January 5, 2023

Taking a Stand as a B2B Brand

Should B2B brands commit to ESG initiatives? 

This question is one that’s debated in both public forums and behind closed C-Suite doors, and it’s one that we tackle in this episode featuring Joe Cohen, the Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at AXIS. Tune in as we discuss the why AXIS has leaned into commitment to ESG, how to do it right, and what amazing things might happen if you do.

What You’ll Learn in This Episode 

  • How AXIS has committed to ESG  
  • Why B2B brands shouldn’t be afraid to take a stand  
  • When and why a brand should take a stand 

 Renegade Marketers Unite, Episode 326 on YouTube 

Resources Mentioned 

 Time-Stamped Highlights 

  • [1:06] Don’t feed the geese in Central Park!  
  • [3:43] Joe Cohen: Disc jockey to CMO  
  • [5:43] Joe’s KIND years   
  • [8:30] What’s AXIS?   
  • [11:02] Why take a stand?     
  • [13:12] Big Bets = Big Risk or Big Reward?  
  • [15:31] Strategic rationale is a must   
  • [19:39] What’s marketing’s role in ESG?  
  • [22:15] AXIS’ many environmental stands  
  • [24:11] On CMO Huddles  
  • [25:44] AXIS’ social stands  
  • [29:16] Employee Marketing is SO important   
  • [31:43] The business value of social stands  
  • [35:05] AXIS’ governance stands  
  • [37:07] Can ESG really differentiate your brand?   
  • [40:05] Joe’s words of wisdom on taking a stand  
  • [43:00] Final thoughts: Yes, take that stand

Highlighted Quotes 

“I would never advocate taking a stand just to take a stand. Of course, an organization has values & beliefs, but you also need to have a stake in the game for the topics where you choose to have a point of view.” —@JcohenPov @AXIS_Capital Click To Tweet 

“There's never not a reason to have an engaged and excited workforce. But as it relates to really bringing your brand to life and advocating your brand? Table stakes.” —@JcohenPov @AXIS_Capital Click To Tweet

“Taking a stand is about understanding how the program aligns with your business priorities, how it relates to the various issues that are relevant to your business, and why you have a stake in the game.” —@JcohenPov @AXIS_Capital Click To Tweet

“Go beyond the launch. When you make an announcement, it's just the first step. Roll up your sleeves and support the implementation on the operational side within the business where the real work begins.” —@JcohenPov @AXIS_Capital Click To Tweet

Full Transcript: Drew Neisser in conversation with Joe Cohen


Drew Neisser: Hello, Renegade Marketers. Welcome to Renegade Marketers Unite: The top rated podcast for B2B CMOs and other marketing obsessed individuals. You’re about to listen to a recording of Renegade Marketers Live. Our live show featuring the CMOs of CMO Huddles, a community that sharing, caring, and daring each other to greatness every day of the week. This time, we’ve got a conversation with Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, Joe Cohen of AXIS Financial. A brand that isn’t afraid to take a stand. It’s an amazing episode, let’s dive in!

Narrator: Welcome to Renegade Marketers Unite, possibly the best weekly podcast for CMOs and everyone else looking for innovative ways to transform their brand, drive demand, and just plain cut through. Proving that B2B does not mean boring to business. Here’s your host and Chief Marketing Renegade Drew Neisser.

Drew Neisser: I’m your host Drew Neisser live from my home studio in NYC. I was walking in central park the other day, as i often do with my wife and dog Louie, when we came upon a tourist trying to feed a pizza slice to a Canada goose. Feeling a proprietary relationship to both the park and its animal inhabitants, I deputized myself and told the women to stop what she was doing. I quipped, why would you feed a bird anything let alone a food that isn’t even good for you? She looked at me like a was a crazy New Yorker and backed away. But I wasn’t a crazy New Yorker, just a well-informed one. Because so many tourists (and god forbid locals)  have been feeding these geese human food, the population has grown 6x  since 2001 (from only 30 to over 175) which forced out other birds and changed the chemistry of the park’s ponds (I’ll have you know each goose drops a pound of poop every day) create excess algae which in turn is killing off the fish.

In that moment, I had no doubt about taking stand against feeding pizza to geese regardless of the personal or reputational risk. But for companies and their brands, taking a stand requires a different sort of calculus particularly in a hyper-polarized political environment. Undoubtedly, taking a stand involves a certain amount of reputational  risk – you may please one audience and piss off another.  There may also be genuine financial risk, both from divestitures and boycotts by state run pension funds. Blackrock funds, for example, has been boycotted by Texas for its ESG policies.

So in today’s episode we’re going to dive into taking a stand with the help of one brave CMO. 

With that, let’s bring on Joe Cohen, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer of Axis Capital.  Hello Joe – how are you and where are you?

Joe Cohen: Hey, Drew, how are you?

Drew Neisser: I’m a little stumbly today. I don’t know that’s the weird part of a live show. So first of all, where are you besides a virtual conference room?

Joe Cohen: Yeah, so it appears as if I’m in an AXIS Board Room. But in reality, I’m in Hoboken, New Jersey. Which I’ll note has fantastic pizza. So it’s something that I take pride in being a little bit of a connoisseur of. So it’s offensive to me that someone would give away good pizza to a bird.

Drew Neisser: There you go. I was trolling on your LinkedIn profile, as I often do for guests, and help but notice you spent 6 months as an on-air disc jockey your senior year at Syracuse. Was there a moment when you thought this might be my career?

Joe Cohen: Oh, absolutely. That is exactly what I wanted to do. Stepping back a connective thread in my career is I’ve always been drawn to opportunities and jobs where you could be a builder. And you could see that in my early days, I was part of an emerging agency that we grew. I was part of a team that grew it to best in class midsize firm, which is MWW. I was there during KIND’s growth years. And I was part of a team that contributed to that growth. And then AXIS we have a growth mission now.

But with that station, this was in the late 90s, at the height of the hip hop movement during that golden era. And it was cool. That was something that I wanted to do. Ultimately, I took what I thought would be a temporary job at a communications firm and I had planned to go back to the hip hop job and I ended up staying at that firm 15 years.

Drew Neisser: Amazing. Now, is there anything that you learned from that experience? I mean, as a DJ that sort of carried through other than having a very good voice for a show like this?

Joe Cohen: Well, I didn’t always, but absolutely. Being a broadcast journalism major and working at that radio station, and other experiences on campus, I learned how to project myself I learned how to be concise—some may argue with that, but concise in delivering points. I learned how to know my audience, particularly when you’re choosing music and things of that nature. And I learned about the emotive power of music that’s very relevant as a marketer. And also being a small part of the hip hop movement at that time, it really provided me an education and a point of view on the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Drew Neisser: Very, very cool. Well, little known fact, I guest DJ while I was at Duke for a friend who had a regular show. And I went on the air—this is just within the campus—and said, “You know, I think the next caller is going to win a million dollars. Give us a call.” I’ll never forget that. Yeah, promise large promises.

Anyway, now we’re moving on to—we didn’t get any calls—KIND was an amazing brand that stood for something. Not just healthy snacks, but the whole idea of kindness. And I had a chance to talk to Daniel Lubetzky way back when. How did that experience—I mean, he’s really a visionary. But how does that experience play a role in helping you understand what it means to take a stand?

Joe Cohen: Yeah, well, I mean, Daniel’s a wonderful guy, and a great leader. And to your point, he’s a visionary, rather, in both the snack food space and the purpose driven space. During my time at KIND, we organically became an activist brand. And, you know, I definitely played a big role in that. A key moment for KIND, when I was there, is that we were targeted by the FDA for having healthy on our packaging. And at the time, FDA had a ruling that basically views—it was what we believed was outdated ruling from the 90s that viewed fats as bad. And the number one ingredient in most KIND bars was nuts, which is a good fat. We wound up—at first misunderstood by the press, we wound up taking a little bit of a hit with negative publicity. But we held our ground and really explained the reason why KIND bars were healthy.

At that point, most companies would kind of let it go. But just an example of taking a stand, what we decided to do, and there’s definitely a lot of internal concern. But to Daniel’s credit, he always held steadfast. And I was all in as well, was that we took the action of petitioning the FDA to update its rulings. And we launched a big campaign, and basically reopened the conversation about healthy and KIND. And ultimately, we wound up working in partnership with the FDA to update that guidance. You could look back on it as a best practice way of a corporation working with government. But at the time it was a risky move and we took a bold stand. And I’d say working with Daniel, working with the team, I learned a lot from the team that I worked with under me, I became a more bold and courageous leader than I certainly was when I was at the company. And there’s something freeing about that.

Drew Neisser: Yeah, I had the good fortune of—and you were there—my first book came out right about when his first book came out. And he’s featured in my first book, but I had the pleasure of chatting with him a couple of times. What I just marvel at—and he told me the story of the whole healthy thing off camera, if you will, and my recorder wasn’t going and I just thought, you know, he really is committed to the cause. I mean, and the whole reason that KIND came into being is here was this guy running all over the world trying to sell this—I don’t know if you know this, but he had a vision that he could solve the Middle East crisis through food.

Joe Cohen: Yes.

Drew Neisser: That was it. That was a vision. And so he was running all over the world. And he could never find anything healthy to eat while he was on the road. And that was how KIND came out. Obviously this is a story you know very well.

Anyway, let’s get to AXIS Capital, which you joined in 2016. First of all, not everybody knows what AXIS Capital is. I mean, Renegade’s a customer. Just full disclosure for agency protection insurance. Talk a little bit about AXIS Capital, because I suspect a lot of the listeners aren’t aware of all the things that you all do.

Joe Cohen: We’re a leading specialty insurance and reinsurance company. Our business is almost entirely B2B. But we’re a multibillion dollar company and a challenger brand compared to some of the industry monoliths. So part of what is unique, to degreem about AXIS is that we’re a sophisticated company with a global platform. But we’re also small enough that we could create customized and bespoke insurance and risk solution programs for our customers. And I’ll also add that our customers, we do all of our business through intermediaries. So that helps explain what I mean by specialty and that’s some insurance industry jargon.

But part of what I think is also interesting about AXIS is that being a midsize player were fast enough that we could pivot into emerging areas of risk. So were a top 5 player in renewable energy and were a top 10 player in cyber. Part of what intrigued me about AXIS when I joined the company in 2016, is that I could tell that AXIS was a company that thought differently in its space. And when they were looking to recruit the role that I took, which at that time was CCO, they were looking for someone with experience outside the industry. And that was intriguing. And inside the company, I think that all contributes to what gave us the cultural background and flexibility to be willing to take a stand on issues.

Drew Neisser: Interesting. And I’m going to just give a little more context. Every business has certain types of insurance that they might need that are specific to their category. For example, if you are an advertising agency, your clients will require you to have a certain amount of liability insurance in case they get sued for some ad that you create. Or, you know, a banner ad or a website, or somehow or other some false claim is made. It’s a very special niche. And it takes a lot of special niche knowledge to be able to do it. But I feel like you’re a leader in a lot of these little segments.

Joe Cohen: Yeah, for us, part of our strategy is that we’ll only play in sectors where we—or verticals, I should say—where we could be a top player, or we see a path to leadership. So there are certain areas where, you know, big areas like areas of automotive and workers comp, where we just don’t play because we don’t see an opportunity to lead.

Drew Neisser: Right. All right, well, we’re here to talk about taking a stand. What’s the strategic basis for even thinking about taking a stance?

Joe Cohen: Yeah, so I think, ultimately, taking a stand needs to be tied to a business imperative. I would never advocate taking a stand just to take a stand. I think, of course, an organization has values and beliefs. Our belief is that you also need to have a stake in the game for the topics where you choose to have a point of view. So for us two areas, which we prioritized as areas of focus for our corporate citizenship program, our environment, and D&I. 

And for environment, we do a lot of work in the property insurance space. And climate change has a direct impact on our business. Also, as I noted earlier, we’re a top 5 player in renewable energy. So we have both business interest and, from a value standpoint, an interest in helping to improve the world by providing insurance support and growing renewable energy.

For D&I, similarly but in a little bit of a different way because it relates to talent, we believe that we’ll be a stronger company if we have a more diverse and inclusive workforce. And it helps benefit us if we’re able to prioritize that. And also within our value system, we’ll speak out on it and we feel it’s important for the industry, it helps. We actually have a talent shortage in the insurance industry. And a way to help solve that is to show that AXIS and other insurers can be a welcoming place for people of all backgrounds to pursue a career.

Drew Neisser: Got it, I think, but we’re gonna we need to dive into some of those things a little bit more. And the thought that came to mind is the strategic decisions are enlightened self interest, right?

Joe Cohen: Yeah you could say that.

Drew Neisser: In some ways, if there’s less property damage from less climate change, then you know, you have fewer claims and D&I is a roadmap to hiring more people. And you’re both a growth company. So even though these things might be described as corporate social responsibility, and might be described as, “We’re committed to helping the world.” In truth, there’s this self interest, and that’s fine. You are, as far as I know, you are a for profit organization, correct?

Joe Cohen: Absolutely.

Drew Neisser: Let’s dive into the environmental aspect of this a little bit more deeply. So I’ll give you an example to let you collect your thoughts. So I’ve interviewed Bank of the West, CMO, Ben Stewart, both on my podcast. But we actually had like a roadshow, we did a couple of live presentations. What was interesting from their standpoint, this strategic insight was that people who put money in banks don’t realize that their money has agency. That their money actually goes somewhere. And so what they said is, “We’re only going to put the money that you put in our bank in places that we believe in.” And so they ended up phasing out of every bit of coal, they got out of fracking, and it was about a billion dollars in money that they walked away from. Now they made up for it, because they won a lot of new business in California and Colorado. But it really killed them in certain coal states and others. So they, in a sense, took a costly statement to live the brand values if you will. You guys are phasing out of the thermal coal business from your insurance portfolio. There must have been revenue associated with that business.

Joe Cohen: Yeah, there absolutely is. And anytime in business—and you know, it’s part of the way insurance works is you’re making decisions and taking bets. And, you know, insurances based on that sort of decision making and probability. And for us the decision that we made, which also aligned with our values, and I spoke before about the stake in the game that we have in mitigating the negative impacts of climate change. We saw a business opportunity to grow renewable energy. And we thought that it made sense to phase out of thermal coal over time. We also believe in a just transition so because there could be negative repercussions if you phase out of certain markets or regions too quickly if you’re not providing them with any insurance support, and that is central to their economy. So we want to do it in a thoughtful way. But at the same time, we did make that big bet. And you’re right, that you do risk alienating external parties and also internal parties. And you are giving up a certain amount of revenue or premiums within insurance. But ultimately, you’re making a bet that it’s going to benefit you in the long term. And that’s what we’ve done. And so far, it’s worked to our benefit.

Drew Neisser: So talk about this sort of risk reward calculus. And I’m imagining there were some naysayers in the company—”Were walking away from a half a million or a million dollars or multimillion dollar thermal coal business?” There must have been some folks inside that organization who thought that was a little crazy.

Joe Cohen: What we did have, of course, a lot of discussion internally. And there were people who were on all sides of the issue, who felt this was absolutely the right decision, and others who definitely thought that it was the wrong decisions for some of the reasons that you shared. So what we went through internally is we went through a deliberative process, we took in a range of opinions. And we were very clear in speaking with all the different parties and stakeholders internally and giving people a forum to share their views. We explained the rationale, and where we saw the reasons to take these actions. So ultimately, we knew that there were certain audiences and individuals who might not agree, but at the very least, if they understood the rationale, and understood the rational reasons why we’re doing it, and also understood that it was a process where their voice was heard and their opinions were contemplated. That was what we thought was the best practice approach. So far, as I noted, everything appears to be working in a favorable manner.

Drew Neisser: Internally. And I want to talk about that a second. Because this has come up in huddles a couple of times. I’m putting a punctuation point on the need for transparency and rationale provided to employees when a company is changing a policy of significance. And this is one that would have significance. And so for the CEO or whoever the executive to not only talk to people in advance, but to present. Not just, “Hey, we’re doing this.” Because there was actually CMO in huddles, whose CEO just came in one day and said, “Okay, everybody back to the office. And if you don’t want to come… there it is.” No rationale. No ifs ands. No explanation about, “Well, what about these people who are still immunocompromised.” No discussion. That doesn’t feel like a productive way of leadership in any situation. But I think in this situation, it’s even more important. The term that I heard that someone else did was based on the information that we have, and based on the values of our company, this is the decision we’re making now, and here’s the rationale for why. And I think, for the most part, and you know, better than I, that a majority of employees will say, ‘At least they told me ‘why’.” And they’ll sort of move on.

Joe Cohen: No, and that’s what you aim for. Because, you know, as I noted, you’re not going to be able to convince everyone. But at least explain the rationale that also extends to customers. And that also extends to the general public and other groups that are stakeholders in the company. For investors, this has been very favorable message, there’s a lot of, among most, a lot of momentum behind ESG.

What I’ll also note, because there may be some of the audience thinking, “Well, what’s marketing’s role in this?” And what I’ll note is that we as a function, we always saw an opportunity to really make purpose core to our brand. And we spoke earlier about KIND and I had experiences on the agency side before that, that helped me understand the power of purpose in building a strong and vibrant brand, and really creating a soul for your brand that carried a lot of impact internally, externally, with employees with all stakeholder groups. And for us, as it relates to ESG, we’re part of a cross functional team, but were a very active player. More than an active player, we’re one of the leaders around the table. And were a catalyst in helping to advance the different initiatives when we feel that we could make a business case for it. But it’s never anything that we go alone. It’s something working in close partnership with the business, with other stakeholder groups, whether it’s legal—our general counsel is actually the ex executive sponsor for ESG—but legal, HR, you know, we have a combined communications team, IR. So it needs to be a collaborative effort. But I would make the case that marketing could absolutely be a leader in advancing programs of this nature.

Drew Neisser: And why do you say that? I know the answer—and by the way, before you continue, I feel like this is an ideal scenario, because in the inner working that you describe the connection between all the other departments is an ideal scenario for almost all marketing initiatives. But it’s ironic to me that with ESG, it has to be. And so there’s no doubt. But why do you think marketers are in such a good position to drive ESG programs within and outside the organization?

Joe Cohen: There are several reasons. One is that I feel that the marketing function is horizontal and that we have an opportunity to touch so many different areas of the company. So we can be a convener. We could share insights that may not carry across the different areas of the company, and help galvanize and bring people together. And in doing so you have to do in a selfless way. This shouldn’t be about getting a win from marketing, it should be about shared successes, and really having a selfless approach. So for ESG, it doesn’t matter who the leader is, as long as we’re able to advance efforts that we think are right for the business and our people.

What I’ll also note is that part of our job, and our reason for being, is to provide insights on how to unlock untapped business opportunities. I noted the opportunity here with renewable energy, something that we’re seeing within our industry and a lot of industries is that there’s an emerging ESG product market. It’s early days, but by taking some of these actions now we’re creating credibility that can help us really grow into that market as it expands.

So part of it is where we sit, part of it is helping to identify different insights and opportunities, and part of it is being able to convey the impact that it could have on strengthening and growing our brand. And also, in some ways, protecting our brand.

Drew Neisser: Wow. Okay, a lot to unpack there. And I think there’s some connection between the next thing I want to talk about. I think, 3 or 4 years ago, if you announced your ESG policy and your ESG plan and how you were going to approach each of those. And even you had the emergence of ESG officers whose responsibility was that and certain metrics started to happen. Well, I remember clearly, and I read this pretty much the entire article in great detail. About a few months ago, The Economist magazine put ESG, the three worst letters in business. Their argument was ‘E’ is great. And if we just focused on ‘E’ for a moment, because you can put business cost and business value on ‘E’. That social and the governance are so squishy. They’re harder to measure, it’s harder to understand. You know, is it quotas? Is it not? And so, you know, social and governance is another tricky thing—and we’ll get to that.

But I want to make sure that we finish up on environment first. We’ve talked about phasing out of one thing. What other sort of environmental standards are you taking that, you know, in some ways would constitute the risks that we’ve been talking about?

Joe Cohen: Sure, you had mentioned that our underwriting policies, you also mentioned banks, and how their money goes somewhere. So it’s the same thing with insurance. And we spoke about—or I’m sure many are familiar with the concept of float. That we have our premiums come in, and then we make investments. So we also instituted a policy where we will invest in—we have different thresholds to ensure that we’re not investing in companies that make most of their profits from thermal coal. And we also have a strategy both for our underwriting, our fossil fuel underwriting, and on our investment side to phase out of thermal coal entirely by 2030.

In addition to that, another standard that we recently took was the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, we made the commitment publicly that we wouldn’t provide insurance or facultative reinsurance for companies that generate 20% or more of their revenues from the energy exploration, production, or transportation activities conducted within the refuge. And also, we’re not providing investment support for oil and gas projects and operations in the refuge. So that’s another example that the rationale aligns with the decision making process that went into our thermal coal decisions. But it lends to the position and viewpoint that we have on the greater environmental and climate change issue. And I’ll also note that really viewpoints vary by geography. Anything that I just spoke about, were a global company within London and within Europe. And within our London and Zurich markets and in other areas outside the US. There’s really not that much controversy among climate change. In the States, however there is and that’s something we need to be mindful of.

Drew Neisser: All right, it’s a good environment to move on to another topic.

But before we do that, I’m just gonna spend less than a minute talking about CMO Huddles. Launched in 2020, CMO Huddles is an exclusive community of over 100 highly effective B2B CMOs who share, care, and dare each other to greatness. Everything about CMO Huddles is designed to be a force multiplier, helping you to make faster, better and more informed decisions. Where one inspiring hour a month delivers 10 hours of perspiration saved. Since no CMO can outwork their job, CMO Huddles is here to help you outsmart it.

So with that, and I’m excited, Joe is a relatively new huddler. You haven’t had that much experience yet. But I’m curious what your reaction so far has been to CMO Huddles.

Joe Cohen: I think CMO Huddles is great. I think even just the customer experience of being of CMO Huddles, the emails that have gotten from you and your team, the mug that I received, the different packages. It’s a great experience. Hey, these guys are expert at marketing. But I think that the emails that we regularly get with insights are terrific. I think it helps with me to really keep a pulse on what are on the minds of other CMOs, I definitely have tried to take advantage of the opportunity to network. And early on, I know I sent you an email, Drew, about a different business priority that we were looking at for our team. And I was immediately connected to a couple different CMOs, and I had some conversations where I got a real candid view on, you know, similar approaches that they implemented, what went right, perhaps even more valuable, what didn’t. So I think CMO Huddles is fantastic. And I’m really proud to be a part of it.

Drew Neisser: I love it. Well, thank you for those comments. 

We started to talk about the ‘S’ in ESG. And social and you gave an overview of the program and you linked social to D&I (diversity & inclusion) Talk a little bit about, first of all, where that fits into marketing’s world and the role that you play in defining the social, or the diversity and inclusion programs and executing them and ultimately measuring them. That’s like 50 questions, pick one of them.

Joe Cohen: Okay, I’ll try to give an answer that hits on multiple ones. Hopefully, I’ll be kind of successful. We’ll see. I’ll start with the role of marketing. Something that our that our team did voluntarily was—I’d say, around 2019, we started to see momentum internally, to really stand up a D&I program. And there was—I would say, even back in 2016, there was kind of scattered efforts happening across the company. Our CEO, also our board and rising sentiment from staff was that we want to really scale up our efforts there.

For our team, it was something where the team had a lot of heart for the work. We thought that there were opportunities from a purpose standpoint and a branding standpoint to really position ourselves as a company that had a progressive view on the D&I issue. And also, we knew that, as I noted earlier, that a challenge facing the entire industry was that we have a talent shortage. It’s tough to get people especially young talent to work in insurance. And D&I could be a big solution there.

So we thought that there were a lot of reasons to justify why we should at the very least play a role. And working in tandem, I’d say primarily with HR. HR is a big partner for our function in general, I could talk more about EX employee experience more in a bit. But it was something where we really worked with HR to help stand up the program. And for the communications part of our team helped generate awareness, internally and externally. More internal I’d say around the work we were doing. So I talked a little bit about the program helped forming a D&I Council, mandatory educational programs that we implemented, really making diverse interview slates, salary benchmarking, creating employee resource groups. These were all part of our behavior as an organization.

From a branding standpoint, what began to happen organically was we started to have our colleagues go out on social media, and talk about the things happening within our organization. And for us something that we now tried to do, but we’re careful because we wanted to remain organic, we just want to offer the tools is for our employee resource groups, we support them in creating content. And we support them in expressing their voice on D&I issues, and also the pride that they have in some of the work that’s happening in the company. So all of that lends to brand. And internally, it also lends to the employee experience. So that’s part of our role.

I’m also, you know, at the end of the day, just like any marketing KPI, it all comes down to outcomes. So something that all the stakeholders in the D&I program we’re all looking at is how are we actually moving the needle? Are we bringing in more diverse talent? Are we keeping them? Are they developing? And that’s that level of rigor and structure in collecting data is something that we’ve really stood up over the past few years and are still implementing. I’ll also note that 2020 for AXIS, and like many organizations, it was a watershed moment in the world. All the different social movements that came out of the tragedies. And that was definitely an accelerant for our efforts. We saw an opportunity to really leverage that as a catalyst to move forward programs that we were excited about and thought deliver value.

Drew Neisser: I want to pause and put a broader umbrella on this because here we are, this is a marketing show for marketers, and we’re spending a fair amount of time—and we’re not done yet—talking about marketing to employees. And I want to put some context here we are most likely—my crystal ball and most other economists crystal ball says we’re going to have a recession in 2023. You could say, “All right, what is the most cost effective channel to drive your business forward?” And the answer is going to be employees. They are the frontline. If you are thinking about a recession and you’re thinking about that and how you’re going to plan and compete against that you have more motivated, more loyal, more dedicated, more proud employees. Chances are you’re going to out compete some of the others. Particularly as  budgets get cut. 

That’s me on my pedestal. But I’m putting that out there. Because in my book, I talk about this too, which is flip your targets. Target number one is not prospects, and then customers, and employees being last and an afterthought. Think about employees first. Okay, I’m off my soapbox. I’m gonna now let you respond to that. And say, in your mind, how important is employee marketing. And where I’m putting D&I and putting social in that as part of a broader way of engaging employees and getting them excited. And getting them, frankly, to be proud of the company that they work for.

Joe Cohen: Engaging employees and making them feel proud and excited to represent our brand. I’d say it’s table stakes. And something that you see, not necessarily in financial services, but in other industries, (consumer packaged goods, in general, the B2C space) is a lot of work to really mobilize employees and turn them into brand ambassadors. My own philosophy was informed by experiences that I had in the consumer space. And on the agency side, I did both B2B and B2C and corporate and consumer. And I came to AXIS right after being at KIND where you really had a lot of employee pride. That I think was core to one of the many reasons why KIND was was successful. So coming into AXIS, I understood the power of that.

And also, I’ll note that we you could argue that we’re still in the great resignation. I don’t know if we are, but certainly we were in it recently. And there’s never not reason to have a an engaged and excited workforce. But I think as it relates to really bringing your brand to life and advocating your brand, table stakes.

Drew Neisser: I’m not being skeptical at all. But I’m trying to channel the skeptic for a second. Just to push back a little bit to make sure that we can show business value to investors and executives when we talk about social. Like environment, a lot of times environmental issues are going to end up being money saving issues, right? In some ways. If we have a smaller footprint, if we’re invest doing more in renewables, ultimately, there’s a payout in those things, talk a little bit about and aggregate the social things that you’re doing into business value.

Joe Cohen: Yeah, well, as I noted, I’d say the core lever within the ‘S’ part of our ESG program is really anchored around D&I. For us being able to show—and we do tons of studies internally around employee engagement, what are the issues that matter to our colleagues? Why are they staying? Why are they leaving? D&I we know is something that really matters to our people. Having a company that has firm practices, and that really is focused on D&I. And also being able to show that we’re making an impact in keeping strong talent in general, including diverse talent and talent in general. Those are all measurable KPIs, a lot of the rationale is grounded in data.

Drew Neisser: And again, because I had a conversation with a huddler who wanted me to sort of show the business value. And really, it’s one thing you can measure the diversity of your workforce. It’s very hard to measure, say, productivity of your workforce and an improvement of output because of diversity. Inherently, it makes sense. But this was the pushback. Is our product better? Is our service better? Is it because we have a more diverse workforce. I didn’t have any data I could put in front of this individual and say, “I mean, I believe it to be so.” But that’s not a very good argument.

Joe Cohen: I know that there’s organizations like McKinsey and others who’ve put out reports that show connections there. But for AXIS, we’ve had 9 positive quarters. And I don’t think it’s driven by D&I. But that’s one of many areas where we’ve invested we’re seen a lot of progress in our business results.

Again, I wouldn’t say that—I think that there’s other cause and other elements that you could point to as core drivers. But it’s something that we believe is a positive contributor.

Drew Neisser: Right. And and now I’m going back to Jim Collins, it’s a lot of little things done well to get that flywheel moving. And when all those little things are doing well and the flywheel is moving, life is good. And it’s an important part of it. And it comes back to a younger employee workforce, they believe in D&I, they believe in being environmentally responsible. And if you want to recruit and retain those folks, it probably makes sense to be on that side of the issue.

Okay. It is this moment in the show where I ask the question, What would Ben Franklin say? And you may recall that he was there when the US declared its independence. That was some taking a stand, if you will, and one that came with sincere risk. The minute the folks signed the Declaration of Independence, basically, Britain said, “Okay, all of those who signed it are now treasonous and are subject to execution.” So Franklin said—or is rumored to have said when he walked out of the signing of the Declaration of Independence—he famous said, “We must all hang together, or most assuredly, we will all hang separately.”

Okay, so let’s get to the last ‘G’. That ESG the G, it is one that we’ve never talked about, really on this show. How are you approaching governess? And what role does marketing play here?

Joe Cohen: I’ll talk a little bit about how we approach governance, I’ll be straightforward and saying that Marcomm has a role. But we’re much more actively involved in the E and the S. But I’d say the work that’s done with—as relates to the G—is driven primarily by legal with support from our team, particularly the members of our team who have backgrounds in communications. And yeah, that goes back to having a combined Marketing and Communications function. But a lot of it is making sure that we’ve got clear and transparent disclosures and making sure that we’re constantly auditing ourselves to make sure that we have those disclosures. That our ethical practices internally are sound, that we’re practicing internal education and making sure that our workforce is educated, and just keeping current with best practices. So some of that comes down to good hygiene, and we have a role to play in it. But I would say the more media work would be in the E & S, as it relates to the Marcomm role.

Drew Neisser: I mean, I imagine there must be some, particularly in Europe with rules about privacy and data. That’s probably where there was some, you know, certainly marketing had to pay a little more attention.

Joe Cohen: And absolutely. Again, I think I mentioned the partnership with legal. Having that close relationship and regularly working with them to make sure that we’re complying, following best practice. And in general, of course, I think many know, insurance is a highly regulated industry. So this is one of those many reasons why it’s so important that we have a great relationship with the legal function. And you afforded Ben Franklin a moment ago, you know, a theme that I’ve pointed to, and something that I think is critical to our approach, and our working philosophy for our team is that we need to really have very, very strong with all the different functions. Ttherwise, we wouldn’t want to hang together. But I think that the ‘G’ part of it, that’s where having that open dialogue with legal and a foundation of trust is absolutely critical.

Drew Neisser: So if we go back to the beginning, and say, “Part of a CMO being able to drive strategy for the organization. And certainly ESG could be a part of that.” Do you see ESG, as something that really is going to differentiate your brand?

Joe Cohen: I think when implemented in an authentic, smart way informed by data, it could absolutely have a huge impact on elevating your brand. I’ll add that I think that marketing could be a leader and certainly a catalyst. But to do it right, as I said a moment ago, it needs to be a cross functional approach. But marketing could definitely have a huge impact and have a leadership role in driving it.

Drew Neisser: So we’ve talked about how particularly the environmental and the social are things that employees can get excited about, they can understand, they can support, their sharing it. And in your case, they’re sharing it on social. And I’ve talked about why that’s so good and that could be enough. But how if any way does some of that story get to your customers? And and and by that I’m just thinking of the brokers and the challenge that they all have, particularly if they’re coming into an agency, it’s every year a policy comes up for renewal, and it’s going to cost X amount of dollars. Where does that fit in in terms of helping the brokers? I mean, now, I don’t know how much you communicate this to the brokers. And, first of all, them maintaining a relationship with you, but their ability to help sell you and your products?

Joe Cohen: Yeah, well, I think some some brokers and some customers and some end insured care more about this than others. But we believe that with our brokers, you know, their primary interest, of course, is having the right policy, having great customer service, having us be responsive, having us deliver really strong claims handling, we know that those are the key reasons why they want to work with us.

At the same time, we believe this is something that we’re proud of. And we make brokers aware that we prioritize ESG, and we’ve got good practices. And if they want to learn more, we’re glad to share it. We also just know based on social media, that brokers, industry stakeholders, people are paying attention and engaging with content about ESG. So we know it’s something that matters to them. Again, as it relates to our reputation as a great place to work within an insurance, that’s something that we know that this contributes to that and word of mouth within the industry. This is part of that. So we want people to know. But at the same time, we’re always very clear with ourselves and clear in our marketing on what we know are the aspects that will be the core drivers of business growth.

Drew Neisser: Right, right. And in some ways, this is part of the emotional connection. There’s still going to be the rational you have to deliver the basics no matter what. If you have bad customer service, it doesn’t matter how much ESG you do. But it could be a tiebreaker and it also just makes it a lot easier when they recommend you to know that there’s some good corporate citizenship behind it.

Okay, well, we’re coming to the end of the show now. And it’s time to share some final words of wisdom on CMOs taking a stand. So Joe, what is your first tip for fellow CMOs when thinking about taking a stand?

Joe Cohen: So when it comes to taking a stand, and I’ll focus specifically on ESG, it’s understanding how the program aligns with your business priorities, how it relates to the various issues that are relevant to your business, and why you have a stake in the game.

Drew Neisser: The key word here that I really hit on is relevance. Because if it’s not relevant to your business in any way, shape, or form,  someone’s gonna say it’s greenwashing or it’s borrowed interests. So relevance is important. Okay. Now, what’s your second tip?

Joe Cohen: Don’t go it alone. Forge coalitions, embrace the idea of shared success. Don’t feel that marketing needs to take credit for everything. It’s okay sometimes for programs to be marketing assisted, or for us to be a player and a catalyst at the table. So you have to go in with a real selfless mentality and believe that we all win together.

Drew Neisser: Anybody listening to this, hit me up on LinkedIn, I’ll send you a “Welcome We” this chapter in my book that talks about exactly that point. It’s amazing how much CMOs can do if they don’t worry about who gets the credit. Okay, Joe, what’s your third tip?

Joe Cohen: We’re talking about launching programs. So go beyond the launch. When you make an announcement, it’s just the first step. Roll up your sleeves support the implementation on the operational side within the business where the real work begins. And, of course, we were talking about ESG, it’s directly relevant there. You have to make it clear to your partners within the business, that you’re a committed partner, and you’re going to go beyond just the initial marketing push. You’re going to help and leverage your seat to help with implementation.

Drew Neisser: I love that. And what really talking about is the do’s, not the says, the do’s. The actions that you’re going to be able to do that will make the marketing promise real.

Joe, thank you for those tips. You’ve been a very good sport, I want to thank you for staying with us. As I think about all of this conversation, the things that really struck me in this is this just can’t be window dressing, this has got to be real. And in order for it to be real. You need to have everybody that matters in the organization at the executive level needs to be involved. Because the implications, there’s implication for product, there’s information for sales, there’s implication for legal and internally, how do you behave? And that’s just environmental. But when we’re talking about diversity and inclusion, it’s pretty broad reaching as well, right? I mean, it touches everything.

Joe Cohen: Oh, absolutely. And I think what you said is spot on, it aligns with the point that I gave in my tip. You know, when you’re playing in this space, it’s not just about marketing—and really should never just be about marketing—but it impacts all areas of the business. And you have to have every part of your approach crafted in a matter where you recognize that in the rollout, in the management, and how you interact with your colleagues and your partners. It spans the entire organization and beyond the organization.

Drew Neisser: You know, one thing I was thinking about, as you were talking, when I interviewed Steven Tisdale, about the Fearless Girl campaign that they did. One of the things they didn’t anticipate when they launched that campaign is how big it would go, when they were talking about putting women on boards. One of the things that happened to them in the course of that campaign as it became more and more and more famous. And they made more and more noise from it was that there was pushback on their organization to have more women in senior ranks. And they said, “You know what, you’re right. We did an audit and you found it.” And so one of the things that you just have to be prepared for is when you have blowback, just take a go, “Okay, this is an opportunity. They paid attention! It worked!” Any last thoughts on that, Joe?

Joe Cohen: Yeah. And I think that ultimately, when you take a stand, people are going to talk about you. And I think part of it is really being prepared to know that you may weather some criticism, and you may weather some blowback. But ultimately, if you could have data to show that you’re doing it for the right reasons, if you have data to show that it’s making an impact, and if you have strong support from the C-level and the board, then you’re doing what you can to set up the organization for success and to demonstrate that you’re making a positive impact that supports the business’s priorities.

Drew Neisser: Perfect, Joe, thank you. Thank you, audience for staying with us.

For more interviews with innovative marketers visit renegade.com/podcast and hit that subscribe button.

Show Credits

Renegade Marketers Unite is written and directed by Drew Neisser. Hey, that’s me. Audio production is by Sam Beck. Show notes are written by Melissa Caffrey. The music is by the amazing Burns Twins and intro voiceover is Linda Cornelius.

To find the transcripts of all episodes, suggest future guests, or learn more about my new book and Renegade visit renegade.com. I’m your host, Drew Neisser. And until next time, keep those Renegade Thinking Caps on and strong.