These are some of the evocative messages of Robeco’s new advertising campaign that aims to target emotions and provide new insights about sustainability rather than sell funds. It takes high-profile subjects such as the deforestation caused by palm oil plantations and the global menace of plastics pollution, but turns the usual argument on its head.
Its creator, Head of Global Branding Lambèr Korsten, admits that using provocative and even controversial themes runs the risk of upsetting people as well as enlightening them. But in an age when many asset managers are claiming to offer sustainable solutions, it is time for the pioneer of SI to make its voice heard, he says.
“It's fair to say that it's a bold campaign, but it’s not us being bold for the sake of being bold,” he says. “Many asset managers are now jumping on the SI bandwagon, and everybody is more or less saying the same thing over and over again. So, we want to get our own message across more clearly.”
“When it comes to marketing communications, you want to have two things – a strong message, and a way of delivering that message that stands out and gets noticed. If you only have one of these things, your message won’t be heard, or you’re just making a whole lot of noise, and people will say ‘what's the point? ”
“Then there is the issue that so many ideas about SI are based on prejudice and preconceptions, and not necessarily on facts. We've always been a company that loves facts and deep research – it’s part of our DNA. In the fairly emotional area of sustainable investing, we still base our decisions on what's real and what's not.”
“So, that's where that bold message comes from: making sure that we are heard, with a message that needs to be heard.”
Korsten says it’s not about combatting greenwashing – where some asset managers make token gestures to look like they’re taking SI seriously for PR reasons, such as by using obvious exclusions. It’s not that simple, because SI itself is not that simple.
“If people are greenwashing, then that’s up to them,” he says. “The only thing we want to do is confront people with preconceptions and prejudices, and get them to understand that sustainable investing is something which is more complex than most people realize.”
“We all have an idea about what's good and what's bad; issues such as climate change are on the news every night, so it's difficult not to have an opinion on this. But the fact is few of us are experts when it comes to climate change or CO2 emissions.”
“It is highly complex, and if you are going to base your investment decisions on something that complex, then then you need to do so with somebody who understands this topic a whole lot better than most people.”
The campaign kicks off with an apparent paradox – that profit will save the planet. “’Saving the planet’ may sound a little emotional, but so are words like ‘hate’ and ‘love’, and they’re in the campaign as well,” he says. “It’s part of the communications concept.”
“At Robeco we believe in the power of the financial system to bring about real change. And indeed, we do believe that trying to make a profit is not a bad thing. In fact, we think it is a mechanism that will eventually separate the sustainable companies from the unsustainable ones.”
“If you want to make money in the long run, you need to be sustainable. What we do as a shareholder is basically try to choose the sustainable companies over the unsustainable ones, or try to change the minds of unsustainable companies through things like active ownership, and then steer them in the right direction.”
Promoting the use of palm oil and plastics – but with a message to make them more sustainable rather than calling for their abolition or exclusion – is another message in separating facts from fiction. Robeco has launched nine engagement topics in the past two years, but chose to highlight these two above the other seven.
“We were looking for topics where there is a clear difference between what's real and what's not, based on facts and not emotion,” Korsten says. “When it comes to plastics, people immediately people think of single-use bottles, earbuds and straws, and animals dying on beaches with plastic in their stomachs. That is clearly the extremely negative side of plastic.”
“But that doesn't mean that plastic in general is bad. What we're trying to say here is you need to look at the bigger picture. Plastic is not just about plastic straws, it's not just about single-use bottles; it’s something which is far bigger than that.”
“With palm oil, we have more or less the same reasoning. Just like single-use plastic bottles ending up on a beach, deforestation is an awful thing. But deforestation is not the whole story about palm oil. Essentially the campaign is trying to explain to people that sustainability is more complex than we realize.”
The final theme raises the relatively unknown issue that the internet and its related infrastructure has a carbon footprint as large as the airline industry, accounting for almost 2% of global CO2 emissions.
“We're not saying to anybody, ‘don't do this or don't do that’; we're not wagging our fingers and saying ‘stop using the internet’,” Korsten says. “We're also not saying ‘stop using plastic’, or ‘stop eating all this stuff that you will find in your local supermarket where palm oil is an ingredient’. That is not up to us – it’s not our role.”
“What we do want to say is that when it comes to CO2 emissions, for most people that's about cars or agriculture, aviation or heavy industry. This way of looking at it oversimplifies the problem. When it comes to CO2 emissions, the problem is far bigger – it’s all also in the internet and the whole ICT ecosystem.”
The campaign aims to target anyone who is interested in learning more about what sustainability really entails, including professional investors who are already engaged in it, rather than ‘preaching to the converted’ as a new take on an old theme.
“Sustainable investing is here to stay, but people very often still find it hard to make the right decisions simply because this topic is so complex,” Korsten says. “They also find it difficult to explain to their clients why this is so important. Our campaign is therefore full of storylines on different topics that are going to help explain it all.”
“Rather, it's pushing Robeco’s views, it’s promoting our brand, and how research drives the way we look at things. It’s bold, and maybe even controversial in places. So, it’s typically a campaign that will lead to people to either love it or hate it. We just hope there’s more lovers than haters.”
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