Challenges to marketing sustainability

13 minute read

The different needs and interests of different segments present different challenges at both the brand/ corporate and product marketing levels.

The overarching challenge faced by many marketing departments is that these different audience segments, and subsegments of the traditionally recognised audience types, require more differentiated content and personalisation than popular belief would like to think. There has been a lot of speculation that the needs of the wholesale audience are not as far removed from the needs of the institutional market as once perhaps thought. However, this is certainly not the case when it comes to how different audience types assess asset managers on their sustainability credentials, at both the brand/ corporate and the product level. The research carried out by White Marble found not only that there were clear differences in what mattered to intermediaries and institutions, but also that there were significant differences of priority within those defined groups. Some of these nuances will be discussed in this section, and you can read the research summary here.

Brand/corporate level

Increasingly asset managers are facing challenges around aligning their brand / corporate positioning, and messaging, around pertinent issues in sustainability, such as climate change, with the position of their products. There is increasing demand from wholesale investors to demonstrate that issues such as climate change and the transition to a net zero future are treated seriously and consistently at a corporate/ brand level, and not just as thematic considerations within the product set.

Challenges facing asset managers marketing to intermediaries at the brand level

Financial advisers and wealth managers have different priorities.

The White Marble Leaders in Sustainability research found that IFAs are most concerned with the public profile of their asset managers, whereas wealth managers are more concerned with demonstrable purpose and vision, and evidence of fiduciary culture. Meaning that they are looking for different data and proof points in the messaging asset managers are putting out.

This further reiterates the important role that segmentation exercises can play to help marketers better understand the nuances of their audience to ensure the right people are getting the right marketing communications.

Advisers’ distrust of asset managers’ motivations

A research White Marble Consulting carried out with Next Wealth in 2020 showed that overwhelmingly advisers’ first port of call for information on ESG and sustainability is platforms or DFMs, before asset managers. A trend that we have seen repeated in subsequent research. This points to a high level of distrust of the motives of the asset managers by advisers and wealth managers who are wary of asset managers who they perceive are just pushing ESG or ethical products as a means to increase flows – leading to a mistrust in the authenticity of the information they put out.

Advisers’ awareness of reputational risk

As mentioned above, the leaders in sustainability research found that financial advisers where overwhelmingly concerned with the reputation of an asset manager, with over half of respondents listing being free from ESG scandal as their primary concern.

This speaks to a broader, heightened, awareness of reputational risk. Both of the products that they may recommend to their clients, and the knock-on effect that it could have on their own reputation.

Not alienating certain audience segments

The nuanced requirements and demands of audience segments, as well other factors that influence an audience’s attitude towards sustainability, such as their, and their end clients, demographics, mean that marketers face a minefield of potential trip hazards – while one message may land well with one group, it may have the unintended consequence of alienating another. This, in some cases, can lead to messaging being so neutralised and reduced so as to be indistinct and undifferentiated from their peers, therefore more rendering it less effective.

Challenges facing asset managers marketing to institutional asset owners at the brand level

Consultants have long-term memories

By its nature, the institutional market is long-term in nature, and consultants in particular take a long-term view of asset managers’ capabilities and positioning. Delivering a new or updated message can therefore be a long-term endeavor and be faced by a lack of willingness to adjust previously held views.

Interest in the corporate/brand level

Investors in the institutional space are more interested than ever in messaging and credibility at the corporate level. The leaders in sustainability research found that the top three most important factors at a corporate level for consultants, independent trustees and trustees are: evidence of strong fiduciary culture, board level sustainability agenda and a track record of avoiding ESG scandals. Managers can no longer rely on the strength of their product offering to woo institutional investors. Like their wholesale counterparts, they increasingly want to see evidence that the values toted at the product level are reflected authentically at the corporate level.

This increased level of interest is also being played through and seen in the scope and detail increasingly required at the RFP and DDQ level . Asset managers are at risk of  missing out on opportunities if they are not able to clear a hurdle at an early stage around issues such as climate change and diversity.

Emphasis on fiduciary duty long-termism

As mentioned above, institutional audiences place a great deal of emphasis on the importance of a manager’s fiduciary duty. There appears to be, in some cases, a lack of understanding from marketing as to what this entails, meaning that this position is not effectively conveyed in messaging and content.

Not alienating certain audience segments

As with their wholesale counterparts, there are nuances and variability in the priorities of different segments of the institutional sector. These can be driven by their role, consultant vs trustee for example, or by other factors such as geography – pension trustees in the Nordics for example will be far more sensitive to the sustainability concerns and requirements of the scheme participants who they are ultimately accountable to, than their counterparts in Asia or the USA.

Challenges facing asset managers marketing to the intermediary audience at a product level

Overcoming the knowledge gap

There is still an educational role for asset managers to play for the intermediary market – especially in the context of the explosion of ESG and sustainability-oriented products that we have seen in the last 12 – 18 months across all asset classes and vehicles.

Whilst it is the case that there is value to certain audience segments in educational material – this is a tricky area to navigate, given the wide ranging and often inconsistent knowledge levels even withing a relatively narrowly defined segment. Well thought through user journeys and user friendly content delivery platforms can go a long way towards helping users find the content that is most relevant to them in a seamless and unobtrusive way.  

Differentiation – standing out in a homogenous space

Achieving genuinely differentiated positioning and messaging is by no means a challenge unique to the intermediary space, or indeed to product marketing. In the context of the rapid growth in the availability of ESG and sustainability-oriented products though, this is an increasingly densely populated space, making it ever harder to stand out.

Understanding of client wants and needs

In both the design and marketing of products, understanding the needs of clients, and in turn their underlying clients, is essential, and a big challenge for marketing teams. Collecting data on clients is a challenge. Wide ranging consumer research is time consuming and costly and as such can often be deprioritised. In marketing, a trial and error, or A/B approach can be used to measure the success and resonance of different messages, but this runs the inherent risk that the messages that do not land as well may alienate parts of your audience along the way.


Regulation regarding the marketing of financial products in general, especially to the intermediary and retail markets, and communicating the relevant aspects of regulation relating to the creation and management of sustainability/ green labelled financial products is an ever evolving and increasingly complicated space.

Increasing disclosure requirements for sustainability labeled funds, such as those rolled out under SFDR, are falling under the remit of marketing departments.

Challenges facing asset managers marketing to the institutional audience at a product level

Different audience segments have different priorities and needs

As mentioned previously, the institutional space is more diverse in its needs and priorities than might be anticipated, and there is therefore greater diversity in the type of content that will appeal to different audience segments. The Leaders in Sustainability research asked consultants, trustees and independent trustees to rank what they look for in sustainable products. The research has revealed that, for example, independent trustees place far greater emphasis on manager reputation, agency rating, and reputation amongst their peers than their consultant and trustee counterparts, and will therefore be more interested in receiving content on those subjects.

Hybrid worlds

Given the emphasis on long term relationships in the institutional sales and marketing arena, the move away from in person events and conferences presents a significant challenge. Given that we are unlikely to return fully to the state of affairs of pre-pandemic, marketers need to find new ways to effectively communicate and maintain relationships that overcome the physical distance and limited interaction imposed by digital communication.

Product marketing must be consistent with corporate marketing

As ever, consistency is key. If the messaging around a particular product is inconsistent with the messaging at the brand/ corporate level then it risks appearing insincere or unreliable. As mentioned previously, actors in the institutional space are increasingly concerned with the sustainability credentials of asset managers at the corporate level, to ensure that their values and practices are in line with what they promote and ask of investee companies at the product level.


Whilst the institutional market is regarded as more sophisticated, and therefore more aware of the risk associated with investment, there are still regulations in place re regarding the marketing of financial products.

and the regulation regarding the reporting and disclosure requirements of  sustainable/ green labelled products is an ever evolving and increasingly complicated space (see earlier section on SFDR and TCFD). In many instances disclosure requirements for sustainability labeled funds, such as those rolled out under SFDR, are falling under the remit of marketing departments.