A Neuroscientist’s Guide to ESG: Winning Consumers and Influencing Social Change


A Neuroscientist’s Guide to ESG: Winning Consumers and Influencing Social Change

  • Messaging around social issues can be risky for brands, and sustainability is no exception. But why do some campaigns trigger backlash while others are well-received?
  • In the third installment of our “Green Divide” series, we’ll explore neuroscience-backed best practices for crafting “green” messages that resonate and how to minimize the chances of a negative response.

Social messages are challenging

As a neuroscientist with more than 12 years’ experience helping some of the world’s biggest brands develop successful ad campaigns, I have seen that there are many ways to powerfully connect to your audience. However, there are a few fundamental ways our brains work that can make sustainability advertising in particular challenging.

Successfully landing any message with an audience can be difficult because of primal human responses you might not be accounting for. But it can be especially difficult to assess how a sustainability message is landing because people often say that they’ll react differently than they actually do. Best-in-class data providers will help companies around this problem with System 1 methodologies that measure consumers’ non-conscious responses to advertising.

These implicit measures provide a deeper understanding of ad performance with tools like electroencephalograms (EEG), which measure electrical activity in the brain and can pinpoint the exact moment a viewer’s response to an ad is high or low. These tools can eliminate guesswork and help advertisers optimize specific imagery and messaging.

The good news is that there are many ways to communicate a pro-social message well, and when we tap into the fundamental human response, it can be universally powerful.

There are five key neuroscience-based principles to keep in mind as you develop and execute your pro-social and sustainability campaigns.

What is pro-social messaging?

Pro-social messaging refers to any media or advertisement that conveys or promotes an altruistic message or behavior. When creating campaigns to highlight ESG initiatives and successes, companies should follow universal principles for crafting social messages that land.

The key is keeping a balance between positive and negative elements. Incorporating a sense of optimism when focusing on the problem can imply a positive, hopeful path forward and overcome emotional pull back.

Consumers are more receptive to positive, personal stories, especially stories they can relate to. In contrast, big numbers are hard to relate to and create distance. Stating “We’ve invested $100 million to support green initiatives” will not be as effective in building empathy as showing the personal stories of people who have been impacted by a company’s “green” initiatives.

Key takeaways for successful sustainability messaging

Sustainability messaging is rarely about easy issues with easy solutions. To create messages about sustainability that keep consumers emotionally engaged and connected to the content, marketers and sustainability officers can lean into the following core neurological principles that govern how humans process information:

  • Use negativity sparingly and try and reframe the issue in a positive way.
  • Tap into empathy with the personal while avoiding divisions to steer clear of an “us versus them” mindset. 
  • Celebrate solutions by getting to them quickly, showing them clearly and hero-ing the consumer. 
  • Simplify, simplify, simplify, especially if tackling an inherently negative issue. 
  • Fit with your brand.  If there’s not a natural fit between your cause and your brand, create the path between what your brand is known for and the cause.

Get “green” messaging right

NIQ BASES positions CPG firms to create superior brand communication, packaging, and product experiences by directly measuring consumer response from the brain. Our approach (formerly offered under Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience) uses real neuroscience with measures that are valid, reliable, and linked to market outcomes.

About the author

Dr. Elise Temple is Vice President of Neuroscience and Client Service at NIQ BASES. After receiving her PhD in neurosciences from Stanford Medical School, she was a professor at both Cornell and Dartmouth, where she led the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Lab and the Educational Neuroscience Lab, respectively.

She has published more than two dozen peer-reviewed scientific papers that have been cited almost 6,000 times. Today she leads NIQ BASES’ global neuroscientist team that provides expertise for all projects that incorporate neuroscience and behavioral science methodologies.