“Build it and they will come.” For decades, this was the mantra of commercial product designers and the companies that backed them. Products – and their features and benefits – were everything. This “build it” philosophy is no longer viable; a product-centric marketing strategy isn’t effective on its own. The commercial building and interiors marketplace, like so many other industries, is crowded and commoditized. To stand out amongst competitors, connect with potential customers and grow business, brands need differentiation. Strategic thought leadership is that differentiator.

For more meaningful impact, promote more than products; position the knowledge, stories and experts behind them, too.Click To Tweet

More than 20 years ago, when I first started in this business collaborating with designers and manufacturers of contract furnishings, our prep for NeoCon Chicago (the largest exposition and conference for commercial interiors in the U.S.) would go something like this: We’d compile [paper] press kits chock-full of beautiful images and create award entries that touted the features and benefits of a company’s latest product introductions. Customer case studies and installations highlighted the problem-solving power of products. Editorial meetings focused on product demos were a cornerstone of our communication efforts. You could draw a straight line between media and advertising initiatives and sales.

All of this is still important. But to make a bigger, more meaningful and lasting impact today, you must promote more than products. You need to strongly position the knowledge, stories and experts behind them, too.

Ask these four questions to help reach commercial interior designers with your strategic thought leadership.

As you finalize your NeoCon50 marketing (and contemplate your the same for other industry tradeshows), make sure strategic thought leadership – loosely defined as brand differentiation and authority steeped in ideas and solutions – is front and center. Consider these questions:

Beyond products and services, what value does your company offer to customers?

Identify your audiences’ 2-3 most pressing challenges and then mobilize around them. How do you help your audiences make sense of things? How are your health care customers using design to support healthy behaviors? Assess your knowledge base and available assets to address these challenges. Think about the counsel your experts give to customers to help them prepare and respond to changes in the future of work. This perspective could make for a standout white paper or podcast series.

Do key messages establish and reinforce the meaning and value of your experience over your products and services?

Smart, well-crafted key messages establish your brand’s position in the marketplace, define and strengthen its voice, and ensure it gets heard by those who matter most. Ask yourself: is our messaging set for too narrow of an audience? Will it be appeal to a wider network? Take a pulse check of your current brand messages. If your key messages are weak, your content will be too. No one wants to spread ideas they can’t get behind.

How can you strengthen your voice? Where can you make an impact outside of your industry?

Trade publications and major tradeshows are important places for designers and manufacturers to have a voice. But you could be missing out on a number of opportunities – and new business – by putting all of your resources there. Consider non-traditional publications your key audiences are reading or the unexpected places they are gathering. Are you doing more business with heads of sustainability? Consider attending or speaking at a conference like Sustainable Brands. Are you finding key purchasing decisions are coming from the very top? Think about how your research and expertise could find a place in business media read by C-level executives.

Beautifully designed products will always be a driver in the design industry. But without strategic thought leadership strategy, at the end of the day that’s all you’ll have – beautiful products. Today’s customers buy into ideas, knowledge and reputation. Thought leadership is key to building trust, fueling demand and changing perception. Rise above the noise and get heard by those who matter most.

Download the White Paper - Thought Leadership: Your Organization's Secret to Reputation Marketing

A strong believer that relationships are the heart of business success, Joan is inspired by helping bring together interesting people, ideas and opportunities. And with nearly two decades at Stern, she has had no shortage of inspiration. In her role leading comprehensive programs and providing strategic counsel, she most enjoys leveraging synergies amongst clients and a wide network of influencers. This knack for forging connections extends to her deep involvement with professional and academic circles. An adjunct professor at Seton Hall University, she is director of digital communication and past president of the PRSA's NJ Chapter. When Joan isn’t making connections in the office, you might find her heading “down the shore,” devouring a good book, chasing around her toddler Elliott, or rocking out to her beloved Foo Fighters.