One of the most important aspects of thought leadership is its power to build credibility among prospective clients. The companies that arguably have taken this idea farthest –- leveraging the full potential of thought leadership marketing and continuing to advance the state of the art -– can be found in the strategy consulting business.

While management consulting has certainly grown over the past few decades as powerhouses such as Accenture, IBM and BearingPoint have gained ground, it is the strategy consultants that have explicitly relied on provocative and well-researched articles, white papers and studies to generate market opportunities. Among the top players in this upper strata of the advice market: McKinsey & Co.; Bain; Booz-Allen; and Boston Consulting Group.

Few of these strategy firms rely on conventional advertising to get the word out. The steep premiums they charge are, in one sense, justified by their ability to remain at the forefront of managerial thought – and demonstrate this leading edge thinking through their various marketing vehicles. Indeed, they have something to teach us all about how to build expertise, communicate Mckinsey_mindit and strengthen our credibility in the marketplace.

Take McKinsey. Consistently cited as the most prestigious and influential consulting firm in the world, McKinsey recognized the wider potential of investing in thought leadership back in the 1970s and 1980s. It would produce top research on management topics and then, present it as scholarly articles in the Harvard Business Review or thought-provoking editorials in the Wall Street Journal. Other research was presented to clients and prospects as well-researched white papers or articles in its own, widely read periodical, the McKinsey Quarterly.

Paul Friga, co-author of the book The McKinsey Mind, explains that such work served two purposes. It helped business people better understand and articulate key business problems and it let them know that McKinsey had expertise in these areas of concern. This represents a powerful alternative to traditional marketing. “It’s the general principle of demonstrated competency rather than claimed competency,” says Friga. “Advertisements make claims [about expertise]. Of course, they might claim it by getting testimony or showing the results of people that have been surveyed. But there’s probably nothing better than actually showing you.”

Such efforts have enabled the company to maintain something people refer to as the “McKinsey Mystique.” In fact, the firm’s unwillingness to be interviewed for this article (or any article, generally, that discusses how it operates) speaks to the stealth approach the company takes in building influence and credibility.

One former McKinsey consultant (who now runs his own strategy boutique) explains how McKinsey has relied on highly valued pro bono work to build relationships with and demonstrate its expertise to key decision-makers and power brokers. Part of the company’s marketing strategy is to conduct strategy projects for city governments, industry associations and fine arts organizations (such as the symphony, ballets, etc.) – where influential board members have an opportunity to see the company in action. “It not only serves a community, it opens the doors of corporate chieftains and other influential people,” he says.

While McKinsey’s success in positioning itself in leading journals demonstrates the power of combining strong writing with strong research, the success of its pro bono work suggests that it might be worthwhile for companies in other industries to consider similar activities. For instance, one might produce or finance valuable research, articles or white papers on behalf of relevant industry associations and trade groups.

However, other strategy consultants believe the demands of successful thought leadership marketing are about to rise to a new level. Bill Matassoni, a partner with Boston Consulting Group Matassoni_bill_detail_1 who was formerly in charge of externally communicating McKinsey’s thought leadership, believes we now must begin to engage in what he calls “issue ownership.” From his perspective, it’s not enough to merely communicate one’s perspectives and apparent expertise in a particular topic area. The challenge now is to build a rich and deep “field capability” based on real-world client experiences and then, demonstrate it through one’s communication activities.

The greatest challenge of issue ownership, he explains, lies in rapidly developing a team of experts that have the experience and credibility to work with clients in a new field of endeavor. In essence, white papers, articles and research become a vehicle for connecting the firm’s group of deep specialists with prospective and existing clients.

It is no longer adequate to have a single expert (that monopolizes all insight) or to have superficial opinions on a subject area. “If you claim to have special insight on something, you can’t just write about it,” Matassoni says. “You have to have 5 or 6 client engagements under your belt…If you don’t have the field capability to go along with the thought leadership or issue ownership, it’s not a complete marketing effort and it won’t work. You will be too thin on the ground. You really have to be building people.”

***An earlier version of this article first appeared in WhitePaperSource Newsletter.