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Calling All Brands: 5 KEY Steps to AVOID Getting Cancelled

How to proclaim your ESG actions to stay relevant, earn trust, and grow share

By Deborah Weinstein

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“Preferring companies that… respond to customer demands is no do-gooder philanthropy – it’s good business" - Andrew Winston, MITSloan Management Review

Remember when top brands and businesses only cared about one bottom line … profit? Kiss those days goodbye. We’ve entered a time zone with NEW emphasis on the triple bottom line starring people, planet, and profits. A business or brand’s commitment to ESG — Environmental, Social, and Governance — has become an essential part of who you are, and how you are judged. Will you be deemed worthy?

The modern-day love child of Environmental Reporting, Corporate Social Responsibility, Corporate Ethics, and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, a strong ESG program determines everything from the way a business works and evaluates its successes to the way stakeholders – including employees – decide where to invest their money, their purchasing power, and their loyalty. Fueled by today’s cancel culture, the message is loud and clear: values are important.

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ESG has gained traction for almost two decades, but society is finally taking notice. Take a look at these stats:

Strategic Objectives conducted original research* with Maru/BLUE that found:

  • 90% of Canadians believe brands should support charitable activities to advance Canada and its communities
  • 86% believe brands should tell their customers about charitable work they are doing in Canada. Rises to 90% with those making more than $50,000/year
  • 74% of Canadians say they are more likely to support a brand that does charitable work in Canada

A new study from Amex reveals:

  • Post-pandemic consumers are looking to brands for sustainability action and to act as allies in their own eco efforts. The study shows 76% of Canadian adults would be more likely to trust and be loyal to a company that works to address environmental issues, and about 50% of adults would pay a premium for sustainable products.

And Mercer’s 2021 Global Talent Trends Report says:

  • Employers with the highest ESG scores are 25% more attractive to prospective talent than the average. During a labour crisis, like now, where employees have a choice where they work, this makes a huge difference.

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How Long is a Piece of Sustainable String?

Strategic Objectives has always believed that doing good is good for business, and the concept of corporate giving has assumed several names and iterations through the years, from charitable donations to sponsorships, partnerships, CSR, Social Good, and the like.

Once considered a “fad” destined to negatively impact a company’s financial success, the world has made a 180° pivot. Today, ESG disclosure is becoming the norm, and in some cases, a legal requirement.

So you know you need an ESG platform; in fact, you may even have one. But how do you make it sing and truly resonate with your many stakeholders?

An effective ESG program starts inside out with the “E” and the “G” — i.e. environmental targets, sustainability promises, and governance programs — traditionally born from within a business. But communications shines when it comes to the “S” of social good, and plays a vital role in developing social programs that connect and engage.

We know because we’ve done it. A lot. Just think of us next time you grab a “Burger to Beat MS” at A&W or when you see the pink ribbon on a pack of Cashmere Bathroom Tissue.

A brand’s relations with the public have never been so extensive, fraught, or consequential. As a result, ESG has added new importance, significance, and mandates to the role of PR communicators. It’s now our job to share info while adding meaning to the ESG platform. We must share proof points, and transparently show, not tell, what our business/brand is doing. We need to connect, engage, and stand out to bring ESG efforts to life. Effective, authentic communications will do that.

Add “C” to your E, S & G

Communications is the secret sauce behind every successful ESG program, and our award-winning work in this area proves our dedication and expertise. We believe programs must be unique, driven by the brand’s strategic mandate. You must dig deep to unearth that perfectly relevant, newsworthy nugget that will make people care enough to learn more:

  • Our 21 years’ work with The Body Shop Canada, a pioneer in using business to promote social good, was ahead of its time. We partnered on countless CSR campaigns including our trailblazing, first-ever STOP Violence Against Women program, which earned the United Nations Grand Award for Outstanding Achievement in Public Relations.

  • Today, we are proud to bring our communications expertise to our ongoing work promoting sustainability with Maple Leaf Foods, the first major food company in the world to become carbon neutral. Our most recent work includes developing its Green Glossary, a guide to terminology used around sustainability

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  • First fashioned almost 20 years ago, Kruger Products’ Annual Cashmere Collection supporting breast cancer awareness is another great example of social good that is recognized as one of the world’s longest running, most successful CSR programs.

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Taking ESG from Good to Great

So what makes our work, work? It all starts with management buy-in. Without commitment from the top of an organization, ESG programs are destined for the “greenwashing heap.” We are fortunate to have partnered with brands and businesses that believe in ESG responsibility and make it a part of their organization. At every level.

Here are Five Key Steps to Creating a Stand-Out ESG Program:

1- Spotlight Authenticity

When finding your “S” — social good mission — try not to do what everyone else is doing. In fact, your “S” should support what resonates best with your brand and your people. And if you don’t know, ask. Employee and/or stakeholder surveys and focus groups will help clarify your mission and ensure everyone’s on the same page.

  • We recently partnered with Kia Canada to create its Kia Communities in Motion program, with Community Foundations of Canada. Born from Kia’s brand belief, “Movement that inspires,” the program connects the company with communities in which it operates across the country. It provides charities and the recipients of their efforts, the time, space and funding to find inspiration to move forward. With 197+ Kia dealers in communities across Canada, it’s an authentic link that is making a difference.


2- Honest Always

Beware of Greenwashing. It’s a sure way to get cancelled and can quickly ruin the stellar reputation you’ve worked so hard to build. Do not exaggerate. Do not make false promises. Keep your efforts honest and be sure to report your progress, even if you’re not where you hoped to be. If you’re behind your targets, come clean, state your reasons, and speak to how you will improve.

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3- Innovate to Differentiate

Shout your differences! ESG provides a terrific breeding ground for innovation, and proactive storytelling will help build support for your good work in sustainability. This will differentiate and add tangible proof of your efforts. Here’s a recent example:

  • In 2021, Kia Canada introduced its Plan S detailing the Company’s vision for a more sustainable future, including 7 all-new Plug-in Hybrid or dedicated battery electric vehicles by 2025. We partnered with Kia to launch the EV6 – the company’s first dedicated electric vehicle – with #KiaElectricSound, a ground-breaking, award-winning concert featuring multi-platinum recording artist Fefe Dobson. The electric guitar for the performance was solely powered by the Kia EV6, offering an “electricfying” way to see – and hear – innovation in action.

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4- Thought Leadership

Effective ESG is not about following the pack from the middle; it’s about driving the bus and propelling change. Strive to make measurable differences that inspire others with your ESG actions. Lead and teach by example.

  • Our work with KEEN Footwear brings this to life in a very real way. Based in Portland, Oregon, KEEN adopted a “Detox the Planet” initiative in 2012. As part of this commitment, KEEN recently released its open-sourced, shareable model detailing how it creates sustainable, PFC-free footwear — so others can learn and benefit from its research — entirely free-of-charge. We were SO proud to share this ground-breaking news and to challenge the outdoor footwear industry to become PFC-free by 2025. Another great step in the right direction!

5- Go Beyond the News Release

Share your news! There’s value in detailing your ESG impact. A news release is part of the answer, but today’s changing communications landscape dictates that you expand your tactics to effectively reach your many audiences:

  • Use Multi-level Communications to meet your stakeholders where they are, whether that means reaching your consumers, customers, legislators, industry peers, and employees online, through social media, at speaking engagements, at internal town hall gatherings, annual meetings, in sessions with charitable partners, and others. Make ESG messaging a part of everything you do.
  • Work with Others to tell your story whether through earned media or through community partners. Or preferably both. We raise awareness for “Burgers to Beat MS Day” with A&W and the MS Society of Canada through our media and blogger relations, but we also work with MS Society branches across the country to spread the word. Same with our work on Kruger Big Assist, a program to provide off-ice assists to minor hockey families in need. We shared news of $200,000 in grants through media relations, supported by a multi-channel communications program that directly reached minor hockey associations from coast-to-coast.
  • Provide Proof Points — remember, this is show not tell! Use various tactics to share your progress, such as Annual ESG Reports; verification processes; sustainability awards, ratings, and rankings; and partnerships with NGO influencers. Make it easy for your stakeholders to believe in your efforts.

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The Opportunity

It’s a whole new and better world out there. Numerous experts and decision makers agree that ESG has become the most central issue faced by organizations of all kinds and sizes today.

Is your company keeping up? Do your employees, customers, consumers, shareholders, and stakeholders know you’re involved and making a difference? Or is their finger poised on the cancel button?

Now is the time to act. Your business, your people, and your planet depend on it. And we will all thank you.

To learn more about Strategic Objectives partner and co-founder, Deborah Weinstein, please click here.

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Strategic Objectives can help you navigate the complexities of ESG. Our award-winning experience communicating programs and crafting socially relevant campaigns is unparalleled. Let us put our expertise to work for you. Please contact us.

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