More Than Ever, Strong Brands Are Focused on Bridging Their Value With Their Values

At Cannes, the issue of corporate activism was front and center

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If there was a clear winner at the Cannes Lions who set the tone for the week, it was Fearless Girl, the little statue who launched significantly more than a thousand conversations across any media you could think of.

Fearless Girl wasn’t alone in her quest to seamlessly blend communications with a broader societal statement. There were campaigns that let refugees challenge social media activists to do more. There were films dedicated to bringing the issue of gun violence to life in unexpected ways. There were clever activations that took on sexism by placing messages such as “cleavage is not an invitation” on runway models with the phrasing only showing up when photographed using flash.

Boost Mobile got downright political by transforming some of its retail locations in low-income areas into polling places through the “Boost Your Voice” program, and the election day project was rewarded at the highest levels in Cannes, with two Grand Prix and a Titanium Lion.

Brand activism was a clear theme on the French Riviera, not only within the Palais, but also over cocktails and dinners, where conversation flowed as freely as the rosé. I had several conversations with peers at Cannes in which I challenged them to recall the brand behind Fearless Girl—many could or said something like: “I think it was a bank?”

More were familiar with the agency behind the work (McCann) than the brand that commissioned the work in the first place. In case you’re curious, the client behind Fearless Girl is State Street Global Advisors, essentially a hedge fund with no shortage of inclusion issues that have been called to attention as a result of the activation. A bullish (no pun intended) take on Fearless Girl is that it earned approximately $7.4 million in “free” publicity for State Street.

However, a less bullish take is that State Street started a conversation (around its new fund investing in women-led companies) and now owns it—time and proof will tell if the company’s values on inclusivity and female empowerment align with the value proposition of what they provide customers. In fact, critics of the activation and its connection to State Street have been quick to label it “pinkwashing,” a term reminiscent of “greenwashing” that some companies do in their attempts to show environmental progress without real commitment.

The value(s) proposition

At Cannes, my employer, Edelman, teamed up with Adweek for a panel to discuss the activist economy, which was loosely based on a piece I wrote looking at brand activism from a number of different perspectives.

Taco Bell CMO Marisa Thalberg deftly pointed out that brands needed to be discerning about the issues they choose to take a stand on.

“A big part of how we’re driving this brand is to make it a part of culture,” Thalberg said. “And it’s not just in culture, it’s driving culture. But that doesn’t mean just because something happens, as something does every day, we have to jump on it just to show up. We don’t.”

Cigna’s vp of brand, Stephen Cassell, reinforced how critical it is for brands to know what they stand for.

“One of the things we try to do at Cigna is make sure employees understand: What’s our purpose?” Cassell said. “What’s our mission around health, wellness and sense of security?”

Nestle’s Pete Blackshaw reinforced that point in noting that in terms of who defines trust in a brand, “Consumers trust consumers … but employees are actually pretty high on the list.”

You can watch some highlights from the panel here:

I put forth that the time has come for brands to proactively align their value proposition, meaning the value they offer customers, consumers etc., with their values, or what they stand for.

A simple shortcut for what this intersection is called is the “value(s) proposition,” as it seeks to bring together these two worlds rather than keep them apart. And this is more closely aligned with how people view brands anyway.

Adweek recently reported on our global survey, “Earned Brand,” which found that 57 percent of consumers will boycott brands that don’t share their social beliefs. So, it’s no surprise that brands will rush to ensure they don’t find themselves in the same company as Uber, which is trying to reconcile its value proposition with its values. But at the same time, brands must avoid the temptation to “exploit culture,” to appear attached to social, cultural or economic issues when they haven’t done the math to connect to their core values and business operations.

Fearless Girl got everyone talking. It’s debatable what role the brand played in fostering that conversation and committing to what it stands for. What brands and marketers will have to reconcile is how genuinely connected their stances are to how they view the world and, more importantly, take action.

In the not too distant future, it will be one thing to win awards that bring important topics to the attention of consumers and another for brands to meaningfully embody all they stand for from a values perspective while being true to what consumers and customers love and know it for.

Brands who do both will have successfully defined and acted upon their “value(s) proposition” in meaningful ways.