Has ESG changed the way that we do marketing?

May 2, 2023

At this year’s CIM Financial Services Marketing Leaders’ Summit, Alison Harbert, Marketing Director, Investec was joined by Nicky Owen, Head of Strategic Sustainability Marketing at Standard Chartered and Santosh Sethumadhavan, ex Global Head of B2B Marketing Programmes at HSBC for a discussion about how the rise of ESG and ESG marketing has changed marketers’ content and marketing strategies. Here are five key takes out based on the panellists’ broad-ranging experience of sustainability marketing,

  1. Sustainability comes from the top-down

    Sustainability is more than just a campaign and can no longer sit within the remit of the marketing department. In the early stages, when Santosh Sethumadhavan started leading the charge for sustainability marketing at HSBC, he was surprised that what started out as an ad campaign soon became a marketing strategy, and then very quickly developed into a business strategy that unexpectedly galvanised the entire company.

“It required the whole organisation to come together, right from the top down, everyone to be on the same page, everyone to say the same things, everyone to understand and see the goals the same way,” he said. He views success in terms of how they started the sustainability conversation across the organisation about what was right and what was good.

This led to buy-in on a global scale at HSBC – from marketing teams to heads of business to CEO-level. It stripped away some of the confusion around sustainability and highlighted why customers needed the programme, so that by the time the marketing campaign launched, everyone within the organisation was aligned.

  1. Define common goals on a global level 

    For many large financial institutions, one of the challenges is ensuring that the sustainability conversation is relevant, wherever a local business is based. What we might consider urgent in London, for example, is perhaps not urgent in Mexico. Sethumadhavan says there needs to be a weighing scale of how people want to be involved with the subject and how much money they want to put behind it.

In the western world, although there’s a risk involved, sustainability is an opportunity and is seen as the right thing to do. When the conversation comes up in the developing parts of the world, however, Sethumadhavan points out that because cultures are not yet in the same place, it’s often seen as the ‘western tax’ imposed on countries like India and China to curtail their activity.

“There needs to be an open conversation about what level everyone needs to be at right now. Is there a varying level? What’s the definition of corporate responsibility around this? What do businesses need to achieve in the next five to 10 years in order to make a real difference?” he says.

Owen echoes Sethumadhavan’s sentiments. “At Standard Chartered, many of our markets are in the developing parts of the world where climate change and social inequalities are front and centre, and are impacting them more.” She says having conversations with colleagues in many regions, from Kazakhstan to Tanzania Nepal to Vietnam, has made her question her own biases around how she views sustainability. “I am having my perspective challenged,” she says. In financial services particularly, where money flows around the world, Owen says it’s important to think about where people are being disproportionately impacted and what difference can be made there.

  1. Everyone is responsible 

    In her new role as Head of Strategic Sustainability Marketing for Standard Chartered, an organisation of 85,000 people, Owen points out that sustainability doesn’t sit in a track or silo. She says everybody has a responsibility, and in fact most people have an interest professionally or personally, which means conversations and collaborations are happening across all divisions of the business – from the front office and commercial side to the back office, legal and HR.

“I feel like I’m sitting in the beating heart of the bank, which is a really privileged position to be, not just because of how you can influence your colleagues, but also influencing various different stakeholders.” Her role takes her far beyond the typical marketing remit of client and customer; Owen has to take into account challenges from NGOs, regulators, ratings agencies and colleagues. She stresses how essential it is to listen to all the different perspectives, and then try to find common ground.

  1. Keep an open mind 

    Sethumadhavan agrees that keeping an open mind is important. He adds that you also need to be open to criticism. While HSBC has strong convictions about their position on carbon, it is countered by the reality of what’s happening in certain markets where ‘shutting the tap off’ on carbon isn’t straight forward.

According to Sethumadhavan, it would desolate certain communities because the companies there aren’t at a point where they can pivot 100 percent. Instead, he believes financial institutions like HSBC can help by supporting clients’ transition: “Answers will be found through conversation and over time. Yes, we need to act with urgency, but we still need to take in everyone’s views,” he says.

  1. Greenwashing: don’t mislead by omission 

    Both panellists agreed that it’s important to have organisations such as the ASA scrutinising companies to put a stop to greenwashing. Owen considers the HSBC ASA ruling a landmark moment that forced everyone to start to acknowledge that it’s not only what you’re saying that is important, but also what you’re not saying. Even if what you communicate is true and can be proven, if there isn’t a holistic picture across an organisation, it can still be perceived to be misleading by omission.

For Owen, that means ensuring everything is joined up – understanding that you can’t do something in one country that seems counter to what’s acceptable in another. It requires keeping a global view whilst at the same time having very different global standards and ensuring no one undermines the brand. Given how challenging it can be to get the points across in an advertising headline, she suggests content marketing can be a better way for organisations to communicate a fuller sustainability story.

Sethumadhavan’s final piece of advice to ensure your brand stands up to scrutiny is to get brutally fresh eyes on any initiative to surface the sort of questions the Ad watchdogs may ask. In his case, employees from HSBC’s graduate programme and the younger members of the team interrogated management about the details of certain initiatives. “They were so open-eyed and so naive; they didn’t have any fear. In a room full of 40 people, they would say what was on their mind – it’s good to have honest folks in the room to call you on your BS.”