“The term ESG is actually fairly meaningless,” said Kemi Akindele, director of corporate reputation and brand purpose at WE Communications. As a way of opening a seminar on how to run an ESG (environmental, social and governance) marketing campaign, it was certainly attention-grabbing.
Attendees at the PRWeek PR360 seminar ‘ESG Campaigns: authentically targeting new audiences’ had gathered to hear Akindele explain how to run an ESG marketing campaign. So it was surprising to hear her apparently line herself up with ESG’s critics within the first three minutes of her presentation.
In her next breath, however, Akindele explained that, for ESG-based marketing campaigns to work, companies must take the very vague concept of environmental, social and governance values and define ESG in a way that is consistent with their company’s purpose. Only by doing this can they achieve authenticity. And a campaign needs to be authentic in order to resonate with its intended audience.
The first audience you have to convince, explained Akindele, is your own employees: “The chances are that your employees are the most cynical. So it’s imperative that they recognise the truth in any ESG campaign or initiative. If they do, they will amplify those campaigns.”
Once you’re sure that your planned campaign is consistent with your brand purpose and passes the taste test with your own employees, the next step is packaging it for an external audience, from investors to consumers. WE Communications’ Brands in Motion research has found that 49% of consumers want companies to tell them constantly about their ESG efforts. A further 29% said they wanted to hear about ESG initiatives at least every three to six months.
To be effective, communication about a company’s ESG credentials must be ongoing, not limited to a single campaign. And an ESG communications strategy must have four key attributes if it is to be successful, Akindele said. The first, as already mentioned: don’t fake it. Your ESG activity must be authentic to your brand. If it isn’t, your communications won’t be convincing and customers will reject your message.
The second is something WE Communications calls ‘thinking inside out’. Your brand must live the ESG strategy that it’s trying to communicate. But it should also look at exactly how it and where it needs to execute that strategy. For instance, does your brand need to have a regional and a local element in order to work properly? Does your campaign focus too tightly on one audience, for instance customers, without considering what you need to tell other audiences — investors or regulators, for example — about your ESG efforts?
The next important thing, said Akindele, is to remember that ESG “lives and breathes”. It has to be a process of continuous improvement, because corporate reputation is a long game.
And, lastly, remember that you’re chiefly in competition with yourself. If you feel like you’re performing it, your customers will sense that and will punish you.
One mistake would be to run a short-term ESG campaign to counter a competitor’s messaging, said Akindele. This may provide an instant increase in brand recognition, but in the long term you risk looking cynical. Far better to try to build on what your competitor has done or cooperate with them. That’s something to believe in.
Done well, ESG-based campaigns and strategies enhance a company’s standing with consumers by driving real and material change in that company’s culture and operations. If your company really is the change it wants to see, it will be able to communicate this fact (without being accused of purpose-washing) in ways that deliver for its bottom line, employees, customers and the wider community.
Find out more about WE Communications’ Brands in Motion research here.