • blogs
    • webinars

  • Present evidence of thought leadership. Let your customers speak to your credibility in solving their problems through:

    • case studies
    • client testimonials
    • co-speaking opportunities
    • co-published articles

  • Brand recognition/awareness vehicles. Build credibility using these more-traditional areas by taking the opportunity to exhibit thought leadership by introducing some of the above elements-a client testimonial in an advertisement, industry knowledge/news on a website, etc.:

    • websites
    • brochures
    • logos
    • packaging
    • advertising
Thought Leadership: It Takes Commitment

Building a brand through thought leadership is not for the fainthearted. It takes a well thought-out strategy that dovetails into overall corporate objectives, commitment at every level of the company, and, most importantly, it takes time to mature. It does not take the place of creating lead-generation campaigns, for example, but without it, without a strong brand, without credibility in the minds of buyers, whatever slick and clever presentations marketing and sales comes up with have no real depth and are easy for customers to see through. It is critical to understand the proper order of cause and effect: the perceived value of the product or service creates the brand following and brand recognition, not the other way around. A genuine and credible brand almost sells itself-there are hundreds of ways to talk about it because you’re telling the truth.

Using a thought-leadership strategy to define and communicate your company’s brand is not the quick fix or the easy solution. However, it is a strategic and meaningful way to understand your customer’s needs, be responsive to those needs, and create a powerful market presence through communicating the value you deliver to your customer-and the brand in the marketplace.

About the Author

Natalie Fay serves as director of marketing for K/P Corporation, a marketing-solutions provider specializing in direct mail, fulfillment, business processes, and technology for some of the world’s leading brands. She can be contacted at or by calling (925) 543-5224.


An old cliché runs that nobody who bought a drill every really wanted a drill-they bought a drill because they wanted a hole. In his book White Paper Marketing Handbook, Robert Bly states that in the B2C market, “…the proliferation of information on the Internet has trained consumers to demand and respond to informational, content-rich marketing materials rather than traditional ‘hard sell’ advertising.” In the B2B space this proves to be true as well, with solutions-oriented white papers creating differentiation from competitors. It is about providing solid information rather than relying solely on clever marketing speak. Sharp slogans and beautiful brochures don’t persuade prospects that K/P can be a valued business partner, but displaying thorough understanding of their business problems will convince a prospective client that K/P has the ability to solve those problems. K/P has successfully created well-received white papers for both the high-tech computer and specialty-retail industries, with additional papers in the works. These can be found at
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