Is There a Formula for Success at Cannes?

4 big winners from past years reveal common themes

Cannes Lions, the biggest advertising event in the world, is here. Vive les ads!

Brands and agencies are keeping their fingers crossed that their campaigns will win the hearts and eyes of the judging panel in the south of France. But just what makes a Cannes winner? Is there something in the DNA of an ad that makes an award winner? Is there a formula for Lions success?

Unruly dug into the data—from UnrulyPulse and Unruly Custom Audiences—to find out if previous Grand Prix winners had anything in common that helped them stand out from the crowd.

We analyzed four previous Cannes winners—Geico's "Unskippable: Family" (2015), Volvo Trucks' "Epic Split" (2014), Metro Trains Melbourne's "Dumb Ways to Die" (2013) and Nike's "Write the Future" (2011)—to see if there were any key themes or insights to success at Cannes.

Here are the results:

Winning Critical Success Didn't Necessarily Drive Business Results

While these videos undoubtedly are beautifully made, highly recognized in the industry and worthy of creative accolades, brand recall and brand favorability from our panel were surprisingly lower than the industry average.

Geico was the only advertiser to exceed global averages, including brand favorability (40 percent), purchase intent (40 percent) and brand recall (89 percent). Global averages are generally 29 percent for brand favorability, 31 percent for purchase intent and 74 percent for brand recall.

This was most likely due to the prominent Geico logo, which appeared at the five-second mark of the "Unskippable" ad and remained on screen while the silent family held their poses. Our data, and that of leading researchers in the space (including Dr. Karen Nelson-Field), shows there is no correlation between level of branding and sharebility, so advertisers should feel free to not be shy about branding their ads.

Unfortunately, the other Cannes Lions winners we analyzed all have lower levels of brand recall, some as low as 58 percent, as in the case with Volvo's "Epic Split," despite the trucks being a main feature of the ad. Casting Jean-Claude Van Damme in the ad made for epic creative, but celebrities can be distracting and steal a brand's thunder. 

Cannes Winners Evoked Intense Emotional Responses From Viewers

The data shows that eliciting a strong emotional response from viewers will not only help your ad attract shares online, it will also help you win over the judges at Cannes.

Each ad succeeded in making viewers feel intensely emotional. Whether it was hilarity ("Dumb Ways to Die" at 51 percent, and "Unskippable" at 39 percent), or amazement ("Epic Split," 40 percent), these videos all triggered high levels of emotions. It's not enough to trigger emotions; you need to do it at high levels to drive video shares and excite judges, and these brands hit the nail on the head.

Additionally, one common emotion that stood out in three of these videos was shock, suggesting taking the judges on a surprising emotional ride may be one way to achieve Cannes success.

Did Judges Like to Be Confused?

We also analyzed whether these ads triggered responses in viewers that hurt emotional engagement and sharing, such as confusion, disgust, sadness and contempt, which typically need to be used with care. However, when looking at Cannes winners, it appears that delivering an unusual or unexpected conclusion can benefit advertisers.

This is most notable in "Dumb Ways to Die," showing confusion at 21 percent, likely due to the unusual figures dancing around as they find unlikely ways to end their cartoon lives. Not until the end of the video (close to three minutes in) do viewers understand that is the content is promoting rail safety, making irresponsible behavior on or near the tracks an especially "dumb way to die."

Timely Videos Were Most Likely to Win Big

The second key driver of video sharing is triggering multiple social motivations, and brand creatives should take many social motivations into consideration when developing their ads. It's been proven that the more reasons you give them to share, the more likely your ad will hit a personal note with diverse audiences, resulting in making more people want to share.

For our Cannes winners, the social motivations of zeitgeist and kudos: coolhunter (wanting to be the first to show their friends) particularly stood out, which shows Cannes judges love being ahead of the curve.

The 2013 winner, "Dumb Ways to Die," tied into one of the biggest advertising themes of the year—trackvertising—where brands tap into the fact that music videos are the top shared brand creative on the internet, and create essentially branded music videos. 

Nike saw success by tying to the World Cup, while Geico brought up one of the most hotly discussed issues in online advertising—pre-roll. Additionally, Volvo's "Epic Split" is a perfect example of why people would share for kudos: coolhunter; there are few things cooler than martial arts legend—Jean-Claude Van Damme's feat of strength, balance and concentration (and let's face it—absolute trust in his two drivers and Volvo's trucks) set to Enya music.

Now that we've gone down memory lane, what's your prediction for the Film Grand Prix 2016?

—Devra Prywes is vp insight and marketing at Unruly.