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Demystifying Thought Leadership

Thought leadership is key to innovation and a foundational aspect of social impact businesses. There are several ways to engage in thought leadership, from new ideas that bring disruption and change, to marketing-related programs focused on driving sales. Thought leadership can transform an industry, increase brand value and create powerful social impact.

Netflix is an example of transformative thought leadership. Co-founders Marc Randolph and Reed Hastings are examples of leaders that changed the DVD rental services industry. In 1997, the idea of an internet-based mail service for DVDs without late fees was so transformative that it IPO’d for $50 million just three years after its creation. Netflix even patented their “dynamic queue” of DVDs available for each customer and their communication and delivery methods. The ripple effect of this innovation was felt not only by its immediate competitor, Blockbuster, who ultimately filed for bankruptcy, but it also affected the way audiences watch televised content (binge watching House of Cards anyone?). These thought leaders revolutionized the industry they entered, successfully launched a new service model, and changed consumer behaviors.

Khan Academy is an example of a nonprofit venture exhibiting thought leadership by solving the issue of access by providing “free education to anyone, anywhere.” Khan Academy has forced traditional brick and mortar universities to reexamine their business models and offer online education to the larger public. In turn, this free and accessible education has sparked a debate about the current model of higher education, with its high cost of entry and liberal arts mandate. Khan academy’s thought leadership model solves a social issue with a new service and transforms the education system, provoking a sea change in their industry and beyond.

Thought leadership can increase brand value. Whole Foods’ thought leadership was in its sourcing of organic food long before it was fashionable or well understood (i.e. 1980!) The company has built its brand with this commitment to healthy, organic food at its center, and Whole Foods now calls itself “America’s healthiest grocery store.” Their stores offer eco-friendly and sustainable products and their website has information on healthy eating and what organic really means. Whole Foods has built their brand and entire marketing platform around their pioneering idea of organic produce.

Kiva’s thought leadership has been transformative in the field of microfinance. KIVA is a strong brand-builder and is flawlessly aligned to their social mission of connecting people through lending to alleviate poverty. Kiva allows people to lend money via the Internet to low-income entrepreneurs Screen Shot 2016-01-22 at 2.27.06 PMand students in eighty-two countries. At the time, the concept of using the Internet to mobilize capital for low-income entrepreneurs was revolutionary. Furthermore, Kiva allowed its lenders to select their borrower(s) – humanizing the process and providing the lenders with tangible beneficiaries they could empower. In fact, Kiva’s marketing strategy was powered by this same idea. In 2012, when LinkedIn Co-Founder Reid Hoffman lent Kiva $1 million, Kiva allowed 40,000 people to lend for “free.” The microloan beneficiaries were expected to pay back the loan to the original lender, but Kiva was betting that the new 40,000 lenders would also return to the site and lend more to projects, increasing their overall user base. Kiva’s thought leadership has powered its business model, its marketing strategy and its social mission.

At Digital Union, we take thought leadership seriously and seek to help businesses become true thought leaders by fusing purpose and profit. We help companies to navigate social impact and become real game changers in their field – come and see what we can accomplish together.

Maggie & Hector

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