Which corporate brands are the world’s most influential? Each year we at TLG try to answer that question in the International Index of Thought Leadership. We ask influential “opinion formers” from business, politics, the media, and NGOs in the U.S. and the UK to rank companies on five behaviors identified by Henley Business School as common to high-impact or “thought leader” organizations: a pioneering spirit, rigor, objectivity, authenticity, and clarity, with clarity as the most critical.
The brands that top the Index excel at defining what they stand for, maintain a ruthless and coherent focus on their credentials, and share very high trust ratings. At a time of economic crisis when consumers question corporate motives , following their examples and focusing on the five qualities of thought-leader companies is a path to building trust in your brand.
This year the Index included some surprising choices and confirmed some emerging trends.
Apple and Google head both the U.S. and UK lists — not a surprise, as they topped both Fortune’s “most admired” ranking and our 2009 Index. However, the gulf between the two brands is growing and reverses a trend from the 2007 and 2008 Index when Apple trailed Google.
What is behind the reversal? Google could be suffering from a failure to successfully communicate why it is moving beyond search and why new ventures, such as Books and Streetview, are in the interests of consumers. Apple, on the other hand, is successfully leveraging its reputation for pro-consumer innovation.
There were big surprises in the third choices of both Americans — Southwest Airlines — and Britons — the employee-owned retailer John Lewis Partnership. Both brands, though very established, are not particularly fashionable. However, their business models and brand values are quite distinctive.
Another marked feature of the 2010 Index is the increasing dominance of web-based companies, not just Twitter and Facebook, but eBay and Skype, two brands that, like Amazon, have successfully challenged consumers to rethink their definition of retail.
The most intriguing lessons — and opportunities — come in the omissions on the lists. There, three trends stand out:
First, familiarity and favorability do not by themselves create thought leaders. This is demonstrated by the absence of corporate consumer giants atop the lists. On key social issues, such as the environment, diet, and lifestyle, giants such as Nestle, PepsiCo, P&G, and Unilever believe they are setting agendas and demonstrating thought leadership. However, this has yet to be fully recognized by influential opinion formers in the four groups we surveyed. That suggests they need to reappraise their communications methods and the strength of their brand’s credentials.
Second, sectors that trade on “thought capital” fail to be recognized as thought leaders. Apart from McKinsey, management consultants have failed to make an impact on the Index. This maybe because, they package and present the opinions of others, rather than take an opinion or lead on an issue in their own right.
Third, the least surprising omission also represents the biggest opportunity: leadership in the financial services sector. This is an industry that desperately needs to rebuild trust, yet there seems to be absence of genuine leadership on both sides of the Atlantic. If any financial services brand manages to reverse this trend in 2011, it could reposition itself as a powerful force in the consumer marketplace.
You can find the full list of the top 20 thought-leader companies in the U.S. and UK here.Read more