Marketers are still juggling ESG and scrutiny

ESG efforts, which focus on environmental, social and corporate-governance initiatives, have become common among companies. (Image: Pixabay)
ESG efforts, which focus on environmental, social and corporate-governance initiatives, have become common among companies. (Image: Pixabay)


Some brands are trying to stay under the radar, while others are finding new ways to talk about their social purpose, executives say at the CMO Network Summit

Marketers are attempting to sidestep political brawls over concepts like brand purpose, ESG and diversity by softening language and avoiding related messages, but they aren’t giving up on such efforts.

“Companies sort of want to stay under that radar screen to some degree, but they also want to build the business," Daryl Brewster, CEO of Chief Executives for Corporate Purpose, a business council, said at The Wall Street Journal’s CMO Network Summit on Tuesday. This requires them to find new ways to communicate goals on matters like sustainability, both externally and internally, he said.

ESG efforts, which focus on environmental, social and corporate-governance initiatives, have become common among companies. But businesses’ associations with social causes have also come in for scrutiny, with some investors criticizing Unilever’s plan to give each of its products a “purpose," for example, and a boycott targeting Bud Light’s partnership with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney.

“If you can’t find common ground, can you find a higher ground that people can work with? .…What are those purple words that are out there?" Brewster said, citing “clean air" as an example of words that bring people together.

Pet food company Freshpet avoids using “ESG" or “purpose" altogether, for example, and steers clear of issues it can’t influence directly, said Scott Morris, co-founder and president. Morris said he put the phrase “nourish pets, people, planet" on an office wall to summarize the company’s primary work serving pet-owners and its carbon reduction efforts.

Companies are also confronting heightened pressure regarding marketing to the LGBTQ community.

“They’re not pulling back but they don’t want to be in the limelight. And who can blame you?" said Sarah Kate Ellis, CEO of LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD.

One new concern involves outsiders writing shareholder letters advising companies to not support LGBTQ groups, Ellis said. GLAAD is working with companies on how to respond to such letters, she said.

CMOs’ staying power

Marketers at the summit also discussed outlasting the notoriously short average tenure of CMOs, rising to CEO roles and joining boards.

A long run as a CMO depends in part on a good start, said Linda Boff, CMO of General Electric. Boff said she spent nearly her first six months in the role visiting marketing leaders of the company’s various business units. “All we did was listen," Boff said.

Marketers should build relationships not only with other executives, Boff said, but with their company’s board of directors as well. That helps prevent CMOs from coming off in board meetings like just that “person with a sandwich board that says marketing," she said.

Becoming a board member partly requires visibility with people you don’t know, said Susan Somersille Johnson, former CMO of Prudential Financial and a member of the board for National Vision and previously Constellation Brands. “You don’t find the board," she said. “The board finds you."

Marketers on a board don’t get to manage the company, but they do have a lot of influence, executives said.

“Your job is to support management," not to run the company, said Lynne Biggar, senior adviser at Boston Consulting Group and former CMO at Visa, and a board member at Anheuser-Busch InBev during the Bud Light boycott.

Marketers can help companies navigate the politicized environment by challenging themselves to broaden their frames of reference, said ​​Jonathan Mildenhall, CMO at Rocket Companies. “Successful executives either in the C-suite or on the board are the ones that have the broadest perspective right now," Mildenhall said.

Nat Ives contributed to this article.

Write to Patrick Coffee at

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