When (and why) rankings work as a mechanism for developing compelling thought leadership

James Watson

Whether they care to admit it or not, people love to compare themselves – and to see others compared – against their peers to see where they rank. In today’s world of social media ‘likes’, celebrity culture, and continuous political polling, the media is constantly awash with these types of stories. Which party leader is viewed as most credible? How do celebrities stack up from the A to the Z list?

The concept of ranking is equally powerful when applied to corporate thought leadership. In this context, an index that ranks various items is an incredibly useful tool – by pitting country versus country, city against city, or industry competitors against one another – and one that is ripe for attention-grabbing headlines.

But as a complex and involved piece of research, there are inevitably various things to be aware of when deciding if this is the fit for you.

There are winners—and losers

One of the great things about indexes from a press perspective is that they generate lots of really juicy stories for the media to push out about which companies, governments or countries are excelling.

On the flip side, when you rank anything, someone or something has to come last. And it’s here where sometimes concerns can be raised. Quite simply: will this be perceived negatively by our target audience?

But by changing the lens, you can get different stories emerging. Indexes enable you to present findings in alternative ways — as clusters or performance bands, for example. Or the classic 4-box grid beloved by consultants, which doesn’t explicitly denote winners and losers.

Done right, it can work for the press—and practical purposes

Every day, senior business leaders make decisions that might shape their company’s future in one direction or another. To make the right decisions in today’s complex and volatile business environment, they need to draw on an increasingly broad range of information sources. As the CEO of a multinational professional services firm recently told us: “The days of the ‘imperial’ CEO are over”.

Curating a market index means condensing a substantial amount of data into a comparable, like-for-like format, with easy-to-digest findings. In turn, this can generate fresh intellectual property for your brand that is of high commercial value for your clients and prospective clients, not least by throwing up a wealth of potential correlations to explore.

The Barclays Africa Trade Index, for example, addresses a topic where commercial information is in high demand, yet there is a dearth of useful information to date. The index provides a measure of the relative degree of openness to trade across 31 Sub-Saharan African countries. This information is both inherently interesting for coverage, but also practically useful for business leaders exploring entry into these markets.

Owning your niche

If you can find a market niche that aligns with your own commercial objectives in some way, building an index can cement your brand as a go-to provider for market intelligence.

To maintain this position, and to preserve relevance and credibility, it’s worthwhile thinking about an index as something that could potentially act as a longer-term investment, rather than a one-off opportunity (even if it starts that way). By repeating the research year-upon-year – or whatever frequency makes sense – new possibilities open up to offer not only a geographical or sector perspective, but to grow your knowledge about how trends are evolving over time.

An example of this is IBM’s consistent investment in tracking the e-readiness of the world’s largest economies over a number of years, a ranking that for a long time time became synonymous with the company itself.

This also highlights a point about the timeliness of the data. Some indexes necessarily refresh more frequently (think of the Economist’s Big Mac index), others would do so much more slowly (think of the Lien Foundation’s ranking of preschool education globally; or Siemens’ Green City Index).

Is it right for your brand?

But while an index can be a powerful thought leadership technique, it is not a cure-all solution. Before considering an index you need to ask a few key questions for starters:

  • Is there a suitable market niche that we can capture, which hasn’t been extensively covered already? The less well covered a topic is, the more likely it can be to attract outside attention.
  • Are the necessary datasets readily available, and how frequently are they published? And, importantly, is the data comparable on a like-for-like basis?
  • Will the results have an inherently good fit with our overall messaging, regardless of who performs well or badly?
  • Perhaps most importantly of all, is it interesting?

This post was co-authored by Federica Sestili, intern at FT Longitude Research

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About the author: James Watson

James oversees project delivery and all the processes involved. In this role, he helps manage and coordinate the research, editorial and project management teams in order to deliver high quality thought leadership campaigns.

As an editor, he has over 15 years of experience in both business journalism and research. Some of his specialist areas of coverage include IT and technology, urban issues, energy and sustainability. Prior to co-founding FT Longitude, James spent five years at the Economist Group in the UK. Earlier, he worked in both South Africa and Singapore, reporting on the dot com boom (and bust). He is now based in Zurich, Switzerland.

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