Thought Leadership: Inspired Strategy or Tired Buzzword?

Ara Trembly
Insurance Experts' Forum, November 19, 2009

During the recent ISOTech Conference in Orlando, I had the opportunity to sit down with some of our industry’s thought leaders over dinner, and not surprisingly for such an austere group, the conversation turned to “thought leadership.” 

Now I admit, I started this particular verbal tussle, but I assure you that I did so with the most innocent of motives. We were discussing how technology companies could be more successful in today’s troubled economy, and I suggested that those who become “thought leaders” tend to flourish while their competitors are uselessly flopping around like just-caught flounder on the deck of a fishing boat. 

As an example, I cited IBM, which some years ago initiated a massive study of the insurance industry, and the ways our industry does business. Big Blue then invited our industry to a specialized insurance conference where they presented the results of their study in some detail, and provided their own analysis, which I thought reflected deep insight into insurance. At no time, however, did IBM then say: “So you should buy our products to solve your current problems and/or meet the challenges ahead.” 

In fact, I didn’t detect even a whiff of a sales pitch during that conference. This, to me, was a brilliant strategy on their part. In doing the study, releasing the results and providing well-founded analysis, IBM was in essence giving a gift to the insurance industry. At the same time, however, it was establishing itself as a thought leader, proving that it belongs in any serious conversation about technology in insurance, and providing insights and suggestions to move us forward. 

In the end, will such positioning result in increased sales for IBM in the insurance industry? I have no doubt that it will. In my ISOTech discussion group, some cynically suggested that there were no real “thought leaders” because anyone who tries to assume that role is at least, on some level, looking to make a buck. I agree with this, and further, I have no problem with it. If IBM sales in insurance skyrocket due to its crafty self-positioning as a thought leader, does that mean the information and the “thoughts” they put forth are somehow less valid or less valuable? Certainly not! Truth is truth, no matter who speaks it. 

A rising tide lifts all boats, I have heard some say. Any vendor or carrier or broker that applies its energies and resources to providing ideas that make the industry better is doing a favor for the whole industry, and is doing a valuable service for itself. Because such activity is refreshing, and even surprising in the dog-eat-dog business world, those who take this tack are indeed assuming a leadership role. If their sales increase as a result, they richly deserve such prosperity. 

Others in my discussion group grudgingly admitted that being a thought leader sounded great in theory, but wondered how they could sell the concept to their own executives and management. Again the cynical view is that most high-ranking executives would simply blow this idea as another marketing gimmick based on one of our industry’s current buzzwords. I would suggest, however, that these folks need to be educated about the tangible benefits of being a trusted source of information—and thus of products. 

And trust is really what this all comes down to. If a company demonstrates that it is continually researching, thinking and communicating in order to make life better for all in the industry, we are far more likely to trust both their knowledge and their integrity in a business setting. 

This is why for so many years the mantra of company purchasing agents around the world has been: “You can’t go wrong buying IBM.” This all-too-familiar sentiment is not based on infallibility of products; there are no infallible products. Instead, it hinges on the very real notion that companies like IBM make it their business to become thought leaders in the areas that are important to them, and that makes buyers feel more confident about doing business with them. 

Think about it. 

Ara C. Trembly ( is the founder of Ara Trembly, The Tech Consultant, and a longtime observer of technology in insurance and financial services.

Readers are encouraged to respond to Ara using the “Add Your Comments” box below. He can also be reached at

The opinions posted in this blog do not necessarily reflect those of Insurance Networking News or SourceMedia.

Comments (3)

Great article Ara. I like to refer to research by the Economist Intelligence Unit that lists "positioning the company as a thought leader" as one of the top marketing objectives for organizations. And even better, the research shows that customers prefer to be marketed to with thought leadership practices. We need more research like this and examples like the IBM story to continue to build our case for the value of thought leadership marketing.

Posted by: Jim P | November 24, 2009 8:22 AM

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Well, you could start by showing them this posting... OK, just kidding. The internal communication lines are different in every company, but I have found that if you can convince one highly-placed person to hear you, your message will be spread. The key here may actually be to cultivate personal relationships that would allow such communication. Best of luck to all you visionaries out there!

Posted by: Ara T | November 20, 2009 2:25 PM

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I agree with your article, but how do I as a visionary and forward thinker get my ideas to those who need to hear.

Posted by: Randy C | November 20, 2009 10:51 AM

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