3 Big Cannes Lions Takeaways Marketers Can Learn From

Opinion: Brands need to be more empathetic and human

Three images: On the left a person is seen holding up a phone; in the middle Kendall Jenner is holding a can of Pepsi; on the right is a picture of a Whopper wrapper that says "The Whopper Detour."
Many of the big winners at Cannes had brand purpose embedded in their campaigns.
Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness NY, Pepsi, Burger King

The 2019 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity last week answered a nagging question for me: Is all this chatter about brands being more human authentic or just marketing speak? After several days attending speeches and panels and seeing awards won along the Croisette, it became clear that our industry’s focus on empathy is not just a bunch of talk.

Don’t get me wrong: Not everyone in our massive brand marketing ecosystem “gets it.” We all know from our experiences as consumers what bad marketing looks like, and its faults usually center on disingenuous messaging.

Cannes showed me that we’re going in the right direction, though. Here are three major takeaways from the gala in Southern France that gave me optimism.

Don’t fake being woke

Customers and potential customers will see right through phony messaging. At Cannes, Unilever CEO Alan Jope warned against “woke-washing,” which is when brands run purpose-driven campaigns but don’t take real action. “It threatens to further destroy trust in our industry when it’s already in short supply,” Jope said.

“Purpose-driven brands” and “authenticity” were words thrown around plenty during the week-long festival. There are a few statistical reasons for these trends, too; namely that 70% of consumers trust other consumers’ product recommendations more than what brands suggest online, while 58% of millennials hate advertising. Not to mention that studies in the past have stated that as many as 84% of millennials don’t trust ads. Brands like Pepsi, with its widely panned “purpose-minded” TV ad starring Kendall Jenner in 2017, often don’t help.

These mindsets weren’t just given lip service—it’s clear that they are now baked into mainstream brand marketing’s DNA.

Where there’s a crisis, though, there’s also an opportunity. No brand has proven that more than Nike, with “Dream Crazy” campaign with Colin Kaepernick late last year. Nike took a cultural marketplace chance but showed its purpose, and its cross-channel TV and video effort won the entertainment for sport Grand Prix Lion at Cannes. Real purpose pays off, as we saw when Nike’s sales jumped 31%.

Social responsibility was once actually a category at Cannes, but this year marked the first at in which it wasn’t. The theme is now so ubiquitous throughout all of the best creative work and award winners that it no longer needs its own category. The upshot: Social responsibility is good for employees, good for today’s world and good for the bottom line.

Shift strategy toward communities

With exploding digital ad spend in recent years, much of the industry talk has centered on paid opportunities on online platforms. At Cannes, there was a focus on how social media can foster community development for brands externally and internally as well as online and offline.

Social networks, such as Facebook, also talking about this idea at Cannes, for instance. A rising tide lifts all boats, so I am all for the emphasis on using digital to build communities and bring people together rather than isolating individuals in cubicles and on personal laptops.

Marketers can learn from the story of AbleGamers Foundation, an online community of multiplayer gamers with disabilities that got fed up with the lack of digital tools to help them play video games as easily as everyone else. Droves of emails were sent to electronic games brands like Microsoft, which got the message and ran an inspiring Super Bowl ad campaign called “Changing the Game.” As predicted going into Cannes, Microsoft took home a Lion and ultimately proved that communities such as multiplayer gamers can change the world for the better.

Make experiences more human

Technology can make advertising and marketing more human and creative. Take Burger King, which won the Grand Prix on Wednesday for using mobile, location and fun with a rival to create incredible buzz. At the heart of Burger King’s effort were digital tools, but the effort barely scratches the surface in how the technology space can use digital tools to make brands more human instead of less.

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