How brands can make their ESG meaningful

ESG is making a bigger impact on brands than ever before. But the challenge is that many of them just can’t leverage their ESG credentials in a credible way. I wanted to take a look at why and what can be done about it.

When people think about branding, they think about creating new stuff from scratch. Collaborating with creative colleagues around a wipe board with flipchart and post it notes. The genesis of something perfectly conceived and ready to make its mark on the world. That’s the stereotype reinforced by TV shows like The Apprentice.

And in the overwhelming number of cases, it’s not like that. 

There’s never a blank sheet. There’s always the legacy of the previous marketing regime or owner. The graphic baggage of the old logo, colours or strapline, which some in the organisation still like and others hate. This is the reality. A great big melting pot of stuff that we must sift through - identifying the bits that can be kept and improved versus the rest that should be left behind. And it’s glorious. It’s what we at Good absolutely love doing. This is real branding in action. Most frequently you’re working to improve an existing brand which has already been formed.

When we get our sleeves rolled up and get right into the sifting, it never ceases to surprise me how poorly thought out the brand foundations are. Quite often there has been zero thought – they’re built on nothing more than a whim or a thought. A logo that looked nice and some colours the CEO’s wife picked. (A true story).

This is happening more and more these days. We’re constantly being asked to ‘backfill’ meaning into these brands: creating the meaning, depth and feeling that sits beneath the logo. It tends to happen once an organisation has come to the realisation that their position on issue A, B or C is a little flaky (or non-existent) and they need to build an honest and credible view on the topic. 

My theory is that nowadays this is increasingly being driven by ESG.

ESG as a concept and the issues that live inside it have become (rightly or wrongly) massively important to businesses and brands. Recent movements like BLM, Extinction Rebellion, and Me Too have burst into the public consciousness and the brands that haven’t taken the time to get their own foundational thinking right before wading in can get into trouble very quickly. Consumers are asking questions of brands in these areas – and they had better be ready. Skin deep virtue signalling, and band wagoning will be exposed in real time leaving red faced C-suite executives trying to contain the PR grenade that’s just blown up in their face.

So, the thing is, we feel that we’re asking too much of the ESG abbreviation. There’s a lot of ground to cover, and brands must be clear on their positions in relation to each element and who they’re messaging for.

Breaking it down – here’s a rundown of what’s covered by these three little letters (according to Investopedia)


Covers a lot of ground from corporate climate policies, energy use, waste, pollution, natural resource conservation and the treatment of animals. 


Looks at a company’s relationship with stakeholders. Does it hold suppliers to its own ESG standards? Does it donate a % of its profits to the local community, or encourage employees to volunteer there? Do workplace conditions reflect a high regard for the employees’ health and safety, or does the company take unethical advantage of its workers and / or customers?


How accurate and transparent are the company’s accounting methods? How diverse is its leadership team and how accountable are they to shareholders? How do they avoid conflicts of interest, use political contributions for preferential treatment, or engage in illegal conduct?

Trying to force the breadth of this material under one heading is just not tenable for a modern brand.  It might have worked 30 years ago when a company’s impact on the environment didn’t matter; health and safety was seen as political correctness gone wrong and diversity on the board meant that the all-male members were sourced from more than one public school. But now audiences (internal and external) are demanding more considered and thoughtful content around all these areas, which mean organisations are going to have to change how they talk about the issues within.

Why this has happened is anyone’s guess: maybe it’s partly in response to the decline in standards in public life, or maybe it’s because changes in areas like social media make it much easier for consumers to call companies out. Whatever the reason, they’re disproportionately important to modern day brands and they need to be able to speak with a clear, coherent voice that feeds understanding.

And in our view, brand lies at the centre of all of this. A well-crafted brand foundation (mission, vision, values) allows brands to have a position on these topics. Allows them to talk about their journey with it (to all their audiences), setting out a set of credible and coherent actions that moves them forward through the public discourse. This foundational work for brands is so important. It’s what tethers them to something bigger than themselves and insulates them from being swept along with the easily accessible emotion and sentiment. Pausing and reflecting on their own values allows them to respond in a way that’s ownable, responsible and consistent – which is exactly what their audiences are demanding.

So, we’re very clear that if brands want to leverage their ESG credentials, then they need to make sure their brand’s foundations are in good shape. A well thought out and well positioned brand acts as the oil in the machine. It anchors the business to something deeper, breathing meaning, credence and coherence into their brand comms across all ESG subject matter. Really good branding’s about more than logos and abbreviations – it’s about getting to the heart of an organisation’s view of the world and bringing it alive. Do it once and do it well.