Innovation has been described as a business strategy, a brand value, even an organizational characteristic. It implies continuous ideation, creativity and execution based on an ability to understand and meet the needs of customers, employees, investors and other key stakeholders.

Innovation is what pushes ideas forward into the realm of reality.

And, while some may think that innovative technology brands and organizations are inherently “known,” most innovators actually start out in relative obscurity. Their groundbreaking ideas, inventions and offerings don’t happen overnight – it’s a long journey. Just ask Apple, Uber, Instacart or Stripe.

Conversely, some of the most innovative technology brands never break into the spotlight. So, what determines who skyrockets to fame, and who fizzles?

Interestingly, one of the most critical aspects of being seen by others as an innovator is a brand’s ability to think and act like a leader.

Finding a comfort zone

A lot of technology brands find being a thought leader extremely challenging. After all, you want your opinions to be seen and heard, but you don’t want to alienate any potential stakeholders. You want media to pay attention, but you don’t want to stick your neck out on controversial topics. This is even more top of mind as privacy, security and regulatory changes add complexity to technology development. Add looming anti-trust concerns to the mix and even small technology brands in crowded segments start to get a little nervous.

Here’s the thing: technology brands that put tight restrictions on their own thinking are approaching thought leadership in all the wrong ways. When you think about it, innovators already have all the qualities of a good thought leader. You just need to apply them to your brand communications. And while it’s important to understand the risks to stepping out on any thought leadership platform, the risks of staying silent and becoming invisible in your market can be even more damaging.

What kind of thought leader are you?

If you’re a technology entrepreneur, you’re probably a “disruptor:” an upstart that’s challenging the way things are done today. There’s no shortage of disruptive technologies impacting how we shop, travel and connect. AI, automation and machine learning are disrupting how we use data and technologies like robotics are changing how we manufacture, invest, provide healthcare and more.

Having the confidence and means to create something new and a desire to disrupt the status quo with something of greater value are all essential for thought leadership. So, build on these qualities – be vocal about the challenges in your industry and be the one to step out with opinions on how you (and others) can solve them. This doesn’t mean that you or your technology brand have to be in a position to solve every problem. In fact, some may not be solvable. But, your leadership is equally valuable even when you point out the challenges and help start the discussion around why, how or when it might be solved. The visibility you create simply by becoming part of the conversation leads others to see you as a thought leader.  

Not a young disruptive brand? That’s ok. The “sage” – typically a market leader or known, established brand – can also innovate. Think about large brands like Apple and 3M that constantly innovate and challenge products in specific categories. They’re both sages, but the iPhone and Post-It Notes are examples of disruptive products that created a whole new way to communicate and spawned entirely new product categories.

The Sage’s tried-and-true reputation gives them more freedom to challenge the market and ask for support. Sages tend to lead the industry in new directions – convincing others to enthusiastically come along for the ride. It doesn’t always work – some innovators gain fast traction and then fizzle out over time when new technologies rise up and take over. Take, for example, the decline in Blu-Ray and DVD technology as streaming gained momentum. Brands like Netflix took up the position of thought leader and showed people the future.

Sages without thought leadership abilities or that stop innovating are followers – if stakeholders don’t understand your purpose and path, they won’t come along.

Finally, some technology brands are “conveners.” A convener steps forward to bring disparate groups together to solve a common problem. They actually thrive on it. Like sages, conveners need followers, but the convener mindset is a perfect fit for effective thought leadership. If you’re a convener, you probably find it easy to take center stage, showing others the path forward and speaking on behalf of the group. Just remember to set aside your own brand’s story to focus on the group cause. Truly innovative thought leaders share the limelight and position themselves as a representative for the greater good, rather than the singular leader.

Change your thinking to change your brand

Changing your mindset and how you think about thought leadership is the first step. It will give you the freedom to apply the skills you already use as a technology innovator to the process of building your brand. Your stakeholders will take notice and start to view you as an innovator.

Once you’ve identified your thought leadership role, you need a brand story, voice, messaging, visual identity and (most important) a strategic plan. Establishing a content and connectivity strategy is key to building and growing your reputation as a true thought leader.

If you’re a little intimidated by all this, don’t worry. Most technology brands don’t go through all these steps alone. Padilla’s role is to help innovators identify which type of thought leader you can be and align the innovative culture of your organization to a thought leadership program.

Our job is to help you define your own compelling story, identify the stakeholders most important to your success and make purposeful connections across your brand ecosystem.

This article was initially published in O’Dwyer’s Technology PR issue.

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