I found this question burning in my mind recently during a meeting with a new business prospect. They wanted our help to position the company and its executives as thought leaders in their particular space.

But there we were, hearing in excruciating detail about their vast portfolio of products, platforms and “solutions.” We see this often. Everyone wants to be viewed as a thought leader or a visionary—those are the companies and the people that get the good press, the plum speaking gigs, the accolades—and, most importantly, the customers. But when given the opportunity to describe their vision, they fall back on monologues about products and features. They’re vendors.

You might be thinking, what’s wrong with being a vendor? And the answer is, of course, nothing. You’ve been savvy enough to identify a business opportunity and clever enough to develop a product or solution. You’ve been relentless in building your business and growing your customer base. But now you want more. Competitors are closing in, and it’s harder to differentiate your solutions from theirs. As Jim Lewis, director of the technology program at CSIS, has rightly observed, “Everybody and their dog is doing cybersecurity.” The same can be said for big data and analytics and IOT. The question is what is going to make your voice rise above the barking?

You might think it’s luck, or maybe a particularly aggressive PR team. And those are factors. But there are also some distinct differences between companies and executives who see themselves as vendors, and those who are recognized as visionaries. At RH Strategic, we’ve had the opportunity to work with many visionaries over the years. Here are a few distinctions we’ve noticed:

  1. Vendors see what the market needs now. Visionaries anticipate what the market needs NEXT. And 5-10 years after that, just for good measure. Visionaries help shape the future of the market. While Motorola was selling millions of pink Razr phones, Steve Jobs was creating the iPhone.
  2. Visionaries understand the world outside their walls, and how it impacts their industry. Public policy, the global economy, education, workforce issues—visionaries are actively engaged on issues that will impact their industry over the long term. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t invest $120 million in education to simply drive more users to Facebook.
  3. Visionaries are skilled communicators. Visionaries don’t just see the future, they can describe it in vivid detail. Even ideas that may seem crazy at first. Visionaries paint pictures with words that capture imaginations.
  4. Visionaries aren’t afraid of being wrong. Following the 2007 CES, Bill Gates was mocked for his prediction of “Big-Ass Tables.” Nearly 10 years later, I don’t know anyone that has one of those, but I do know plenty of people who have Surface tablets and of course, iPads. You don’t have to get it 100% right. The most important thing is that you’re saying something different, provoking thought and inspiring ideas.

So…do you want to be a vendor or a visionary? I’ll tell you now that’s a trick question. The truth is that you can be both a vendor and a visionary. Once you’ve done the work of educating and shaping the market, your brand will then be well-positioned to meet the needs of that future reality. But visionaries–by definition–don’t wait for the future. Are you doing all you can right now to build your brand’s reputation as a thought leader?

Have some tips of your own? Let us know!

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RH Strategic is a Seattle and D.C.-based communications firm providing strategic public relations for innovators in the technology, public sector and healthcare markets.