3 ways to make ESG content engaging

3 ways to make ESG content engaging

At first sight, the marketing task looks clear: more Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) content − and fast. After all, more than 80 CEOs were ousted by activist shareholder campaigns in 2020, in many cases driven by investors impatient at the pace of progress on sustainability and the battle against climate change. 

At the same time, the world’s biggest asset manager, BlackRock, is pushing companies to disclose how they plan to reach net zero by 2050. Appetites for sustainable assets are also surging, and companies that miss out may struggle.

Yet on closer inspection, new problems are emerging. As marcoms leaders have scheduled a dozen ESG video conferences, the firehose of content has also grown. So as COP26 approaches, the urgent need is for B2B content on ESG topics that truly stands out.

To help find answers, we reached out to Eugenia Koh, Head of Sustainable Investing at Standard Chartered Bank. She has spent much of her career working across sustainable and impact investing, and was keen to give us her top three ways companies can make their ESG communications engaging for investors.

Get specific and give numbers

“A lot of companies are now making ‘motherhood and apple pie’ sustainability statements,” says Koh, and risk falling into the trap of ‘greenwashing’, while much of the ESG thought leadership Koh sees “all sounds the same”.

Investors want companies to get specific, with measurement a big priority. They are far more likely to engage with ESG content if it includes data that can inform decisions.

“There’s a huge piece around materiality right now − the link between sustainability and performance,” says Koh. “Investors are also focused on additionality can a company demonstrate that if they hadn’t done it, then it wouldn’t have happened? So it’s very important for companies to have a clear and simple story about how they are managing some of their core metrics.”

One technique companies are increasingly using to achieve this is to demonstrate their alignment with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

At Formative Content we work with Microsoft, which regularly evidences its stated commitment to SDG values through its social media channels. The company was also recently named as a Principal Partner for COP26. The UK government noted that its selection was due, in part, to its “ambitious commitment and detailed plan” on climate goals and for “advocating for policies that benefit the environment”. 

The benefits of detail and clarity are also seen in Google search data, which shows a faster growth in specific search terms such as “zero waste” compared to “sustainability”. Plain speaking is also prized. Formative Content’s Social & Insights team has observed that keywords such as “green finance” can outperform “sustainable finance” in Google searches; to get investors’ attention for ESG content, they must first be able to find it. 

“The more detail companies can provide in a simple, clear way to say how they are really progressing on sustainability, the more they will engage their investor audience,” says Koh.

Yet if evidence is provided, Koh warns it must always be robust. “If you’re doing market research about this, is there a strong enough sample size? Do the holdings of your ESG fund stand up to scrutiny?”

This is critical at a time when hollow climate pledges are under the microscope and regulators are tightening-up on greenwashing

Speak to the heart and the head

One key way marketers can cut through the noise is with compelling, human stories that are also grounded in journalistic rigour.

“When it comes to sustainable investing, I think the best content brings the heart and the head together,” says Koh. 

For example, see Standard Chartered’s profile of Roger, an engineer-turned-banker working to improve standards in ship recycling. With colour, humour and behind-the-scenes insights, the video and article bring to life the story of the bank’s linking of finance to improved health and safety. 

However, “it’s not only about a heart-warming story”, adds Koh. 

“From an investor perspective, it’s also about the business opportunity, the potential for the market in certain kinds of areas,” she says. 

“Companies looking to attract investor interest should combine that business opportunity with the more heart-tugging narratives around the needs of these emerging markets. They should link this to a very tangible story of how their business is enabling this impact in communities.” 

It’s no accident that Standard Chartered’s human piece also reminds readers of the size of the ship recycling market − one employing around a million workers directly or indirectly in Bangladesh alone.

Elsewhere, at Formative Content we enjoyed this short but informative LinkedIn video showing Shell’s first electric-vehicle-only charging station, which has been watched more than a quarter of a million times – this may be related to the way it is told by Will, who designed it.

Deliver clarity amid confusion

In some ways sustainability content is handicapped by terminology − there is little in the way of a common ESG language.

Despite millions of pages of reports, and billions invested, there remains no commonly agreed definition of ESG. Environmental, social and governance reporting is still not typically mandatory in financial reporting, and even developed economies are on different trajectories. From ESG to SRI, “values-based” to “conscious investing”, marketers can easily slip into and heighten this language barrier through a deluge of unexplained and assumed acronyms. 

“I think we underestimate how complex it is − even for bankers,” admits Koh. “A lot of them have not grown up with this language. So for them to actually understand, they need it translated, so they can bring it up to their clients.” 

Shaping sustainability communications

This last point suggests that standout ESG content should actually do more than engage investors on social media or via search − it also needs to educate. In an arena where many professionals are still feeling their way, an accessible, infographic-based ESG guide, like Standard Chartered’s, could be a powerful asset.

Marcoms leaders have a bigger role still, to build trust in their brands, and to galvanise support at a time of huge change.

“There’s such a big potential that capital markets can play in helping unlock some of the gaps in financing sustainable development,” enthuses Koh. “It’s also exciting that the space is still relatively uncharted, so you have a potential to really shape the discourse.”

Companies that communicate their commitment to sustainability can also reap rewards, increasingly outperforming those with weaker ESG ratings. In the post-pandemic world, eye-catching ESG content will be a vital tool.

Download our free ebook On purpose: telling sustainability stories with impact here.


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About the author: Harry Kretchmer is a Senior Writer at Formative Content specialising in sustainability matters and other pressing topics. Harry has previously spent time at the BBC and ITV before joining Formative. Connect with him on LinkedIn here.

Harry Kretchmer - Senior Writer
Author:Harry Kretchmer - Senior Writer