Diversity Asia


A new study reveals that Asian consumers love hearing from companies they follow about ESG issues. Why, then, are Asian firms holding back from discussing them?

Social media is providing researchers with unique opportunities to discover which topics really are top of mind with consumers. Regardless of what pundits say motivates and interests “typical” buyers in a market, metrics like shares, re-tweets, likes, and replies quickly reveal what actually getting hearts racing and tongues wagging. This is why a recent study conducted across 11 of Asia’s top markets, including Australia, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam, should be of particular interest to firms operating in the region.

According to the latest research from The Conference Board, some of the most highly engaged with topics for Asian consumers center on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues. However, the same research study also found that compared to similarly sized companies in the West, Asian firms were less likely to make sharing information about these topics a regular part of their online messaging and official corporate communications. What could be driving this difference in behavior, especially given the clear consumer interest? Further, what can companies do to capitalize on the opportunity this communication gap represents?

A difference in engagement
A major trend in Western corporate communications over the last few years has been the rising emphasis on ESG topics. The buying public has demanded – and in some cases, even legislated – more information and transparency around sustainability, equity, and leadership. As a result, these kinds of conversations between firms and their followers have become more commonplace, to the point that posts and tweets about these topics no longer stand out in corporate feeds as rare or unusual.

In Asian markets, it’s different. Companies are – broadly speaking – less likely to make sharing about ESG issues a part of their regular corporate messaging. When such topics do make it into social feeds, their engagement rates are higher than normal, reflecting a buying public that is hungry to know more about what their favorite brands are doing on these issues. Further, thanks to the ease with which social media conversation flow can be traced across networks and regions, it’s possible to see that these rare Asian market ESG updates have a broader reach than almost every other type of corporate communication.

For many Western social media teams, that kind of data would send a clear message: Share more of this! However, according to The Conference Board, Asian firms have not yet visibly altered their approach. Aside from a handful of exceptions, most firms are sticking to traditional topics of corporate conversation online – product launches, upcoming events, hiring announcements and so on. Yet these “safe” topics aren’t getting customers excited.

A reluctance to capitalize on the conversation
A number of theories have been put forth as to why companies in Asia have appeared to be hesitant about making ESG statements a central part of their online dialogue. These have included a desire to avoid controversy, past challenges with ESG issues, and a gap between certain ESG goals and the firm’s current realities.

It’s easy to understand why these factors would influence corporate communications. No firm operating in multiple politically sensitive markets would want to stir up controversy and potentially lose access to key buyer pools, or even to key suppliers. Neither would a firm want to potentially lose face by reminding its present pool of buyers and followers about certain historical actions. And, even for firms making steps in the right direction, the distance to be traveled can sometimes feel so great that celebrating small steps only draws attention to what remains to be done.

Does this mean that ESG conversations will never go beyond their current minimal level? Hardly! There is an established path that Asian markets can follow – and fast – to communicate more of their corporate mission and corporate purpose around ESG issues.

What companies can do to capitalize on this communications gap
One key point the study brought up was that it’s not that Asian firms aren’t doing the work on ESG issues – many are engaging in very complex and meaningful projects on this front. The biggest difference between Asian firms and their Western corporate counterparts was in the frequency with which they discussed their actions in social media channels.

One way to ease into change and make ESG topics more normative would be to do as Western firms have done and include ESG and corporate purpose statements in more regular corporate communications. Doing a hiring announcement? Add in information about the firm’s commitment to equity or gender parity in pay. Launching new products? Where possible, add in information about ecological impact. By bringing this information in subtly, firms can capture more consumer attention without appearing to dramatically change their presentation.

This may feel incremental, and it is. Yet there are very sensitive conversations to be had around ESG, and steadily increasing communication will feel more natural than turning on a proverbial faucet of updates. Further, while The Conference Board’s study was the first of its kind to look at corporate purpose communications, there is now a path for firms to more attentively monitor their own conversations and compare them to the baseline to be able to see where conversations could be expanded or where there’s space and comfort to bring new ESG discourse forward.

Though firms may feel out of their comfort zones, there are clear rewards. In addition to higher engagement and loyalty from consumers, international investors are increasingly looking at ESG discourse as a means of guiding their financing moves. Thus, the communications gap that has been identified by this study actually shows firms a way that they can build up a potential competitive advantage in their local and regional markets – an advantage which, if Western investment trends are any guide, could very well be worth billions.