By Diane Prince, Hippo Thinks Head of Sales
The other day I was shopping in Nordstrom and wandered into the shoe department. On my way to the Pedro Garcia sandals, I picked up a pair of TOMS as a gift for my daughter, and pondered the fact that the mega brand recognition enjoyed by the company isn’t a result of advertising. In fact, I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a traditional advertisement for the brand, yet I know more about it than almost any other shoe I buy.
The reason is that from the company’s inception, TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie has been spreading the gospel of his social mission and entrepreneurial vision. And because I know the backstory—Mycoskie founded the company in 2006 after a trip to Argentina, and for each pair of shoes sold, the company gives one to a person in need—I feel good about handing over my credit card.
In 10+ years, TOMS has come a long way from its humble beginnings as a side business run from Mycoskie’s apartment. The company was reportedly valued at $625 million when Bain Capital purchased a 50% stake in 2014. As it has grown, so has the profile of Mycoskie: through his appearances on the pages of business magazines and newspapers, his 2012 best-selling book Start Something That Matters, a 2015 TED appearance, and conferences such as the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he is a highly sought-after speaker. At this point it’s fair to say that Mycoskie has become a brand in his own right and that the stronger his personal brand becomes, the greater awareness consumers have of his company and its products.
TOMS is the perfect example of how a well executed thought leadership strategy can transform a good idea from an unknown brand to a household name. Traditionally, thought leadership has been viewed primarily as a B2B strategy, which makes sense on the surface. But for B2C companies whose target customers watch TED talks and read business magazines, it can be as useful for raising brand awareness as an ad on the subway. Plus, B2B transactions are based on logic (and often ROI), whereas B2C transactions are based on emotion and connection to the brand—thought leadership campaigns can actually be even more beneficial in B2C content marketing than in B2B.
Thought leadership for B2C brands creates a personal connection
Thought leadership builds trust with customers by highlighting the human beings behind the brand and their deeply held values. Thanks to revelations of coverups of sexual harassment scandals and the way in which customer data is collected and sold, today’s consumers are more distrustful of corporations than ever before. It’s not enough to like a specific product; consumers are increasingly making purchasing decisions based on shared ethics with a brand, and they are beginning to demand transparency.
Consumers want to do business with a person, not an entity, and they want to know what kinds of values the person behind the brand possesses. An October 2015 Nielsen survey found that among the 66 percent of global respondents willing to pay more for a product, over 50 percent were influenced by a company’s perceived commitment to sustainability. The most important factor was trusting the brand (62 percent), followed by the company being known for its commitment to social value (56 percent).
Without thought leadership, brands exist in a faceless universe, which makes it more challenging for consumers to develop an affinity to them; consumers want to know the person behind the brand. This desire of consumers to connect with a brand on an emotional level is only likely to increase as brands move more interactions to impersonal apps and web portals. Even brick-and-mortar retail locations are not immune: the recently opened completely cashier-less Amazon Go store may usher in a whole new era of humanless transactions.
It should not go unnoticed that because of their higher profiles, established thought leaders are often called by journalists looking for quotes for news articles, which in turn builds trust among consumers. You can bet that if a reporter is doing a story on for-profit companies with a social conscience, people like Mycoskie will be called. And when is the last time you read an article about work-life balance or women’s empowerment that didn’t include mention of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg or her best-selling book Lean In?
Thought leadership amplifies your brand's vision and values
The key to successful B2C content marketing through thought leadership is authenticity. The reason that Oprah can turn a product into a runaway bestseller simply by publicly endorsing it is because people trust her. She has built her own brand on being genuine and sincere, so if she opines in the pages of her magazine or in an interview, people want to hear what she has to say. She’s the walking embodiment of the tag line from those old E.F. Hutton television commercials: When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.
To get people to listen, however, the message has to be credible. It can’t be forced or worse, phony. Nor can it be ancillary to the overall marketing message; it has to be an holistic part of the company’s ethos or business philosophy. Needless to say, effective thought leadership isn’t something that can just be slapped together by a marketing or public relations team and tacked on like a shiny bow.
In fact, thought leadership should not focus directly on a product or even necessarily on the brand at all. Instead, articles should be about an idea, best practices, the writer’s business philosophy, or causes she cares passionately about. In the numerous articles about or penned by Mycoskie, he doesn’t discuss the style, comfort or quality of TOMS shoes; the focus is always on the mission, the people behind the brand, those he wants to help, his strategy and where the company is going next. Yet, this steady drumbeat of commentary builds brand identity and further strengthens the relationship between TOMS and consumers.
B2C companies benefit from thought leadership
If you’re a B2C company, you may not immediately think a thought leadership campaign is for you. But whether it’s a speech at Davos or an article in Forbes, the fact is that speaking your mind is an innovative way to get in front of your customer. That’s true whether that customer is a Fortune 500 executive or a twenty-something aspiring entrepreneur. After all, everyone wears shoes.
Want help developing your next thought leadership piece? Get in touch with Hippo’s experienced editorial team.