Sustainability thought leadership: from social responsibility to social purpose

  • Published: 31 January 2018
  • Author: Isabelle Morin

What is Thought Leadership Marketing?

Marketing has changed and raving about how great a brand is just doesn’t work anymore. In a technology-saturated age where consumers are more sceptical than ever of self-promotion, most companies need to be creative.

Thought Leadership is not just the latest marketing trend. It is about providing genuine value to your customers or industry peers by showing that you’re the expert in something that matters. People are more willing to invest in a company that is positioned as a leader in its field. By publishing research, articles, videos or any other form of best-in-class content regularly, potential clients and business partners may begin associating your brand with insight and authority.

Thought Leadership marketing can change the perception of a brand and help build credibility and trust with customers and key stakeholders.

Thought Leadership and Sustainability

While demonstrations of sustainability such as mission statements, awards, rankings, and reporting are important a Thought Leadership programme has the power to build the momentum necessary to execute big ideas. More than many other communication strategies, it can inject your company’s brand with authenticity and transparency.

The “2017 Sustainability Leaders” survey from GlobeScan and SustainAbility tracks expert opinions on the perceptions of leading organizations most responsible for driving the sustainability agenda.

For the seventh year in a row, Unilever is ranked by as the premier global sustainability leader, receiving nearly half the total mentions by global experts. Unilever is the most dominant corporate leader, with its margin of leadership expanding each year. Patagonia and Interface occupy the second and third positions, with IKEA, Natura, M&S, Tesla, Nestlé, Nike, GE and BASF also landing on the list of highest-ranked companies.

More importantly maybe, as a few corporate leaders continue to gain share of recognition, the gap between top leaders and the rest continues to widen. A handful of consumer-facing companies with powerful visions and values continue to win more share of mind among experts and it is becoming harder for others to break through.

It is important to note that when experts are asked to score their selected global corporate leader on a list of leadership attributes, they assign the highest scores for their ability to articulate a focused and inspiring vision and to define relevant and ambitious goals.

Examples of Sustainability Though Leadership

By looking at how Unilever, Patagonia and other companies have positioned themselves as Sustainability Leaders over the years, we observe different approaches and types of Thought Leaders.

The visionaries: They tend to create ideas to change the way we see our world, our planet our society and give us a glimpse of what it could be like. Companies like Patagonia, or Whole Foods Market intend to shift’s society’ beliefs inspiring broader possibilities for the way we live.

The innovators: Then intend to turn sustainability challenges into business opportunities by creating new markets or expanding the horizons of an industry. Apple and Interface are great examples.
The problem-solvers: They intend to develop an in-depth expertise and deliver solutions in collaboration with like-minded industry peers, regulators and NGOs.

5 Steps to Start a Though Leadership Programme

So how can an organisation or a brand become a thought leader? What are the critical steps to create a Thought Leadership programme that can drive not only great value for the business but make a significant impact on the Society?

First Thought Leadership is relevant for companies that can demonstrate that social purpose is an essential part of their organisation and their brand. It often requires leadership to understand sustainability and an authentic intention to contribute to sustainability challenges.

Any company needs to first clearly define its social purpose and realise how to use its existing assets and expertise to address targeted social needs in a profitable way. This social purpose should address the ends (social change) rather than the means (corporate social responsibility).

Our CSR Asia approach to start developing a problem-based Thought Leadership programme is described as follow:

A Few Critical Success Factors

A long-term vision. If you want to implement a Thought Leadership programme, ensure that you create something that can sustain in the long-term. Unlike communication campaigns, the point of thought leadership is to demonstrate your expertise, not talk about it. As it takes time to earn trust, a Though Leadership campaign will only drive business value through long-term commitment and continuous engagement.

Depth not breadth. Being a thought leader doesn’t mean knowing everything about every aspect of sustainability but being the go-to person for a specific issue. It is critical to focus on creating thorough, comprehensive content that deals with a specific problem.

Research, don’t assume. Companies often think they know what their key stakeholders want to know about. In-depth research and stakeholder engagement are critical steps in the process. A Thought Leadership programme needs to be based on a good understanding of stakeholders’ needs and expectations.

Open a dialogue. The objective is not to lead the conversation but start the conversation and be part of it. This dialogue can create opportunities for collaboration and help reach a broader audience. It also shows your intention to share and learn from others in view of your social purpose.