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November 2021

Building a responsible brand and getting it right

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As asset managers and investment companies are being forced to disclose their approach to ESG, responsibility is becoming an important theme for brand and communications. We wanted to see how companies are approaching this. We looked at 25 asset managers across the board from those who are sustainable investment experts, some who are PRI signatories, and many who say they are responsible to varying degrees. We found six key insights:

  1. Responsibility means brand is being treated more seriously
  2. Responsible brands aren’t all about responsibility
  3. Demonstrating responsibility is predictable but buzzwords confuse
  4. Responsible pioneers still need to communicate it clearly
  5. Brands that are more human look more responsible
  6. Many use the same clichés

We’re communication specialists, not investment specialists, so we’ll only be judging how companies communicate and to what extent the theme of responsibility is influencing brand overall. We’ll leave it up to you to determine which companies you truly believe.

1. Responsibility means brand is being treated more seriously

Brand communication can be a fluffy topic when you’re talking to an asset manager whose reputation is based on performance. But with the spotlight turning rightly to ESG credentials and how performance is generated, communication should, in theory, start to become less fluffy and reputations more scrutinised. So, how are companies communicating about responsibility? Looking across the sector their tends to be three key approaches:

  1. Accessorise – leave your core brand untouched but supplement it with more information about responsibility. Brands like Amundi, UBS and Pictet.
  2. Adapt – adjust your brand to make responsibility a more central theme. Brands like BlackRock, Federated Hermes, and BNP Paribas.
  3. Change – use responsibility as an opportunity to completely revamp your brand. Brands like Ninety One, abrdn and Schroders.

There’s also a fourth niche approach – Disrupt – challenge the market with a new investor proposition, which is what Amberside Capital have done by creating Duguud.

Neither group determines whether a company is more dedicated to responsibility than another. Indeed, some in group one may say they are already respected for their ESG credentials. It may suggest for some the value a company places on brand and communication. However, the approach to communication says a lot. For a sector that tends to look and sound the same, those who have invested in their brand are clearer and more compelling with a proposition that has broader more societal appeal. And given asset managers have the potential to make a big difference to businesses, and therefore society, this is important. Not least in providing a strong reason to drive preference for future talent. Those who rest on their laurels and past reputation alone may get overlooked. Call it fluffy, but brand communication will only become more important as the spotlight on responsible investment intensifies.

2. Responsible brands aren’t all about responsibility

 

Being responsible is not distinctive in itself

Responsibility is becoming an essential part of communication, preference and brand value. However, it doesn’t need to be the sole tenet of communication.

Many niche sustainability asset managers or responsible investing pioneers appear to rely on reputation more than brand communication. Many communicate in similar ways and are indistinct from one another. Others have invested in brand communication, placing responsibility at the heart of it to stand out. But what if responsible investing is an approach rather than your core reason for being? How do you communicate what you do? The answer lies in being clear on your core proposition.

People investing want to know that they can make money and do good at the same time. Faced with a choice, why might asset manager A be better at doing this than asset manager B? Defining a clear and distinctive proposition and then layering in how this informs your approach to responsibility will help. Take Robeco as an example. They have a clearly defined approach based on using research to find the invisible layers that influence an investment portfolio. This is why they describe themselves as investment engineers. When they talk about responsibility, they do so from this lens, which enables them to have a different point of view that appears true to who they are, which in turn helps inform choice.

Being responsible is not distinctive in itself. It’s a requirement. What a company’s proposition is, and therefore how it differs, to create value, and does so responsibly, is distinctive.

Being responsible is not distinctive in itself

3. Demonstrating responsibility is predictable but buzzwords confuse

Responsible investment, sustainable investing, impact investing, exclusion investing or active investing? SDG, ESG, or SRI? Environmental stewardship or active management? Knowing the difference between the many different terms and the different approaches between asset managers is a challenge. So much so that some of the companies we looked at have started to develop their own jargon-busters. Federated Hermes is a good example. A simple set of definitions that they say helps ‘clarify complexity on the way to sustainable wealth creation.

Whilst terms vary, overlap and bamboozle, how companies demonstrate their level of responsibility appears formulaic and tends to include most of the following:

  • Investing for the long term means we think about next generation and sustainability
  • Active management means we hold companies to account
  • Our ESG funds and AUM demonstrate how responsible we are
  • Our cutting-edge investment solutions have a sustainable impact
  • Because we have commitments to communities and customers, we’re responsible

If we wanted to push the boat out our CEO could somehow make a public commitment about our duty as investors and citizens to be responsible.

None of the above are wrong. They’re all valid points, but when everyone is saying similar things it’s hard to discern the difference between one company and another. The brands that stand out have a much clearer proposition that tends to link to a core purpose and provides a more compelling reason to engage with them. This proposition is the foundation for a more coherent and overarching story around which these common messages sit and add weight.

4. Responsible pioneers still need to communicate it clearly

Many companies express how they were “pioneers” in responsible investment, or that it’s “in their DNA”. This may be true for some early adopters such as Nordea, but not everyone can truly back-up that claim and if everyone is saying the same thing, it becomes meaningless. For those that are the true pioneers, although many people in the industry will know, unless you communicate it clearly, your potential new customers won’t believe it.

It’s not good enough just to say that you’re a pioneer or a responsible investor. You must prove it. That means supporting your claims with facts and statistics – and ones that really mean something, not just a box-ticking exercise. Many companies show case studies of how their investments have created a real difference, either for their clients or society at large. Others have whole sections dedicated to explaining what Responsible Investing is about, and even online courses to increase your knowledge.

Finally, you also need to look like a pioneer. That means not blending in with the crowd and succumbing to the same old clichés of responsibility and sustainability. It means having your own take on it visually, and one that’s truly distinctive and authentic to who you are. A true pioneer is confident and bold, so your communications need to convey this.

5. Brands that are more human look more responsible

investors are consumers too

In a world of analysis and AI, it’s tempting to also make your communications scientific, cold and technical. Many B2B brands fall into the trap of removing warmth and personality from their communications, as they believe their audiences don’t want that. However, investors are consumers too, so you need to make sure you speak to them with authenticity and humanity.

Many companies have even started to use visual approaches that almost feel like consumer brand campaigns. Schroders for example, have recently developed a new creative campaign based around the concept of being “Beyond profit”. They use bold and arresting portrait photography of everyday people, which feels very unusual for the sector. It positions them as a challenger brand – the antithesis of the stereotypical asset manager who only look for profit.

Being a responsible brand means putting people at the heart of everything you do. Whether it’s your employees, your customers or society at large, you need to show the human face of your company and the impact of your investments. Contrary to most investment communications, responsible brands need to convey emotion. You need to win the hearts and minds of your potential customers.

investors are consumers too

6. Many use the same clichés

Many responsible brands are still using same visual clichés of sustainability – colour palettes of blue and green, imagery of windfarms, solar panels, landscapes, or the globe, mixed with iconography of water droplets or leaves. These common visual traits have become so commonplace, they all start to merge into one and become wallpaper. If everyone looks the same, there’s the danger that potential customers will just assume what companies offer are the same too.

Some responsible brands are bucking the trend however – Schroders, Federated Hermes and Aviva Investors have much more distinctive and modern visual styles that help them stand out from the crowd. Whether it’s the quirky, hand-drawn illustrations of Federated Hermes, or the bold and distinctive colour palette of Aviva Investors, difference matters. It can help your communications grab the attention of potential investors and entice them to find out more.

Ninety One is another great example of a responsible brand that doesn’t follow the typical conventions. Using distinctive and contemporary graphics, colour palettes and imagery gives the impression of a company that has an unusual take on responsibility. Of course, just looking different isn’t enough – you need to follow through with messaging, communications and behaviours that are equally unique too. Your visual brand needs to be authentic to who you are, otherwise, people will see through it very quickly.

Conclusion: Actions speak louder than words
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Naturally, we’re biased towards brand communication. Good brand communication makes a difference. Done well and it helps message clarity and coherence; it helps create stand out when everyone looks the same; it enables clients to see themselves and drives preference. But good brands live or die on what they do. And with the risk of green washing, actions speak louder than words. Get brand and action right and you’ve got a winning formula. That’s why we are interested in Aviva. It’s brand stands out. It’s connection to the corporate brand means it shares a purpose of creating a better tomorrow. Combining this with the recent announcement to divest in 30 fossil fuel intensive companies if they fail to take radical action to slash their emissions, then it has the makings of a powerful brand. Of course, the true test will be if Aviva follows through on this. They’re not the only ones taking action. Man Group are trying to lead the charge for Alternatives and their recent Net Zero Asset Managers Initiative aims to encourage the industry to work towards net zero.

As many bang the drum for change and talk a good game, decisive actions are refreshingly welcome to many who believe asset managers are fundamentally driven by profit over purpose. Over time, brands that find a way to communicate profit with purpose will be the ones that ultimately win.

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