How thought leadership builds brands: A conversation with Nicole France of Cisco.
Working with executives to create meaningful content and industry conversations, I find a great deal of fascination with the phrase “thought leadership,” but not much understanding of what it is, who can and should be a thought leader, and what it all means to your brands and bottom line. To help clarify those issues, I invited three thought leadership experts from the US, UK and Europe to participate in a recent Branding Roundtable (a thought leadership forum I created for Brandingmag).
While most participants submitted their answers in writing, I was able to sit down with one expert for an in-depth conversation, captured on video (with an edited version below). Nicole France, who heads up thought leadership and C-Suite marketing for global networking giant Cisco, offered far too many interesting insights to fit into the original Roundtable – so I am including her complete comments here.
Chuck Kent: First of all, how do you define “thought leadership” today?
Nicole France: It’s a good question. I define thought leadership as creating a conversation that informs and shapes people’s thinking. If you think about who you might include in that group of people it really is a pretty broad scope; certainly customers, to help inform their thinking. But, it doesn’t stop there. If you really do a good job of it, you are equally informing your competitors’ thinking, and certainly all of those outside third-party experts, the people who are the observers commentators on what’s going on as well.
I define thought leadership as creating a conversation that informs and shapes people’s thinking.
CK: By informing even your competitors’ thinking, it sounds like you aim to lead the entire industry’s conversation, not just reach out to prospects.
NF: Ideally, yes. To a large degree, thought leadership is something that you understand fully with hindsight. That maybe isn’t the best definition, but I think what we all strive for is to develop those concepts, ideas and insights that are thought provoking and, hopefully, groundbreaking. We don’t always succeed (and I say we very broadly in terms of everyone who works in thought leadership here), but when you’ve really nailed it, you do shape everyone’s thinking.
CK: I think this is fascinating – that you only understand it in hindsight. One of my recent interviewees also mentioned that there isn’t enough future focus in thought leadership, and that if you truly focus on the future, you’re only going to know where you are once you get there and look back.
NF: Absolutely. It’s a good point. We, certainly, in our teams, spend an awful lot of time trying to ensure that what we’re doing is looking ahead. We view our role within the company as one with the luxurious opportunity, if you like, to be that forward-looking vision. It’s not only about where we’re going to be as a company — that’s something that strategy really defines — but where we think the world is going to be and what we think our role in it will look like.
We view our role within the company to be that forward-looking vision.
CK: What do you think qualifies an organization as being a thought leader?
NF: This is one of those things that you, as the branding guy, could probably measure better I. A lot of it comes down to perception. The companies that are perceived to be driving an industry forward, driving innovation, certainly in the technology space, are the ones that distinguish themselves from everyone else, as thought leaders.
CK: So the real thought leaders are the ones at the center of discussing the direction of their industry, is that the notion?
NF: Yes, Absolutely. For us that’s a combination of things. Certainly, it is what we know and believe as an organization. But it’s more than just opinion, it’s based on experience, to a large degree. What we do as a company is a critical part of what we develop as thought leadership, but that alone doesn’t cut it. It has to be balanced with a considered view of what the trends are, what’s happening, what we can identify, measure and define. Yes, to some degree it’s opinion, based in actual experience, but it’s validated with data, with an outside view of what’s happening — and that’s something we go to great lengths to develop as a cornerstone of our thought leadership at Cisco.
It’s opinion based in actual experience…validated with data and and outside view.
CK: How important is it to have your top leaders involved in thought leadership?
NF: it’s very important. But, I would also say that thought leadership is, almost by definition, a collaborative process. It’s hard to identify a senior leader at any business who has gotten where they are without some strong views and opinions of their own. That absolutely factors into the development of thought leadership.
But, again, that’s one or several among many inputs. There are actually a lot of other really important views that come from other parts of the company. Good inspiration and insights for thought leadership can come from anywhere, much like innovation. The challenge and the real trick to good thought leadership – the art if you will – is how to put all these things together, and how to do it in such a way that it supports and aligns to and, sometimes, also informs the views of our most senior executives at the same time.
Good inspiration and insights for thought leadership can come from anywhere, much like innovation.
CK: What do you think of as the core benefits to a brand, both short and long term, of investing in thought leadership?
NF: in the short term, good thought leadership, among other things, generates some attention some headlines, gets some media or press coverage. But it also, very importantly, attracts the attention of those key audiences that you’ve really try to focus on in developing your content. For us, that is very much our customers or the companies we hope to have as customers.
CK: So it’s a good prospecting or new business development tool.
NF: Yes. We’re in a space – technology – that anybody on the street will tell you is evolving at a very rapid pace. If you aren’t continuing to look at how those changes are shaping what we’re going to do in the near and even longer-term future, you’re really not going to have a clear understanding of how you need to make the decisions today that will help you get where you want to go. That’s a large part of what focusing on in our thought leadership team, how to help our customers – but to some degree, also how to help our own people – understand that evolution.
CK: That’s interesting, because often times thought leadership is thought of as delivering external benefits. You’ve mentioned at least one internal benefit — do you see others? For instance, are people excited to get involved in thought leadership?
NF: I think they are. As I said, much like innovation, good thought leadership ideas, inspiration and insights can come from just about anywhere. We really feel like one of our jobs is to be the investigative journalists within the company to go and find that thinking, to uncover it internally. I would say people are absolutely excited about being part of this. They might not always understand exactly what it is until they’ve been through the process once, but I think the idea of contributing to our collective thinking as a company and what we’re saying publicly along those lines is absolutely appealing.
One of our jobs is to be the investigative journalists within the company, to go and find [the best] thinking.
CK: As I listen to your description of thought leadership, it starts to shape up as a culture builder. Is it?
NF: it can be, certainly. Cisco has a very strong engineering culture and these are really incredibly bright people with a lot of good ideas. They aren’t always in the best position to articulate those ideas for a broader non-technical public — that, again, is a role that we play, helping to translate, in a sense.
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t an interest or a desire on their part to help us in that process. To the contrary, they’re very interested in doing that — and it helps that we give credit where credit is due for the great thinking that exists within this company. That’s our job and, unsurprisingly, it’s pretty well received, providing a self-reinforcing “virtuous” circle.
I do think that one of the really important roles that thought leadership plays, if it’s done well, if it’s executed and rolled out properly within an organization, is that it helps everybody in that organization to have something meaningful to say. That matters because whether it’s to talking with friends of friends at a dinner party or trying to build a customer relationship and ultimately to convince them that what we do is valuable and beneficial to them, all of this reflects on us a company. When we’ve got interesting and powerful things to talk about, that gets people’s attention. I think that is very important part of building the reputation, profile and, ultimately, the brand of the company.
Thought leadership, if it’s done well, if it’s executed and rolled out properly within an organization, helps everybody in that organization have something meaningful to say.
CK: With an organization as massive as Cisco, is there any type of content format that you’re not using at this point?
NF: No, probably not. You name it, we’re doing it. There are probably a few social media avenues that we don’t use quite as much as, say, a consumer business might…
CK: So there’s no Cisco Pinterest?
NF: No, but if you want to see a picture of our latest server rack that was designed by Pininfarina, I’m sure you can find a picture of that somewhere.
In terms of thought leadership, we’re really trying to promote the channels that are most effective for reaching the audience we really want to reach. For the moment, at least, the main focus is on the executive audience within our customer organizations. There are other parts of the business that are developing excellent material and content for other, more technical audiences.
All of these channels matter, and I think the main thing is that we need to produce all of our thinking in as many channels as possible so that we have the greatest potential and likelihood of reaching the people we want to reach. We know that individuals may use multiple channels — so, when you multiply a whole bunch of individuals with a whole bunch of different channels, the reality is that you have to be almost everywhere in order to be effective.
You have to be almost everywhere in order to be effective.
CK: What companies do you think are “killing it” in thought leadership today – and feel free to include your own if you see it that way.
NF: I think we have too much on our list of things that we know we still need to do as a team to ever say we’re killing it, at least in our own estimation. But, I do think we are doing some great things at Cisco, helping take complex technology trends and articulating them in terms of what they really mean for a business — what they allow you to do in this era of digital transformation, and how that impacts your interaction with your own customers.
I’m very proud of that. It’s a huge task in a company as large as Cisco, to not only distill these ideas and tell them in a way that’s very clear and compelling, but it’s also a big challenge simply to communicate them throughout the entire organization.
There are also a couple of great thought leadership programs out there that I really admire as, arguably, I am a bit of a thought leadership wonk myself. GE Reports is terrific. One of the things they do incredibly well is almost an investigative journalism – on themselves – uncovering what’s happening within GE and tying those stories to things that matter to customers, and even to the world at large.
CK: Much as with your program, GE Reports is just one of a gazillion things they’re doing. I’ve watched Beth Comstock step out recently and take on much more of an interviewer role.
NF: It’s fantastic to have that kind of street cred, to get out there as an interviewer. We tend, I think, to undervalue good questioners, when questions are one of the most powerful tools we have for eliciting good thinking and good insights. It’s only really good questioners who actually get to that.
Questions are one of the most powerful tools for eliciting good thinking.
And there are a few other great programs out there. I am a huge fan of Deloitte University Press. What they do is not the sum total of what Deloitte publishes as thought leadership, but they have the advantage of being a little bit removed from the rest of the organization, at a bit of an arm’s length. I imagine that allows them to do the kind of questioning, research and analysis that can be hard to justify if you’re really “at the coalface” in a commercial organization.
CK: Who should own thought leadership within an organization?
NF: The question of owning thought leadership is an interesting one. I’d say it’s really more a question of shepherding thought leadership than owning it, partly because you’re talking about ideas – and those are very difficult to own.
CK: Perhaps champion is a better word than own.
NF: Champion is great… although shepherd is what it feels like a lot of the time. There are some things that need to be very well organized and structured, and that takes a clear understanding of what the priorities are.
There are always good ideas, always things that come out of left field – and sometimes those prove to be the best ideas, the ones that end up going to the top of the priority list and being, ultimately, what you look back on and realize was extremely influential on the industry. Then, of course, there are other cases that really just interesting distractions. You need to have an organization that is capable of making a call on that.
There are always good ideas, always things that come out of left field – and sometimes those prove to be the best ideas.
The other factor is that there’s a process to doing this: how you manage the collaboration, how you elicit the thinking, and how you test it so that you’re not doing something at just a superficial level. You need to be able to take these ideas several steps beyond face value and understand the true depth in the scope, the real impact that they have. That, then, often leads to a whole set of other things you might do to test or to support those ideas, like primary research, either qualitative or quantitative.
There’s another aspect, too, which is about the rigor of quality control – actually producing quality content. We talk about content and assets all the time, whether it’s white papers, articles, videos or podcasts, even the Twitter cards that we put out; but as much as it’s about those individual assets, it’s about ensuring that you have a body of thinking that is very well-developed and very well-articulated, regardless of the channel. That function needs to be owned by a group with expertise in doing that, whether it sits in marketing, or strategy or somewhere else.
CK: Speaking of strategy, how do you recommend best aligning thought leadership with the overall business strategy, and the brand and market strategies which as supposed to support it?
NF: The easiest way is to make sure that you have a really clear strategy as an organization to begin with.
Make sure that you have a really clear strategy as an organization to begin with.
That’s my short answer…but it is actually critically important. It’s tough to get this stuff right without a clear focus of direction from the very top of the organization. With that in place, everything else becomes infinitely easier, in particular the alignment between thought leadership and branding.
There are a lot of things that happen very serendipitously, very naturally when you’ve got an organization that is clear in its purpose. Where that starts to break down, it gets to be a little more challenging. It’s not even so much that clarity of purpose is breaking down, but in any large organization you’ve got a whole lot of different parts of the business that there are concentrating on different things. At some point it becomes a challenge to be the arbiter across all of those things.
CK: I hear people talk about purpose in an organization as being a north star. That would seem to be the organizing principle that you’re talking about, the key factor that guides everything.
NF: Yes, definitely. You can reverse engineer it, but it’s never going to be as good as if you actually started out with that clear focal point on the horizon from the beginning.
CK: You’re obviously in a B2B environment at Cisco – do you perceive a significant difference in the role or importance of thought leadership between B2B and B2C brands?
It comes down to whether you’re talking about a high-consideration sale or an impulse purchase.
NF: I don’t see it so much as a difference between B2B and B2C. I believe it comes down to whether you’re talking about a high-consideration sale or an impulse purchase. In the businesses that I’ve tended to work for what we sell involves long-term, hefty investments, which are by definition high- consideration purchases.
But there are certainly high-consideration purchases in the consumer space as well, and thought leadership may equally important there – but it might take a slightly different form. It might not be quite as extensive or nuanced as what we’re doing in the big technology company, for example.
I was looking recently at mattresses, just to give you an off the wall example. One of the things that struck me was Casper mattresses, which is arguably doing something that is very much thought leadership. Because what they’re talking about is a better way to sleep, a better way to build and sell a mattress, and why you should want to find out about different types of mattresses — all before they ever get to the sales pitch.
You should start wherever you can.
CK: Before we go, I have just one last question: What would be your advice to brands, particularly those not as global as Cisco, who haven’t launched into thought leadership yet? Where do they start?
NF: You should start wherever you can.
This can be as big or little as you want it to be. Once you start in earnest, I believe you’ll find that your effort tends toward a larger scope. But just start. Experiment wherever you feel comfortable. You can do it at a small scale, say, with the things that are focused on one particular area of your business. The advantage of doing that is that you’ll begin to see very quickly what works and what doesn’t — and how compelling it actually proves to be, externally and internally as well.
Suggested additional reading:
Why every CEO needs a “Content Consigliere”
How interviews turn thought capital into currency
About the Author
Chuck Kent, the Chief Conversation Officer at Lead the Conversation, works with executives to help them more easily create authentic, compelling thought leadership content – and to lead industry conversations. He is a writer, brand strategist, content creator and expert interviewer. Chuck is also a Contributing Editor for Branding Magazine, for which he created the monthly Branding Roundtable.
Lead the Conversation is an executive content creation service that makes it easier for busy top management to develop authentic, compelling thought leadership content, such as videos, bylined articles and blog posts. We also create opportunities for conversation leadership, such as interview series and other forums.
Lead the Conversation provides a practical way to develop authentic thought leadership content for busy executives. We also help the C-Suite create and lead industry conversations, to which they can invite other leaders, turning prospects into relationships.
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