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When I interviewed Mark Levy for this week's episode of Marketing Smarts, he told me the story of a client named Bill Treasurer, also known as "Captain Inferno."

As Mark recalled, Bill came to him as a management consultant struggling to differentiate himself from other consultants. Bill was unsure of how to sell his services confidently or justify the rates he wanted to charge (leaving him to settle for less).

Mark, who David Meerman Scott calls a "positioning guru extraordinaire," set out to help Bill like he helps most of his clients: by asking a lot of questions about their lives. Though Mark eventually wants to know about his clients' businesses, at first, Mark is more interested in uncovering their back stories. It's in those back stories that Mark generally finds the gems that will become the center of how his clients position themselves.

In Bill's case, Mark's questioning uncovered an interesting fact: When Bill was a daredevil athlete, he used to climb a ladder nine-stories tall, set himself on fire, then dive into a tank of water—despite the fact that, according to Mark, Bill was afraid of heights.

Mark found this story fascinating, but learned, to his surprise, that Bill didn't delve into his death-defying past with his clients. Mark thought that people hiring a management consultant are looking for someone who is very business-like, not someone "who sets himself on fire and dives nine stories."

Bill was wrong, according to Mark. Because Bill specialized in helping leaders of organizations take risks and create courageous cultures, the fact that Bill did something that would terrify normal people---and did it successfully---served as a dramatic illustration of Bill's abilities and the courage of mere mortals.

Bill ended up placing this story at the center of his branding by naming his business Giant Leap Consulting. He wrote books on the theme of sensible risk-taking (Right Risk, which features a picture of Bill in flames on the cover) and organizational courage (Courage Goes to Work). What Bill had seen as a quirky and irrelevant detail from his past ended up driving his company's positioning and his perspective as a thought leader.

You don't have to set yourself on fire to become a thought leader (though it probably wouldn't hurt!), but you can learn the following from Bill's story:

1. Set yourself apart. One key reason that people engage in thought leadership is to differentiate themselves in the marketplace. Differentiation means, however, that you must bring something to the table that is truly different! Finding genuinely remarkable and rare elements in your story is where differentiation really starts.

2. Don't let your assumptions blind you. Bill had a set idea of what mattered to the marketplace and was sure it had nothing to do with his daredevil antics. Mark showed him that, on the contrary, Bill's unique experiences were exactly what would intrigue clients and could serve as the "big idea" behind his business. We are frequently misled by our assumptions, so it's important to work with people who can help challenge these assumptions and clarify our understanding of what actually matters to the people we are hoping to serve.

3. Connect the dots. To be convincing and effective, thought leadership can't be a sideline; it must be intimately tied to what you do as a company. Bill's thoughts on courage in the workplace and how to approach and master necessary risks are not only topics he covers in books. Far from it. They are inscribed in the name of his company and are core to his work with clients.

So, what's the fiery plunge in your back story?

If you'd like to hear my entire interview with Mark Levy, check it out here.

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My name is Matthew T. Grant, PhD. I'm Managing Editor here at MarketingProfs. I divide my time between designing courses for MarketingProfs University and hosting/producing our podcast, Marketing Smarts. You can follow me on Twitter (@MatttGrant) or read my personal musings on my blog here.

If you'd like to get in touch with me about being a guest on Marketing Smarts or teaching as part of MarketingProfs University or, frankly, anything else at all, drop me a line.