Until recently, the primary goal of marketing has been to generate more customer leads, create new revenue streams and ultimately drive a company’s profitability and growth. However, the rise of ESG is having a transformative effect on the marketing industry. A culmination of recent socio-economic trends – from the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement to the fanfare around the UN’s COP26 conference – has brought environmental, social and governance issues to the fore. Accordingly, marketers are increasingly being tasked with communicating brands’ ESG values and initiatives and strategically positioning companies against this changing backdrop.
In recent years, this has led to the creation of numerous impactful and insightful ESG-focussed marketing campaigns. For example, in 2019, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) launched a campaign to highlight the issue of plastic waste ending up in the ocean, using everyday household objects to demonstrate how much plastic people were involuntarily ingesting. Mobile network O2 highlighted its eco-friendly credentials by encouraging the general public to ‘Go Green’, spelling out these words in plant stems on a so-called ‘living billboard’ in London. Meanwhile, ITV hit series Love Island recently partnered with eBay to dress its television contestants in second-hand clothes and rolled out a campaign around sustainable and circular fashion.
In addition to devising ESG-themed advertising campaigns, many marketing agencies are becoming more ESG-minded as organisations. A recent report called ‘What’s Next for Content-Led Marketing’ published by the World Media Group found that 80% of advertisers are now committed to an ESG strategy and/or the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and 71% believe that brands who lead with credible and authentic storytelling related to ESG issues will have a competitive advantage. As a barometer of this, the number of marketing and creative digital agencies embarking on becoming ‘B Corp’ certified – a certification for companies that meet very high standards of social and environmental performance – is rapidly growing.
However, there is also a major downside to the increased focus on ESG: greenwashing. By helping brands promote their ESG goals and activities, some marketing and advertising agencies have inadvertently contributed to greenwashing and conveyed a false impression of how environmentally friendly an organisation truly is. Many companies are guilty of spending more money and time on marketing themselves as eco-friendly than actually reducing their environmental impact or helping the planet. A study by the Chartered Institute of Marketing has provided new insight into the dilemma that marketing companies face in this respect, reporting that 49% of UK marketers were wary of sustainability adverts amid the current backlash against greenwashing.
Sergey Karshkov, a marketing expert who founded advertising agency 9 Pandas, believes it is important for the marketing industry to focus on environmental, social and governance matters, in addition to the traditional aims of sales, customer leads and profits. However, Karshkov maintains that marketers must strike a balance between helping brands showcase their ESG values and commitments, and ensuring that in doing so they do not mislead consumers or mistakenly contribute to greenwashing.