Once a sign of progressive brands, taking a stand on sustainability and social issues has become increasingly crucial for those looking to maintain relevance. Beyond social capital, however, it’s evident that investing in ESG is good for business, too. Companies that realise this — and lead the way with pioneering initiatives — will not only endure the changing times, but thrive in them. Those benefits aren't limited to profit margins but also the talent they attract and retain.
At a virtual roundtable hosted by The Wall Street Journal Barron’s Group and Campaign Asia-Pacific, top marketing leaders examined the topics of sustainability, DEI, and talent retention from an APAC perspective. The enlightening talks at this year’s Cannes Lions Festival inspired and informed the discussion, where these issues were top-of-mind with marketers and media industry professionals.
Maintaining consistency with sustainability
Proactively embedding meaningful sustainability practices can pay off in the long run with growth and brand longevity, especially in regions like APAC, where the infrastructure for scalable sustainability solutions is relatively nascent. Roundtable moderator Surekha Ragavan, editor at Campaign Asia, pointed out that a common challenge among brands is ensuring that sustainability practices are implemented consistently across the entire supply chain.
Rahul Mudgal, global marketing director at DOCOMO Digital, commented that sustainability is an initiative his company is trying to cascade down to every aspect of the organisation.
“Having that consistency with sustainability has been challenging, particularly because we work with many partners and vendors and trying to get this agenda across the value chain is extremely difficult,” he said. “We’re not there yet, but […] there is a concerted effort on the part of leadership to get it done.”
Julie Nestor, senior vice president, head of marketing and communications, Asia-Pacific at Mastercard, spoke about relying on cooperation from suppliers to meet Mastercard’s sustainability targets. As part of its Priceless Planet Coalition, Mastercard — along with 100 global banks, fintechs and merchants — has pledged to plant 100 million trees by 2025.
“We’ve built standards and created a sustainability supplier engagement model where we provide suppliers with educational resources and assistance in advancing environmental programmes together,” said Nestor.
The Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC) is another organisation collaborating with suppliers to instil sustainability practices. Yvonne So, director of corporate communications & marketing at HKTDC, spoke about efforts to drive impact awareness by setting sustainability standards for Asia’s exhibition industry supply chain.
Likening conference organisations to “a governance type of sustainability,” So elaborated that every aspect of such events — like whether to have a carpet — to more obvious things like the materials used for booths, or whether to provide paper or washable cups, is taken into consideration.
However, guests spoke about a need for standardisation when it comes to measuring sustainability efforts. Natasha Kiroyan-Straton, director of marketing and wealth management, UBS, said, “There’s no commonality of terms, and I think that’s a big problem that we’re all trying to figure out.”
In such instances, transparency is key. “Being authentic and honest about your progress as a company is very important because there’s no standardisation in sight yet.” At UBS, employees are given regular updates via town halls and CEO messaging on the bank’s sustainability efforts, so they have a “clear and measurable” understanding of the company’s progress.
Julia Clyne, VP for media sales, Asia-Pacific, The Wall Street Journal Barron’s Group, agreed on the importance of authenticity. “Focusing on the impact that’s already been achieved through thought leadership content anchored in data and results — is often a better approach than focusing on goals and commitments.”
At WSJ, about 40 percent of the requests for advertising proposals (RFPs) in Asia-Pacific have a sustainability-related component and brands approach the publication in order to align “with a contextual environment that audiences go to for trusted information and journalism.” However, Clyne noted the fine line between promoting an organisation’s sustainability efforts and greenwashing. “We’re aware of how important it is to avoid greenwashing and this really comes down to our in-house creative studio, The Trust, aligning with our editorial best practices which rely on robust research so that we can be confident of the validity of the content we produce in partnership with brands.”
To prevent greenwashing, one of the sources The Trust looks to is The WSJ’s ranking of the most sustainably-managed companies in the world
which assesses companies’ sustainability success based on publicly available documents, records, and news articles from 8,800 sources available via Factiva, including The Wall Street Journal
. “If a company comes to us and says they want to promote the great work that they’re doing in sustainability and it doesn’t line up with what we are seeing from our research, we would look to focus our partnership on the milestones they have actually achieved, and even the challenges they have experienced in reaching their sustainability goals, as we know readers appreciate this sort of authenticity,” said Clyne.
Looking at DEI from an APAC perspective
Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) was a key theme at the Cannes Lions Festival, where attendees spoke glowingly about how embedding DEI into their organisations — beyond its cultural cachet — is simply good for business. But one perspective that emerged at our roundtable was that companies’ DEI communications — which typically trickle down to regional markets from Western global teams — can sometimes fail to take into account the diversity of the markets in which they operate.
Sandeep Pal, regional VP of marketing, APJ, Citrix, said, “There has to be an overarching framework for DEI that is standardised for the organisation. However, I think the implementation of that needs to be in many cases customised or localised for relevance.
“When we’re talking about inclusion, there’s a big disconnect and lack of sensitivity.” Using US multinationals as an example, Pal highlighted how some firms continue to hold meetings in western time zones, which precludes a lot of valuable input from executives in the Asia-Pacific region.
Even at Cannes Lions, the journey towards truly “walking the walk” was still a work in progress. Cultural sensitivity — specifically regarding race and ethnicity in the marketing and creative sector — was a major theme at the festival. However, as Ragavan pointed out, the jury panel itself was not diverse, and the number of awards handed out for Asian work was disproportionately low. “When you don't have a diverse mix of nationalities and ethnicities in the jury room, then obviously the creative work tends to be judged from a largely Western lens,” said Ragavan.
When it comes to the creative process at Mastercard, Nestor says global campaigns are customised for local markets because it would be inauthentic to do otherwise. “Campaigns go to marketing teams in each country to do the last-mile execution with all the cultural nuances, like making sure it’s in the local language or showing faces representative of that country.”
For some, like general manager of marketing for food and agri-business company Olam, Mukesh Patnaik, sustainability and diversity initiatives go hand-in-hand.
In Zambia, Olam has several large coffee farms where tractor maintenance — and the associated costs — was a frequent issue. As part of a diversity initiative, Olam started training women without prior experience to drive the tractors, helping them overcome barriers to employment and help enrich their families. From a business perspective, the farms became 15% more efficient, while tractor maintenance costs went down significantly “because the women [were] much better drivers than [the] men.”
“If you look at DEI as business-centric and the right thing to do, it can have positive outcomes for all stakeholders,” Pal concluded.
Retaining talent in the Great Resignation
DEI is of particular interest when discussing talent, as prospective employees are increasingly prioritising DEI when considering joining an organisation. While talent is still plentiful, many APAC-based businesses fear a “Great Resignation” and put renewed importance on retention.
Winnie Chen, head of marketing at private banking startup Kristal.ai, sees DEI as a top consideration for candidates in every job interview she’s conducted. However, she points out that DEI should be a long-term commitment. “DEI is something candidates consider throughout their journey with the company, not just the initial interview phase,” she said.
Noting that a common pain point was “humble people down the hierarchy” feeling unheard in comparison to C-suite employees and department heads, Chen started a tradition for her creative team where each team member shares their personal dream before their weekly meetings. One such dream was so riveting that “everyone was in tears at the end,” and the team used the story as a basis for a brand campaign that brought the bank’s vision of financial inclusion to life. The success of this bottom-up approach led the rest of the company to adopt Chen’s tradition, and resulted in an increase in morale and a decrease in attrition.
Chen says it’s important to “find that sweet spot between the passion of the talent and the purpose of the brand, and bring the two together. That’s where the magic happens, both in creative output and talent retention. CMOs can enjoy the dual benefits in both corporate branding and employer branding if we uphold the values of DEI.”
Clyne sees this approach of building values from the ground up rather than trickling down from leadership at The Wall Street Journal Barron’s Group, where executives ensure that ERGs are all employee-led. “This helps people feel genuinely heard and represented in a way that is authentic to them. It’s also so important that we have a certain level of representation in senior positions and that we make career progression pathways really clear for people at the more junior levels of our business.”
So believes that the pandemic gave people time to think about what they want to do professionally, and hopes that it will result in a higher rate for job satisfaction for talent who feel they have more choices. “It is really not a Great Resignation, but a great shift in doing what you like doing, and however you’d like to do it.”
Dhiren Amin, CMO of composite insurer NTUC Income, observed that we’re dealing with a generation who wants it all from their organisation.
“The new generation’s talent base wants to work for organisations that offer a variety of things: a strong sustainability and DEI agenda; high business growth; career growth; and flexible working culture,” Dhiren concluded. “We have to find a way to deliver all of that to recruit and retain the most valuable talent.”