Samwise Gamgee. Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley. Bat-girl. Most heroes have a trusty sidekick. It’s a well-understood trope of fiction: the dashing, if occasionally volatile, hero/ine needs a steady counterpart. The one who can be relied upon. They might not take center stage, but without them, the whole house of cards would come crashing down.
That’s how I think of campaigns vs. always-on. Naturally as marketers, we tend to think in campaign cycles. When it comes to new business pitches, our big focus will be the exciting campaign idea. At the end of our careers, it will be the big campaigns that we remember. But that mustn’t lead us to downplay the importance of always-on.
Always-on is our protection against what I call the triple threat of memory decay, competitor noise and competing priorities. Let me break that down a bit…
It’s the nature of memory to decay from the moment something is no longer in front of us – that’s just how the brain works. The speed of that decay will vary based on the impact the exposure had, the length of time that’s passed since and the other things competing for attention – but in all instances, it’s something we marketers are up against.
If we accept the general premise that people have a certain capacity of mental availability for different aspects of their working life, we accept that we have to share our space with our direct and indirect competitors. And that means any activity from our competitors could hasten the memory decay for us.
Related to the above, are simply the other priorities that will pull the focus from our product or service – especially if we straddle the line between ‘business-critical’ and ‘nice-to-have’, or where we’re trying to displace an existing supplier.
This ‘triple threat’ is especially damaging in our specialist sectors. We’re not in the business of FMCG: the majority of our clients’ prospects are actively in-market relatively infrequently. And because we know that – even for high mental involvement purchases like our clients’ products and services – top-of-mind awareness plays a high part in final purchase outcomes, we must prioritize springing to mind at the right moment.
Campaigns alone cannot deliver this. Sure – done successfully they’ll deliver the peaks of attention that should hold some degree of retention. But this is where we need ‘always-on’ to fill in the gaps – because we don’t know when they’ll suddenly shift into an active buyer state.
As Maria-Angela Sanzone, Head of Paid Social at JPMorgan Chase, said recently at Advertising Week New York: “It comes down to repetition and eliminating dark periods so that you always have a presence. It’s the right place with the right message at their right time, not a right time.”
If you’d like support balancing your campaigns and always-on activity, contact our team.
People who work in marketing and communications tend to be ‘ideas people’. The appeal of the new shiny thing is considerable. But as an industry, this can sometimes cross the boundary from help to hindrance.
Over the last year or so there’s been a growing chorus of voices, suggesting – based on empirical analysis – that the concept of ‘wear-out’ might be having undue influence on campaign planning. ‘Wear-out’ is simply the idea that advertising campaigns lose effectiveness over time, as consumers become bored by them and look for something new.
But we must remember the first rule of marketing: think as your intended audience, not as yourself.
If we put ourselves in the shoes of our clients and prospects, we’ll see two things. First, that we are rather more obsessed with the shiny new thing than they are, particularly in the industries we focus on here at Aspectus, where trust is fundamental as the stakes are typically high. Second – and perhaps more fundamentally, we’ll realize that we are much more likely to feel bored by long-running campaigns that we have been living and breathing for some time, compared to the intended audience who will engage with them only periodically, and with a lower intensity than we do.
This analysis (particular h/t to Kantar, System1 and Analytic Partners, and recent commentary from Mark Ritson in Marketing Week) has been focused on the advertising industry – where some of the best effectiveness analysis takes place because that’s where the money is. But it’s worth thinking about how that could be applied more broadly across the marketing mix.
Of course, when it comes to media relations, there is a requirement for activity to move with the news agenda. But while the specifics of a piece of content might change, it’s critical that there is consistency of message and theme over a longer period – otherwise you’ll never really get to be known for anything. Too often we see clients jump from one topic to another, or even one segment or broader strategy to another, without giving the campaigns a chance to take root.
We must retain that audience lens – our clients and prospects are typically juggling a lot of competing priorities, they may not actively be in market for our services right now, and therefore we can only grasp a relatively small slice of their attention, and there is more noise coming at them than ever before. That pushes us to stick with themes for longer, but make them work and stretch harder, across multiple channels in creatively varying ways to catch attention.
The added bonus to that, of course, is that you get more value from a single idea or flagship piece of content. And given the effort that goes into getting these things right, it’s critical to extract maximum value from them. So, invest more in marketing the idea, rather than constantly having a new one.
If you’d like to talk about how to get messages to take root, or how to extract more value from your marketing content, then contact us.
Aberdeen, UK, 26th September 2023: Aspectus, the global brand, marketing and communications agency, reported rapid growth in the last 12 months, achieving global revenues of £12m – a 25% increase on the previous year – driven by a combination of increasing client demand, the introduction of new services and the agency’s formal expansion in Asia.
Scotland has been an area of bumper growth. Earlier this year, the agency doubled its capacity by relocating to larger office in the heart of Aberdeen city and expanded its footprint with hires in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Aspectus now employs 12 people throughout Scotland, serving clients across the energy and industrials, financial services and tech sectors.
In the last 12 months Aspectus, which recently rebranded, appointed a new Head of Southeast Asia to lead its expansion in the region. The company also launched its formal ESG offering to help guide companies’ communications on environmental, social and governance issues as the operating environment for global business evolves.
Laura Iley, who opened the agency’s Aberdeen office in 2016 and is now Chief Commercial Officer at Aspectus, comments: “Having established our presence in Aberdeen seven years ago, Scotland continues to play a vital role in the agency’s success, where we see huge opportunity across all our core sectors.
“Aberdeen has always been a gateway to international markets. Excitingly, our recent expansion in Asia means we now have a foothold in three continents – offering Scottish clients a truly global service, grounded in local knowledge.”
Megain Buchan, Head of Energy and Industrials, says: “In addition to our financial services, capital markets and technology specialists, we have a dedicated team of energy experts here in Scotland, with ambitions to grow alongside the businesses transforming the sector. The atmosphere and attendance at Offshore Europe this month was a superb showcase for the range and diversity of opportunities in our evolving energy sector – and the role Scottish businesses have to play in it. We’re excited about the future and passionate about helping brands tell their energy transition stories in a way that drives real business outcomes.
“The talent pool is crucial too – it was one of the drivers for establishing our Scottish presence in the first place. We pride ourselves on our deep sector expertise, and having access to local talent with hand-on industry experience has been a key driver of our growth.”
Aspectus currently employs 100 people globally and has offices in Aberdeen, London, New York, Singapore, and Lucerne.
There are nuances to nailing a B2B website brief. Here’s our guide to getting it right.
In the dynamic landscape of B2B interactions, a well-structured website is a powerful asset. However, achieving this requires careful planning, user-centric design, and robust development practices (as well as a fair bit of empathy between clients and partners). Here’s our guide to helping you navigate these crucial aspects when creating a B2B website brief.
Planning and Research: Building a Solid Foundation
Understand Your Audience’s Pain Points
While seemingly an obvious point, the nuances of this in the B2B world are not. Gartner reported 77% of B2B customers describe making a purchase as “very complex or difficult” often having to work with 6-10 people to come to a decision. We need to ensure we speak to each one of these stakeholders through your website so they can find it and then understand the value you bring in all its potential complexity.
“Websites are emotional beasts and even the most beautiful might not necessarily perform. To make the process as effective as possible, you need to work with a team that not only understands how to design and develop a website but also understands your industry inside-out so every page has a purpose.”
Lucinda Armitage-Price Head of Digital & Integrated Communications
Clarify Your Unique Value Proposition
Everyone knows it but this is about challenging it and getting it set in concrete. There should be no guesswork and no assumptions. As your website is often the first port of call between a user and your brand, it needs to convey a concise and compelling value proposition that clearly communicates why potential clients should choose your solutions.
A study by The CMO Council highlights that B2B buyers are 47% more likely to engage with a vendor who’s value proposition is easily interpreted. The more we can know about your brand, values, USP’s, messaging and tone of voice, the easier it will be for us to plot the key messages of your proposition across identified user journeys. If your brand identity and value proposition is not yet identified, a website project is the perfect time to address them.
Supporting these key messages should be carefully curated page copy that provides in-depth information about products, services, and solutions. This means enquiring about the copywriting capabilities of your agency and ensuring they have a track record for delivering website copy within your sector, it’s industry-specific jargon and technical details.
Understand how your website fits into the buying journey
B2B sales teams’ direct interactions with prospects are becoming much more succinct. Often now about providing very specific, technical information before closing. Instead, buyers expect digital platforms to provide the bulk of the information they require. In fact, Gartner ‘expects that by 2025, 80% of B2B sales interactions between suppliers and buyers will occur in digital channels’.
This means conventional website design methods tailored for B2C fall short in addressing the requirements of B2B customers. If your customers are businesses, you must treat them as such by implementing good B2B website design techniques, SEO foundations, and knowing how your site should be leveraged to support your wider marketing activity.
Make sure to list all the types of content you would like to include on your site. This is less about page content, and instead about the content we either want to use to bring users into the site, keep them there or download and take away. For example news posts, blogs, videos, tutorials, fact sheets and case studies etc. Give your agency an idea of what you know has worked well in the past or what you’d like to do more of. Even better, if in scope, ask them to include a launch promotion strategy so marketing and your website are aligned from the start.
UX Design: Navigating Complexity with Intuitive Experiences
Simplify Navigation and Structure
In B2B, where time is of the essence, seamless navigation is paramount. While B2B businesses may want to promote intricate products or services, your navigation needs to be intuitive and straightforward. Don’t be afraid to reference examples of site structures and menu designs, within your space or beyond, that you feel serve as helpful food for thought. Your agency should be doing this too, but it’s always helpful to get your thinking to inform initial discussions.
Highlight Credibility and Trust
Build trust through UX design. Incorporate client testimonials, case studies, and certifications. In B2B industries, Team and Board members are often the most viewed pages after Home and Solutions. Make sure to give an idea of how much visibility of your team you’d like to show on the website. For example, should this stay specifically to your management team or include wider expertise? Would you like each to include a full bio or link solely to their LinkedIn profiles?
“Exceptional UX design isn’t just a luxury for B2B websites; it’s the bridge that transforms complex solutions into intuitive experiences, fostering connections that elevate businesses.”
Edward Wilkins Head of Design & UX
Optimize for Mobile Responsiveness
The importance of mobile-friendly design is by no means a new thing. However, we’re always surprised to still see businesses that have yet to get it right. Put simply, mobile optimization is no longer optional. With Statista reporting that mobile devices account for over half of global web traffic, your B2B website must be responsive across various devices. Stress the importance of responsive design, ask how it’s approached and enquire about your agency’s accessibility, browser and device testing methods.
Development and Technical Considerations: Building for Performance
Prioritize Speed and Performance
Page speed is paramount. A Google study found that as page load time increases from 1 to 10 seconds, the probability of a mobile site visitor bouncing increases by 123%. Unlike B2C websites that tend to have a wider target market, the impact of technical issues like page speed are far more problematic if they impede the limited and hugely valuable interactions of your select audience. Your website brief should include a strong emphasis on optimized code, efficient hosting, and overall performance.
Integrate CRM and Marketing Automation
B2B relationships often require effective nurturing. By integrating CRM and marketing automation systems, your website can seamlessly capture leads and facilitate personalized follow-ups.
“Sound development practices lay the foundation for B2B websites, shaping not just user experience, but the credibility and trust that drive lasting business relationships.”
Marko Batarilo Senior Development Lead
Secure Data Handling and Privacy
Data security is a critical concern in B2B transactions. The Cisco 2021 Security Outcomes Study reveals that 85% of security professionals believe improving security can lead to competitive advantage. Your website brief should address the necessity of strong data encryption, GDPR compliance, and secure user authentication.
Search engine optimization
All elements that have been discussed are imperative for search engines to recognize your website as a trusted source and therefore ranking it as high as possible. The design needs to have a clear flow with content that really speaks to its audience and areas such as site speed and responsiveness will feed those algorithms the good stuff and with an ongoing program, you can expect your website to continue to perform.
Rod Stewart famously sang, “It’s late September and I really should be back at school.” The boys (and girls) of summer are indeed gone. If you were lucky enough to have holiday time off in August, you are probably already steeped in an unrelenting race to meet Q3 objectives and end of the year objectives. After a few years of robust revenue and productivity growth, the professional services industries now expect growth to level off considerably under suffocating macroeconomic trends. Both the US and UK economies remain plagued by high interest rates and inflation, and flat growth. Experts project the UK will finish with only 0.4% GDP growth in 2023, while the US will come in around 2%. Further, analysts downgraded their 2024-2025 expectations, noting the interest rates will not drop to pre-pandemic levels anytime soon.
Legal, accounting, consulting, and other professional services leaders now return from summer holidays poised to tackle growth-hampering headwinds like shrinking margins, increased competition, talent shortages, and regulatory changes. We talked to some of the professional services sector experts here at Aspectus to glean some insights into how professional services firms can ensure they stand out in the second half of 2023 and how they should ramp up communications approaches for the rest of the year.
Appraise the competition’s media communications footprint
Communications, marketing, and PR leaders spend so much time focused inward, advancing their firms’ media and messaging strategies, that it is easy to lose a handle on what competitor firms are saying in the mediascape. It’s a challenge to break through the noise in the crowded professional services industry, and with firms being impacted by macroeconomic conditions, everyone needs to work that much harder to increase or maintain market share. Just as in other business functions like product development and client service, professional services firms should assess how competitors are talking to their stakeholders and positioning themselves in the media. And when we say assess what they are doing, we don’t just mean taking a quick scan of their website, recent media hits, or asking industry peers their opinions of the competition. We mean really checking under the bonnet.
PR and marketing managers should dig into which communications channels they are using, how frequently they are using them, what topics and themes are they talking about – and then assess which messaging tactics you should mirror, and where there could be whitespace on which to capitalize. Firms should choose a couple of top competitors and generate a landscape analysis, an assessment of competitors’ media exposure in comparison to their own. They can execute a comparative analysis of website, keywords, and SEO performance. If you can figure out what thought leadership conversations firms are having in the media, you can get a grip on how they are positioning themselves in the market. Effectively, it’s a media SWOT analysis (who said they were only for a firm’s overall business position?), and they are a great way to evaluate your position in the market and make necessary communications strategy adjustments to improve or refine your positioning for Q4.
Reassess and refine your brand messaging
Now that you know where your firm stands against the competition in the media, you can make some tactical changes to retool your approach or upgrade your marketing or PR game, wherever it needs to be. PR, marketing, and communications executives will often revisit their brand’s messaging when a firm goes through a big change like a merger/acquisition, a change in value proposition, a rebranding, or brand refresh. However, they should also periodically revisit their brand messaging platform in accordance with changing market conditions or, as noted above, competitor positioning.
A messaging house is a master comms bible document of sorts in which a company formalizes how it communicates with its target audiences and all stakeholders. This document should be a North Star that any public facing department uses to communicate to stakeholders, from prospects and talent to investors and shareholders. All too often reviewing your firm’s messaging is a task that slips to the bottom of the list. But the last couple of years have seen constant disruptions, whether it’s been the pandemic, rapid digitization, or increased ESG expectations, we have seen a massive shift in what clients value and what they want from their advisers. Communications and marketing leaders should devote time to a refined messaging house document to ensure that their messaging platform is continually consistent, aligned with overall PR objectives, and stands up to scrutiny.
Creativity sparks engagement from key audiences
Whilst trust and relationships are of paramount importance to professional services firms, that doesn’t mean there is no room for creativity in marketing and communications. Especially for marketers who feel stuck in a rut in which their digital communications have grown stale and repetitive, a concentrated effort on considered creativity can help stimulate more compelling content. Our own creative director Daniel George coined the term to crystallize how we strive to deliver elevated campaigns and content by combining our right- and left-brain talents.
Considered creativity means we use our bright creative minds not merely to be creative for creativity’s sake, but combining raw creativity with intelligent insights about both the client’s PR and business objectives and the sector’s most relevant, trending issues. The best way to stand out, grab attention, and demand action from prospects is to ignite a spark in their mind that hasn’t been lit before through bold, attention-grabbing content – whether a social post, an op-ed byline, white paper, press release, video, or other. You want to be talked about for all the right reasons, and getting creative is the best way to control the narrative, start conversations, and engage the right target audiences.
Inspire the right target audiences
As an industry that relies on human capital and expertise, its firms put a premium on optimizing how they talk to their key audiences, how they position themselves in the market, and how they communicate their brands to all stakeholders. A 2023 Mavenlink research report revealed that increased competition was the number one challenge for businesses in the professional services sector, followed by managing changing client expectations at number two. Firms can separate themselves from the competition in Q4 by refreshing their strategic marketing and communications strategies to align with tightening economic conditions, changing consumer expectations, and a noisy mediascape. According to Thomson Reuters Institute’s 2023 State of the U.K. Legal Market report, “Firms need to re-consider how they present and deliver value to their clients. The key lies in understanding and meeting client needs…” Clear communication of a firm’s value proposition requires that all internal and external communications are consistent, compelling, and convincing – it’s the only way to drive change and make a sustained impact.
If any of this has got you interested in what you can elevate your marketing strategy this year, get in touch with our team of global experts.
September 1844, a Bavarian man and his two brothers arrived in New York full of hope and aspirations for a new life in the land of opportunity. September 2008, 164 years later, their legacy – Lehman Brothers – would collapse into bankruptcy, triggering the biggest financial crisis the world had ever seen.
The collapse was largely due to the firm’s involvement in trading complex derivatives, such as mortgage-backed securities, and the subsequent exposure to the subprime mortgage market. When the market turned sour, the value of these securities plummeted. The credit default swaps (CDS) contracts linked to these securities then amplified the losses, leading to the firm’s collapse.
The crisis highlighted the importance of clear and transparent communication as a crucial tool for maintaining financial stability and managing market expectations. One and a half decades later, there have been notable improvements in the way central banks and regulators communicate risks surrounding derivative instruments. Take the issue of forward guidance as a prime case in point. Central banks, including the Bank of England and the Fed, have increasingly used forward guidance as a key communications tool. This involves providing guidance to financial markets and the public around the likely future path of monetary policy – helping to manage expectations and provide greater clarity on the central bank’s intentions.
Central banks have also become more transparent about their policy frameworks, objectives, and decision-making processes. They often publish detailed policy statements, meeting minutes, and economic forecasts to provide insights into their thinking. In fact, the vast majority of major central banks now hold regular press conferences following policy meetings to explain their decisions and answer questions from journalists. This practice allows for real-time communication with the public and the media.
Then there is the social media factor, which has grown in importance considerably since 2008. Central banks and regulators have largely embraced social media platforms as a medium through which to disseminate information and engage with the public. Platforms like X are now used to communicate policy decisions and provide updates on economic conditions. Meanwhile, sites such as LinkedIn play a vital role in sharing information to address global financial stability concerns that emerge in international forums.
These advancements in communication are intended to enhance transparency, build credibility, and manage expectations in financial markets and the broader economy. Clear, timely and effective communication helps reduce uncertainty, foster trust, and allow central banks and regulators to better achieve their policy objectives.
The US regional banking crisis earlier this year (which had a slight whiff of Lehman about it) should reinforce why central banks and watchdogs must maintain their commitment to public communication. And today’s anniversary is a timely reminder. The importance of providing clear guidance on policies, actions, and intentions concerning derivatives cannot be understated.
One of the fascinating things about being in marketing in the last decade or so has been the evolution of digital marketing and how that’s affected measurement and reporting. For the first time, we have been able to link campaigns, content and coverage to shifts in the quantity and quality of web traffic. That data not only shows us what has and what hasn’t worked but is also a directional steer for future campaigns.
The seductive nature of short-term metrics
Take media relations, which has traditionally been considered hard to measure. Efforts like AMEC’s Barcelona Principles have made good headway, but when you get into the details, it’s still an area of much debate. Against that backdrop, the transparency of digital marketing reporting has been seductive. There’s been a drive to measure more and more marketing activity in this way – assessing short-term ROI based on clicks and conversions. A recent study from the LinkedIn B2B Institute found that of 4,000 B2B marketers, just four per cent were measuring the effect of campaigns beyond six months.
It’s tempting. And there’s no denying that it’s useful to see when a piece of coverage has prompted a rise in traffic or branded search, and how that traffic has performed. We can see that the coverage is being seen by the right people and prompting immediate engagement.
But this is where we need to be careful not to overreach. What we’re doing here is using short-term, lead generation metrics to assess a tactic from the long-term brand-building stable. This is valuable information, but it’s only part of the picture. It’s like judging a marathon by how fast the runners cover the first 100 meters.
The Long and the Short of it
If you’re familiar with Binet and Field’s work The Long and the Short of it, skip on down a couple of paragraphs. If not, let me explain what I mean. It’s useful to think of marketing as having two broad elements: long-term brand-building, and short-term ‘performance marketing’ or sales activation. Success comes from the right combination of the two, which both feed and feed off each other.
The ‘long’ is about brand-building: strengthening your brand awareness and perceptions over time to increase brand salience – the likelihood of your brand being top of mind at the point of purchase. When it comes to big B2B purchases – an area in which we specialize, the chances are that only around five to ten per cent of your audience is actively looking to buy at any given time. So, a big part of the game is ensuring that your brand is first to mind when your prospect moves into the buying cycle. Because even for high-mental-involvement purchases, supported by buying committees and procurement teams, lots of research indicates that being one of the top brands to spring to mind initially has a high correlation with eventual purchase.
Another central value of brand-building is the price premium you can command. Price is generally considered to be one of the biggest levers of profit growth, and one of the biggest contributors to price insensitivity is brand strength. So, it’s about future sales and the margin you can make on those future sales – which is of course a major part of how stock valuation is built. (For more on how to win internal conversations on the value of brand investment, see here.)
Of course, all of that takes time, and must be complemented by the ‘short’: lead generation – the type that’s naturally more measurable because the path to purchase is more direct.
Long-term metrics for long-term tactics
So, to pick up the thread: when we assess long-term tactics like brand-building – which is generally the primary aim of B2B media relations – by short-term metrics, we risk missing part of the picture. The truly meaningful measures of long-term brand-building efforts, such as media relations, are growth in brand awareness or salience, and brand perceptions versus direct and indirect competitors and how these change over time.
Choosing the right reporting for you
Where does that leave reporting? The first thing to say is that almost all reporting is valuable as long as you’re using it in the right way. A monthly list of coverage with details on the publication’s reach and overall view on KPI progress is a really helpful way to assess whether your media relations team is delivering what you agreed. Plenty of our clients opt for this route and it works well for them.
If – as a growing number of our clients choose – you can get an integrated report that considers the full range of marketing tactics in the round and links aspects like coverage to web traffic, that is even better – as long as you recognize that this is only part of the value of the media relations program.
Best of all, of course, is proper independent audience research, completed annually. That will show you the real impact of your activities and shape your future strategy. Of course, that costs money. Money well spent, I’d argue, since it allows you to optimize your broader marketing investment, but it’s not feasible for all. We’re a pragmatic bunch and are always exploring options to fit all budgets – whether that’s using Share of Search or smaller focus groups.
Whatever route you choose, the key is to be intentional in the way you use it to ensure you’re not missing part of the picture.
Staying ahead of the competition requires making informed decisions based on accurate and insightful data. With the official launch of Google Analytics 4 (GA4) on July 1, businesses now have an even stronger tool to do just that. And though, as with all updates like this, it has its own level of controversy, but it’s not going anywhere so here’s our guide to making sure it works as effectively as possible.
You are invited to GA4 Events
Events in GA4 offer a significant improvement over Universal Analytics in terms of reporting capabilities. Unlike Universal Analytics, which primarily focuses on page views, GA4 events allow you to track specific user interactions across your website or app. This expanded event tracking provides a far more granular understanding of user behaviour. This means you know how users engage with digital assets, so you know what you should be investing and developing more of with your sales team.
Measurement with custom reports
While Universal Analytics offers custom reports, GA4 takes this to a new level. It enables you to create tailored views of your data, aligning them precisely with your business objectives. Unlike Universal Analytics, which limits customisation to predefined dimensions and metrics, GA4 allows you to define custom dimensions and metrics based on your unique requirements. This flexibility means you can create comprehensive reports that uncover insights specific to your business, providing a more holistic view of your marketing and communications programmes that you can then clearly communicate with all levels of the business.
Getting these two elements right means you can see how users are behaving on the site, how they are engaging with content and then align this with your business goals and objectives. But you need to understand how to set this up correctly, otherwise: garbage in – garbage out.
Our team can support in set-up, training and ongoing measurement. Get in touch to see how you can make data-driven decisions with confidence and precision, gaining a competitive edge in your industry.
Thames Water has been on the front pages for all the wrong reasons, discharging millions of litres of undiluted sewage into two rivers and earning itself a £3.3m fine – only the latest in a litany of such headlines.
It has also been on the business pages, ostensibly for all the right reasons: it has issued around $2.8 billion of green bonds across four issues since the start of 2022.
It doesn’t take an expert to notice a discrepancy here. And in fact, the some 200 ESG funds that eagerly snapped up the green bonds seem to be suffering some buyers’ remorse, with prices plummeting.
This will be music to the ears of the anti-ESG crowd, who will pounce on any opportunity to decry the whole concept as a woke folly, motivated for all the wrong reasons, and irretrievably flawed.
And you know what – far be it from me to argue with investment experts on what constitutes a good investment. If your focus is on making money and these bonds lose it, then who can argue that poor decisions haven’t been made?
However, it strikes me – as an admittedly lowly comms professional – that if we zoom out a little, this is arguably a prime example of ESG as a concept doing exactly what it’s meant to.
ESG at root is a movement about information and data, not values – at least, not a prescriptive set of values. ESG gives the data to make decisions based on principle, but is in itself principle agnostic.
To wit, ‘ESG’ is not about some vague yet specific set of ‘woke’ principles applied to an investment strategy. It may be the case that there is broad consensus that climate change is bad and civil rights are good, but fundamentally ESG does not require that you agree. If you think the opposite – e.g. that climate change is a hoax and the oil companies that stay the course will rake it in – then you can use the same data, information and analysis to inform your strategy.
ESG is about providing a broader set of information for investors to factor into their decisions. It is about free markets and free choice. Want to apply some specific criteria to your portfolio? Go for it. Don’t care? Equally, no problem – but with increasing ESG data disclosure – such as that mandated by the EU’s SFDR – you can make an informed choice.
So, back to Thames Water. What are we to make of these green bonds turning brown? Is it a searing indictment of the very notion of ESG? No, this is exactly what we want to see – companies putting out ESG related data and instruments and being punished by the market when they turn out to be effluent. Accountability. Proof that greenwashing can’t get all the stains out.
It is a childish idea that every ESG/sustainable/green investment would turn out to be squeaky clean, and I don’t think anyone ever really believed it. It is therefore a strawman to use incidents like this as evidence that the whole concept is bunk. What we have is a movement to provide access to a broader, deeper set of data to inform investment decisions from a new angle, and people changing their decisions when new information comes to light.
ESG has come in for a kicking in the media recently, with the op-ed pendulum seeming to swing behind the naysayers for now. However, there is real value in firms improving their ESG performance and communicating about doing so. It would be a shame if anti-ESG clamour around events like this scared communicators into leaving this value on the table – though care should always be taken.
No doubt ESG will continue to evolve. Maybe the name will even change. But the genie is not going back in the bottle – people accustomed to a greater degree of data and transparency will not happily revert to a less-informed view. That deserves pointing out and defending.
All investments involve risks including possible loss of principal, or your green bonds turning brown. Past green performance does not guarantee future green performance. Discretion is advised.