Brave New World
If you work in business in 2021, you’ve probably run into the term “ESG marketing” in the context of environmental PR campaigns or energy communications, if not general PR. But what does ESG mean? And why should you care? Is it even relevant if your business isn’t centered on environmental technology or something similar?
Odds are, your business will benefit from putting energy into this area. In fact, ESG marketing is an element of your company’s brand that is becoming more important by the day.
Businesses in 2021 are being watched for more than their profitability. Whereas before they were able, or perhaps required, to think of nothing beyond cutthroat Darwinian advantage, beyond survival at any cost, those days appear to be coming to an end. There has been a shift toward transparency, and accountability for the effect that commercial interests exert on the wider world. In keeping with this, the SEC is now calling for corporations to provide more communications around their energy impact, including information about their climate impact and resiliency to climate-related risks.
The public, meanwhile, perceives the interconnectivity of social causes and its own consumer habits, whether those habits involve travel, professional services, material goods, entertainment media, or anything else. Calls abound to boycott companies over perceived social indelicacies that would never have made the news just a decade ago. Even that one cartoon skunk is making people mad.
And finally, investors and shareholders want to know that a company can adapt on the fly and manage its internal affairs against the backdrop of rapidly changing social norms and environmental concerns. All of this points to the need for you, a mover and shaker, to be familiar with ESG marketing and have a plan drawn up for it. Following ESG principles in everyday operation is half the battle; the other half is finding a tactful way to tell everyone you did.
What Does ESG Mean?
The E in ESG stands for environmental. Any kind of environmental PR campaign that highlights your business’s stewardship of the environment would fall into this category. So, for example, if you release renewable energy communications showing that your company chooses clean energy over traditional sources X percent of the time, reducing your carbon footprint by X amount per year, you’re working within this segment of ESG marketing. The willingness to pursue increased sustainability, even at higher cost, is what you’re trying to convey here.
S is for social. Consumers want to know that their money is going to companies whose social values are in alignment with their own. In 2021, this translates to a commitment to diversity and inclusion, a commitment to bettering the community that the company draws wealth from, and a commitment to safeguarding employee welfare, to name just a few considerations of the moment.
Much like environmental or renewable PR along the E axis of ESG marketing, social PR will most often emphasize how a company, of its own will, goes beyond conventional requirements for the common good. In this case, that usually means promoting diversity within the company’s workforce, suppliers, or customers, having policies in place to protect people from exploitation or abuse, and giving back to the disadvantaged within the company’s sphere of operation. Think “putting people first” when tackling this part of ESG marketing.
G means governance. It refers to the kind of PR that reassures the audience, usually investors, that your company is not criminal, incompetent, reckless, unstable, unadaptable, or otherwise undeserving of their support.
Governance PR can also incorporate the other legs of the ESG marketing tripod: if you launch a campaign of renewable PR, clean energy PR, social PR, or the like, a portion of it could be devoted to the governance that allows your company to uphold its social or environmental values. Describing the internal practices and strategies that keep your business on the straight and narrow in its treatment of people and the earth can give people confidence that you mean what you say.
Why ESG Investment Marketing Makes an Impact
Business people might find themselves under the misconception that ESG marketing will necessarily drain resources; that it is a fashionable sacrifice providing no value except freedom from the punishment for being unfashionable (see: cartoon skunk). This is not the case. ESG marketing, when done right, can create value in a number of ways. First of all, it can lead to top-line growth, as people who might not otherwise patronize your business come onboard in the name of ESG principles. This growth might offset or even exceed what you spend on your social or environmental PR campaign.
At the same time, you might see costs fall. For example, taking steps to reduce your company’s water use would bring your water bill down. Reducing the company’s waste output will lead to lower waste disposal costs. If you bring the company more into alignment with existing government environmental regulations, you might have to pay less in fines and fees. Doing away with small inefficiencies under the umbrella of ESG marketing helps you in two directions at once.
Not to mention, your shiny new environmental PR campaign could go viral, raising your company’s social standing and attracting the attention of talented jobseekers who would not otherwise apply. And so, the campaign you thought was costing you money has the potential to boost your company’s productivity and improve its solution-finding capability for years to come.
Steer Clear of Greenwashing in Your ESG Marketing Strategy
By now you may be thinking you’d like to get started with an ESG marketing plan or tweak the one you have already. But before you run out and get started, we should issue a caveat: don’t exaggerate in your company’s environmental PR campaigns or social communications. In social contexts this might still just be called lying; in environmental or energy communications it has become common enough to warrant a term of its own: “greenwashing.” This is the word used for environmental PR campaigns that mislead investors or consumers as to a company’s concern about environmental issues.
If you say your product is recyclable, but you know that in practice it is never going to get near a recycling center, that’s greenwashing. If you boast at length about your company’s zero-carbon investment when it makes up .002% of your total spending, that’s greenwashing.
It’s never a good look to get caught deceiving people. The blowback from greenwashing can land you in worse shape than you would have been if you’d said and done nothing. Any sort of renewable PR, clean energy PR, etc., should be straightforward, transparent, and not omit negative details or misrepresent the scope of your company’s environmental efforts. Take your time to craft PR that showcases – fairly – the ways you strive for ESG excellence, and you’ll be in good shape.
Best Practices for Impactful ESG Marketing: 3 Key Behaviors
With that warning out of the way, here are three practices to focus on to achieve maximum effectiveness with your ESG marketing:
1. Have a Good Attitude
ESG looks like it’s here for the long haul. Environmental PR campaigns, and ESG marketing in general, have seen a huge increase in investment in recent years, and the forces in the public mind that underlie that investment have not gone anywhere. Moreover, ESG does not have to be a chore that will drain your company’s resources. This is the perfect moment to capitalize on increased ESG awareness in your industry, embracing it as the opportunity it is rather than thinking of it as a hindrance.
2. Emphasize the Upside
Similarly, you’re going to want to employ ESG marketing to show how social and environmental initiatives can add value to a company in the world of 2021. With social and environmental PR campaigns, you can shine a light on all the ways that your business is brave, focused, resilient, ethical, and prepared to take on the challenges of the future. That spirit is infectious; your audience will respond to it. A key goal of your content marketing strategy should be to establish this kind of thought leadership for your business in places your ESG-conscious clientele tend to linger.
3. Humanize the Story
People tend to feel strongest about the things that remind them of their own lives. So, for example, if you’re a solar panel company whipping up some renewable PR, make sure to relate the big picture to the concrete, human-sized actions — recycling, biking to work, donating time or money, etc. — that people take every day in an effort to make their world more hospitable and more just. Showing your customers that your brand’s story is unfolding parallel to their own makes the two of you partners rather than entities of no concern to each other beyond a momentary transaction.