Free Covid-19 Marketing Resources 

Marketing Post-Covid: Mike Kaplan, Chief Marketing Officer at ENGIE Impact

Transcript

Brian Erickson:
Thanks for joining the Cardwell Beach Marketing podcast. My name is Brian Erickson, Chief Strategy Officer and partner at Cardwell Beach. In this series, we’re interviewing senior marketers across industries to develop perspective on what marketing will look like in a post-COVID-19 world. Today’s guest is Mike Kaplan, the Chief Marketing Officer at ENGIE Impact, a global organization that assists corporations, cities, and governments with sustainability efforts. Mike, thanks so much for joining us today.

Mike Kaplan:
Thank you, Brian. Excited to be here.

Brian Erickson:
Awesome. Well, talking about weathering the storm here, at ENGIE Impact, your mission is to assist companies and governments with their sustainability strategy. So this is an interesting moment where we’re kind of feeling the global impact of a pandemic. How has the conversation around sustainability changed when you have a lot of other distractions going on?

Mike Kaplan:
Yeah, it’s a great question. I think back to when COVID hit at first, and we actually started to realize the gravity of the situation from a health and economic perspective. Clearly, one of the first questions we were naturally asking ourselves, given our businesses, will sustainability and climate be put on the back burner? Will companies freeze their efforts because of financial concerns or other priorities? And of course, there was an adjustment period, and the answer varies by industry based on how hard they’ve been hit, but overall, and what we’ve seen is, by and large, that companies are still continuing to move forward, and in some cases, accelerate their sustainability goals and the scope of their program.

I think about, we’ve seen announcements from companies right in the middle of the pandemic about sustainability and climate, Unilever, Barclays. An interesting one for me, is Nordstrom’s, right, in the retail sector, obviously very hard hit, they claimed and called out that sustainability was really core to their resiliency as a business, and it still needed to happen despite COVID. So there’s those companies, and in the tech sector, it’s been pretty amazing to watch some incredibly ambitious new goals rolled out by Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Intel, those big names, just to name a few. It was a pretty important moment for the industry and for the planet, frankly, because historically what we may have seen, is somewhat of a retrenchment, but as sustainability is really becoming more and core to the purpose of organizations and embedded as a top strategic priority, companies are really living up to that.

I think the other part as we think about coming into the crisis and now moving out, what’s really going to happen? How is COVID going to impact things as we think about a more green recovery, hopefully, as we move back to business as usual, how can we more sustainable? And I think there are really three things that they’re somewhat silver linings of COVID as it relates to sustainability and climate. The first is really that businesses, cities, governments, I think they’re going to better appreciate large-scale systemic risks. Even if you understand and acknowledge the climate risk, it’s still difficult to really understand the magnitude of something like that, that can completely shut down the world. And so, now everybody has lived something like that, they’ve seen the data, they’ve seen the impact. Mentally, I think society will better appreciate those risks and account for them.

I think the second thing we saw was that when we want to, we’re motivated as a business community, we can really rally quickly on a global basis to build new partnerships, collaborations. Companies and governments really did come together to innovate and tackle COVID as quickly as they possibly can, and that’s what we need to do with regards to climate change.

And I think the third piece coming out of COVID is really that you’re just going to see that much more of an intense pressure from customers, from employees, from investors on climate. It was happening already, but the mentality of, “Hey, let’s tackle this climate problem tomorrow,” it’s just not going to fly anymore, when people have lived a very real global crisis that in some respects we just weren’t prepared as well as we could’ve been. So the companies that are moving or going to accelerate, we think will benefit economically, environmentally, and those that are slower, they’re going to be left behind.

Brian Erickson:
Obviously, you spend a lot of time thinking about this. I like the term large-scale systemic risk in the context of how the COVID crisis kind of has some similarities to focusing on sustainability, and maybe a longer-term climate initiative, which, it’s not something that you can tackle in six months or a year, maybe even 10 years, right? It’s a very long-term goal, but I think when a disaster like COVID hits, you wish you had spent that time, and when’s the best time to plant a tree, right? 20 years ago. When’s the second best time? Today. Bill Gates had been talking about pandemic preparedness for many years, and yet, we felt totally unprepared when it actually hit. So I definitely think that preventing future pain can be difficult to prioritize, until it’s too late. How has the realization of this large-scale systemic risk and COVID impacted your marketing efforts or strategy, as you’re talking about a different large-scale systemic risk?

Mike Kaplan:
Yeah. Well, I mean, I think very quickly, we, as always as marketers, it’s our job to meet the audience where they’re at and what they want to be talking about, and with regard to COVID, the importance of talking about risk and resilience became very important very quickly, more so than it was right before it. How does that combine with sustainability? How do we think about getting prepared, measuring that risk when we’re thinking about the value of sustainability and decarbonization? Because things like renewables or more localized energy grids, not only help decarbonize if you’re using renewable and green power technologies, but they help with that resilience. So companies quickly just wanted to understand more about that, they quickly wanted to understand how the transition to things like remote work impact their goals. So we really had to come up with that content, using our expertise to help educate, and just be helpful, right? That was the most immediate thing. How can we be helpful? How can we add value to the world during this period so that we can all get through it and come out better for it?

Brian Erickson:
Mm-hmm. So talking a little bit more about content and educating your audience, obviously, sustainability is more familiar and accepted in the C-suite, but I imagine you still have some learning curve on the nuance and details of implementation with your audience. I guess, how have you engaged in this type of education historically, and have you changed your approach throughout the pandemic in terms of education, and just kind of putting some of the thinking out there?

Mike Kaplan:
Certainly, sustainability is really rising to the top of the C-suite agenda. In a lot of cases, you’ve seen companies put it at the core of their strategy, so it’s really just moved beyond corporate social responsibility exercise, or just worse yet, in this case, if I may, just a marketing and communications exercise, which we did see a decade ago, and that’s transitioned. So over the past few years, as that has risen to the top of the entire C-suite and functional organizations, we’ve really tried to think about, “Okay, what is each individual’s role in this sustainability transformation that we all need to go through?” The CEO, the COO, the CFO, HR, the CMO, and one thing we’ve tried to do as part of that, is to showcase the expertise of those C-level, their peers, right? And to engage in that type of peer-to-peer discussion.

One example of that is our CFO, he’s been very active in having an external voice on topics like green finance, involved in a program with the United Nations for finance executives. And so, you normally wouldn’t think of marketing and finance as strong business partners, but I think at ENGIE Impact, we’re defying some of that conventional wisdom, hopefully.

And then in terms of the pandemic, and I mentioned some of those changes in content, and the risk, that side of things that you asked about, how carbon footprints are changing, which are specific things people want to dig in on. The other thing that we’ve done is during this period, we were actually planning on… I mentioned other companies rolling out their goals. We rolled out our own goals, which is work we’d been doing for many months prior to the pandemic. But when we did that, when we rolled out our new sustainability goals, as part of that, what we did was we unveiled a new microsite that really walked people through the how of how we did it. How did we build this strategy?

And it was really just our commitment to try and be authentic and transparent with the market and our customers about the fact that sustainability is hard, right? Reducing carbon emissions isn’t easy, it is a long journey, as you mentioned. Most companies are actually failing at it because it’s inherently complex, and they don’t know how to do it, and we really wanted to own that and share where we were just as much as, “Hey, these are our goals, but here’s where we’re at. Here’s where we think we’re doing well. Here’s where we need to improve,” as sort of that contribution to educating the market.

Brian Erickson:
Zooming in and looking at your tactical mix in the midst of all of this, obviously, the entire world has undergone a shift in the way that we work, and I think business-to-business interactions have changed more substantially even than many of the ones in the consumer realm, hospitality and restaurants aside. Are you using different platforms or tactics than you were prior to the pandemic to connect with your audience?

Mike Kaplan:
Yeah, in some way, shape or form. I’m sure almost everything that we do across the board was impacted in some way, but for sure, the most massive disruption was to our events and conference program, right? Like many B2B companies, we have a steady diet of industry conferences that we use to connect with our buyers and the market, and the pandemic caused a very abrupt shift in our strategy there, right? We had to pivot very quickly to virtual events. The good news was, the team was very well-versed, this wasn’t a completely new channel, by any stretch, to us, and the team was really well-versed in the relevant technologies and could translate much of what we know from producing our own in-person events to the online world. But at the same time, we knew that just taking kind of a standard webinar format approach wasn’t going to be the recipe for success to best engage and connect with people in this environment.

So we’ve been doing a lot of testing and learning with different strategies to figure out, how do we keep audiences engaged before, during, and after these types of events? And overall, I think based on what we’re seeing in the market, and just seeing from people, we’re very bullish on smaller intimate events that let our prospects, our clients connect with our company and one another, right? Because people are just really craving that type of engagement, so if you can bring people together, put an experience around it, put together some good content there, that is really appreciated. I mean, I’ve gotten a lot more feedback than we typically do, just from our audience and how much they’re appreciating that type of approach. And so, I think for us, and my advice to other marketers, is one thing we did well, was we acted quickly, decisively, and just embraced those opportunities of digital. There’s definitely an opportunity if you can move quickly to outmaneuver your competition and drive some really great results.

Brian Erickson:
It’s interesting to hear you talk about your clients and prospects just craving connection and engagement. I mean, you’re selling and working with some of the top executives and some of the top corporations in the world, right? We’re all human, at the end of the day. That’s important to remember, that no matter how, or who you’re working with or selling to, that we’re all kind of… I hate to use the stereotypical, in this together.

Mike Kaplan:
Yup. Absolutely, it’s a great time to make that human connection, because everybody has that common experience in one way, shape or form, whether you’re the CEO or the most junior person at a company.

Brian Erickson:
So taking a little bit more of a forward-looking view on this, what do you think is going to come next within the sustainability world, specifically as it relates to just overall marketing or messaging shifts, maybe as we move into a new normal, or hopefully at some point, a post COVID-19 experience? What are we going to carry forward, and what’s going to kind of look different in the future?

Mike Kaplan:
I think it was already happening before, but even more so, you’re going to see companies be bolder in their messaging, be it for sustainability and climate at the top of their agenda, or in general, societal issues. And causes, we really can’t forget that. COVID is one thing that we’re experiencing, but there’s just so much going on in society that marketers are needing to challenge and address head on. And the companies that are doing it the best are putting that purpose front and center, and really are frankly, okay, if certain potential customers there may not agree or place that issue as important within their value system, the company’s made a decision, that this is their purpose, and that from a business perspective, it’s going to attract more customers, and retain their employees than if they otherwise did.

And speaking ourselves within ENGIE Impact, I mean, we experienced the benefit of this firsthand over the past few years because we’ve really expanded from a company focused on energy, water, and waste, and data, and management, to a real partner of sustainability transformation. And when we did that, from a marketing perspective, we really changed the way we talked about climate being more, I’d say unapologetic, in terms of, “This is an issue, it needs to be confronted. Businesses, cities, governments, they just need to move faster.” And that paid off for us, just having the opportunity to speak with customers that have been with us for a long time, what they say is that they really have seen our brand in a completely different way than in the past, and even more so value the relationship, and see us as a strategic long-term partner.

Brian Erickson:
It’s interesting, great brands are polarizing on a worldview and purpose sort of level, right? I mean, that’s ultimately what makes a great brand. And so, sustainability and climate change are the hot button topics on both sides for many issues, and if you can kind of come along for the ride on those topics and bring your brand into that conversation, it’s a great way to add a little bit of that polarization. And I think it’s also interesting on the urban front, I mean, I live in New York City, and it doesn’t look anything like it did six months ago. I think cities are going to really need to think about how they brand the urban experience, and what are the ways that they can make that something that aligns with people, in spite of some of the just kind of changes in distance, and proximity, and density that we’re all kind of hesitant about?

Mike Kaplan:
Yup, cities, they’re huge actors in the climate change issue, and then, but all of these things intersect, right? Health, safety, and just leading more sustainable lifestyles, they’re going to be, I guess, challenged in a sense, in terms of attractiveness, and they’re going to need to tell that story to attract people to live in their cities and work in their cities, and businesses, and all those things.

Brian Erickson:
So if you could give one piece of advice to marketers who are working in a similar space to you, maybe selling products and services, addressing sustainability and climate change at their core, what would you say is kind of the one thing that folks at all levels, whether it’s a sole proprietor or a multi-billion dollar corporation, what advice would you give to marketers in this space as a whole right now?

Mike Kaplan:
I think it’s about authenticity, really understanding if you’re going to market and promote your sustainability initiatives, your climate initiatives, it’s got to be authentic. The days of so-called greenwashing I mentioned referred to when sustainability was a communications exercise for some companies 10, 15 years ago, it’s just not going to cut it anymore. Business buyers, consumers are becoming too savvy, and the other leaders in the space are just doing much more. And so, whatever it is you choose to do, making sure that there’s teeth behind it, you’re going to follow through, and it really meets the level of rigor behind whatever claims you’re making. So that authenticity, I think is pretty important, and just being focused on something that ties back to your business and your strategy, because that’s going to make it everlasting. So if I was a marketer, I would be thinking about that, but then also pushing on the business, to make sure that what you’re putting out there is authentic and is going to be credible in the marketplace.

Brian Erickson:
On an individual contributor level, as we potentially approach record-breaking unemployment, many marketers are going to find themselves in transition. I guess, what skills would you say are most important for marketers in your industry to emphasize personally, if they’re on a job search, to remain competitive?

Mike Kaplan:
Yeah. I mean, broadly speaking, I think that you’re just going to see a continued trend towards the need for data-driven, analytically savvy marketers, in whatever area of marketing that you’re particularly focused on, because we need to be able to move and be agile, and yet, make effective decisions when we need to pivot. And that’s important, and data is foundational to that, understanding the business context is foundational to do that. Digital tools and techniques, like we talked about, is going to be clearly a focus, the ability to produce great content has never been more important throughout the marketing and sales process. I mean, those are some specific things.

More broadly, you mentioned there’s going to be more marketers out there, that’s true, and that means that there’s going to be a lot of competition for jobs, and there are great marketers available. And so, my biggest advice is for anyone individual, is just truly understand what you are good at, what’s that superpower that you have that you can do almost better than anybody else? And then the second thing is, determine what specific companies and roles that might best apply to, so you can truly differentiate in what’s going to be a competitive environment. And so, if you have any big experience gaps related to what you do, I think the best time to build those gaps is actually when you still have a job. So it just encourage anyone to tap those colleagues on the shoulder, and just really ask to pitch in in a new area to build those skills, both obviously for your present employer, and then your own future professional growth.

Brian Erickson:
Nice. I’ve heard become friends with your CFO, probably about 20 times, as an answer to this question in this podcast so far. I’ve got to say, my CFO is one of the nicest people in our company, she’s fantastic. So maybe my advice to CFOs is to be more approachable to the marketing team, stop being so mean. But anyway, Mike, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. This was really fantastic. I appreciate it.

Mike Kaplan:
Yeah, it was a great conversation, Brian. I really appreciate it as well.

Brian Erickson:
Awesome. Well, make sure to check out Mike Kaplan and ENGIE Impact on LinkedIn. Mike definitely practices what he preaches in terms of putting out great content. This is Brian Erickson with Cardwell Beach, thanks again for listening, and please make sure to check back for more senior marketers sharing their perspectives on what marketing will look like in a post-COVID-19 world.

Sign up to receive our weekly marketing advice.

Share This