ESG investment exploded in 2020, and demonstrable expertise in ESG investing has become critical for asset managers worldwide. For marketing and communications teams at asset managers, promoting and differentiating their firm’s ESG capabilities is now the biggest challenge they face.
Cognito decided to look at what is happening in media relations for ESG investment, and we’ve just published a report: “Media communications for ESG Investment: time for a temperature check”. It’s available for free here. We’d be delighted to talk to anyone interested in more detail.
Our report is based on Cognito desk research and analytics, together with interviews with journalists and corporate communications professionals. It looks at:
What media outlets are writing on ESG investment
What asset managers are communicating to the media around ESG
What information journalists would most like to receive on ESG
Where is the ESG investment story going in the coming year
What asset management firms should do to maximise media profile
The report analysed ESG coverage by 16 financial media outlets in Europe, North America and Asia over the last two years. These are publications read by financial audiences, including fund selectors and wealth advisors, along with sophisticated, generally high net-worth, individual investors.
We also analysed the websites of 35 asset managers, categorising press and content pieces, in order to form the best view we could, from the outside, about the type of outbound communications being undertaken. At its simplest, to see how supply and demand aligned.
We found that media coverage of ESG investment increased by 75% in 2020 over 2019 in our global sample. Importantly, only one third of articles were about a single asset manager, with two thirds covering broader ESG topics around greenwashing/portfolio composition, regulation, performance/risk and overall growth of the sector.
Our analysis of asset manager output showed that this broadly matched the media’s appetite, but was somewhat skewed to the types of topics and news that would generally only work in the minority of “single firm” stories. These account for under a fifth of business press articles.
Speaking to journalists and communicators provided more qualitative colour. Journalists highlighted concerns about the saturation of ESG fund news, greenwashing and the perceived paucity of real thought leadership. Feedback from communicators, for their part, noted ever-greater time pressures on media and emphasised the importance of journalists getting more understanding of ESG integration and the nature of funds and mandates, as well as more interest in engagement and stewardship. Both sides shared a consensus on 2021 themes such as climate, data, supply chains and the US “catch-up” in ESG, though the communicators put more weight on biodiversity.
What this means
For most asset managers, coverage in the major media is largely going to be in “multi-firm” stories – and so outbound communication strategies should reflect that. That means, when possible, pushing more around overall ESG investment and strategy, along with what seem undersupplied areas like engagement, stewardship and divestment.
Any firm’s communications will be a mix. Everyone wants to put out news that will be covered prominently on its own by a major title. But firms need a consistent strategy to increase output of the type that will get them quoted to advantage in multi-firm/industry stories.
With the evidence suggesting that investors care about a firm’s overall ESG brand, rather than the nature of specific funds, this is the time for asset managers to differentiate themselves decisively: picking credible “lanes” with the media, delivering quality insights around the big themes commanding the most coverage, and adapting some media relations tactics to get an edge.
We think the following matters:
Investors will increasingly focus on the ESG profile of the overall asset manager brand, not the individual fund. PR strategies not rooted in this won’t work.
Most media coverage, especially in the business press, is about the broad issues around ESG investment, rather than firm or fund specific news – managers need to play in that space.
Thematic research will remain important for many audiences, but there is a limit to how much will be absorbed by major media.
The debate about relative ESG performance is for the moment over – at least in Europe.
Engagement and stewardship contain more potential for coverage, and divestment stories, while sensitive for asset managers, seem undersupplied.
Investor behaviour/psychology will be critical to the sector’s further growth. This area lends itself to surveys and polling, which so far asset managers have underexploited in ESG.
Firms generally need to consider how they might promote more ESG media stars.
Accolade and award stories serve some purposes, but are mainly about share of voice in the trade press, and less differentiating than many think.
Asset managers now need to match product specific and investment strategy media communications with stronger overarching messaging to achieve more brand differentiation.
Similarly, in the media, most firms will face capacity constraints on the profile they can achieve – you can’t be famous for everything. The ESG investing revolution is casting anew the shape of the asset management industry. In time, reporters will naturally assign asset managers into ESG buckets, but for now there is a fluidity in media perceptions that firms should exploit to promote their ESG investment brands and personality.
Andrew Marshall is Cognito’s vice chairman