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Why Strategic Storytelling Must Be a Part of Your ESG Strategy

6 Min Read
Brandon Thomas, VP and GM, New York at PAN Communications, headshot
Brandon Thomas
Vice President & General Manager, New York, & Head of DEI | New York, NY
  • Blog
  • Content Marketing

Why Strategic Storytelling Must Be a Part of Your ESG Strategy

Brandon Thomas, VP and GM, New York at PAN Communications, headshot
Brandon Thomas
Vice President & General Manager, New York, & Head of DEI | New York, NY

Short on time? Get key takeaways in the infographic version of this article.

I’m a firm believer that the stories you tell about your brand should always reflect the conversations happening within your organization. As the leader of our PAN id team, a group within our agency dedicated to championing diversity and social equity, I’ve been privileged to see the passion our team has for so many relevant issues. Now as Head of DEI, I think often about how our work levels up to larger ESG concepts and how we can meaningfully and authentically share the story of our progress 

Analysis of environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors as a method for demonstrating a company’s growth potential is not a new concept — business analysts and investors have been examining ESG from different angles for years. While the process of assessment continues to evolve, we are in a time where it is widely understood that a strong ESG position can create value and shape positive public perspective around a company’s story.  

The last several years have shown a heightened emphasis placed on ESG as companies closely assess not only the fiscal benefits it can deliver but also the value it can support for the overall brand narrative. It’s a notion that continues to gain momentum as society evaluates and re-evaluates the role of business in leading on issues around sustainability and social equity. 

PAN Strategic Consulting Group is here.

When examining the history of ESG, environmental concerns have traditionally been the area that has garnered the most attention and conversation, due in no small part to their global implications. Recently though, social and governance factors have seen new respect, especially as the United States navigates its public reckoning with racial and social injustices.  

One of the strengths of ESG as a brand story is that that it’s clear in its essence: simply, businesses can and should be better. When you peel back the layers, ESG is multi-faceted. It can include initiatives that fall under a wide range of categories including climate change, carbon emissions, clean energy, diversity, equity and inclusion, gender pay gaps, employee and worker rights and company social policies.  

For companies, thinking critically about how to align your business narrative to a larger ESG strategy is fundamental to progress and success. Recent data from PricewaterhouseCoopers found that about 83% of consumers think companies should be actively shaping ESG practices. Long gone are the days when ESG efforts were “nice to have,” let alone a unique differentiator. Brands must do this work or risk falling into a significant disadvantage in the long term. And as they focus on the work, they must also learn how to tell their story.  

Companies and brands are each uniquely different — how one shares its ESG narrative will and should look different from how another chooses to tell its story. Yes, there may be some overlap in strategic vision, but the approach to ESG storytelling should be rooted in the brand’s authentic identity. Consider: 

  • What does the brand stand for? 
  • Which parts of ESG are inherently relevant to the brand? Which parts require proactive work? 
  • What values does the brand share with employees?
  • How has the focus on ESG shifted in recent years? 
  • How are these answers strategically communicated through a cohesive message? 

There is no one-size-fits-all model; it requires genuine thought, intention and ongoing work. 

The good news is that many companies already have elements of ESG that exist within their organization. Building a sound strategy starts with pulling those elements out, determining how they fit together and crafting a plan for progress that builds on what you have while expanding on what is missing. 

While the process of assessment continues to evolve, we are in a time where it is widely understood that a strong ESG story can create value and shape positive public perspective about a company.

ESG is a journey, and part of the narrative is improving performance by simply making progress. It is fair to understand and acknowledge where your company’s strengths lie and where there’s room for growth. Not everything will be accomplished at once and allowing the brand story to articulate the long-term commitment better serves a company when establishing and building brand affinity.  

Speaking to ESG commitments will require different considerations depending on the audience or stakeholder in question. The way internal audiences (i.e. employees) view a company’s ESG commitment is critical because it can help shift emotional behavior — which in turn is what can shift broader company culture. In addition, it is essential to strike the right balance between affirming and reaffirming where a company stands in its commitments while also highlighting the individuals within the company who reflect the ESG goals.  

Internally, it’s important for people to understand that they are considered in the overall approach. That is done in part through real action — creating space that provides access and opportunities within a company and finding the appropriate way to message that effort so that it resonates throughout all levels of an organization. 

This effort is more relevant than ever as businesses prepare to embrace a new generation of the workforce. According to the Deloitte Global 2021 Millennial and Gen Z Survey, “millennials continue to push for a world in which businesses and governments mirror that same commitment to driving positive change for society, putting people and planet ahead of profits.” It should come as no surprise that as the workforce shifts, the expectations around ESG progress will shift with it.  

From an external standpoint, ESG has become an additional way for customers, partners, and prospects to make informed decisions about whether engaging with a company or brand makes good sense. Businesses can attract and retain these audiences by building strong connections between their internal work and the external audiences with whom it will resonate. Your audience is also your critics — they have the leverage to hold companies and brands to higher standards. Your ESG and brand story is your leverage for demonstrating why engaging with your company is in their best interest. 

The story is just one part of strategic storytelling. And while the story itself, including its ESG elements, comes first, it’s only as good as how the brand works to communicate it. That is where the strategy comes into the picture. 

Brands should take care to align the contents of their ESG story with their tactics for telling it. Audiences regard ESG work as important and good, but they can also be harsh critics when it comes to how the story is told. As ESG has emerged as an expectation for brands in recent years, accusations of greenwashing and virtue signaling have followed. It’s critical to the success of an ESG story that it be told honestly — brands need to be clear and transparent about the work they are doing without overstating their progress or its value. Often, that will mean being forthcoming about where there is still work to be done. 

 One of the strengths of ESG as a brand story is that that it’s clear in its essence: simply, businesses can and should be better.

As your brand builds your ESG story, be mindful of the finer details: who tells it, how it’s told, on what platforms it’s shared, what partners collaborate on it. These elements are critical to the strategy and must be carefully considered for how they work together with the framework of the story. 

Know on some level that you will not always get it right. Whether it’s an internal miscommunication or a public error, there will be a mistake. That mistake — and the way you choose to correct it — is also a part of your story.  

Measurement serves both as a means for holding companies accountable and for providing the space and opportunity to show improvement. It’s also increasingly becoming a requirement for stakeholders interested in better understanding a company’s ESG strategy. Leveraging data to show progress has become a common practice for businesses. But in many instances, hard data tells only one part of the brand story. When determining the approach to take to ESG reporting, consider how qualitative information can help support and enhance the quantitative findings. Allow your outcomes and impacts to speak for themselves. There is no need to exaggerate results when progress and growth are at the forefront of ESG practices.  

PAN Strategic Consulting Group is here.

If the conversations, news coverage and data are any indicators, it will only become increasingly imperative for companies to demonstrate how their business is aligned and supported by ESG commitments. Displaying a deeper understanding of what a company’s value proposition is can influence and impact several different business outcomes. In the end, presenting a clear and credible ESG narrative will help establish your company as a market leader and a business that cares.  

Five key takeaways from this piece:
  1. Evaluate your position with ESG at the core. As you consider your current and downstream competition, think carefully about the ESG elements that are both unique and genuine to you.
  2. Assess your audience segments. ESG touches every area of the business, and that also means it reaches different audiences with different messages.  
  3. Build the strategic narrative. Your ESG story is a process — you don’t have to have it all figured out at once. Be honest about where you are succeeding now and what your aims are for the future.
  4. Find your unique voice. The story itself is only half of strategic storytelling. Tone, platform, authors, partners, employee advocates — all of these components form a strategy that must align with the story.
  5. Measure the progress through purpose. Data-driven goals are important, but it’s also important to track your progress against your brand values.  
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