This Year, the Empty Buzzword Making Its Rounds at Cannes Is 'Purpose'

Opinion: Though it is becoming increasingly important to consumers and society at large

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Nothing can induce industry navel-gazing quite like the Cannes Lions festival. Ad folks tend to use the biggest date in the industry calendar to pontificate on the relevance—or lack thereof—of brands, agencies and, indeed, the festival itself.

The notion of purpose gained its momentum in the last few years by becoming one of the industry’s most over-used buzzwords. This and the persistence of agencies pushing brands to have a big ideal, of course, got brand owners thinking they need to have it or at least make outward associations with purpose to appear relevant. But the overuse of a word can detach it from its true meaning.

For proof of this, consider the buzzword that can talk back: millennials. Any millennial will tell you that they feel misunderstood by older people because so many myths and misperceptions have become associated with their generation. Purpose is not what you as a brand want it to be to suit your agenda, your budget or your presentation deck. Purpose is your reason for being in the world.

Brands driving social change is hardly a new subject at Cannes, but each year, purpose is becoming less of an empty buzzword and more of an actual driver of change in communities and wider society. It also seems to be part of every brand’s ambition. Most entries in every category at Cannes will have some kind of nod to the greater good, but the winners (note to fellow jurors) should be the ones that are not just paying lip service to social responsibility or being opportunistic; they need to be able to prove they are making a lasting difference.

For evidence of this industry’s renewed significance, you only have to look at the people and, ironically, the protesters that Cannes is attracting. Climate change protesters Extinction Rebellion made an appearance, though whether it’s to engage in large-scale protests or something a little less disruptive is not clear. Meanwhile, Manuel Oliver, the father of Marjory Stoneman High School shooting victim, Joaquin Oliver, went on stage at the Palais this week to ask brands and agencies to support and join the gun control movement.

The current political deadlock we face in Britain and the increasingly polarized political discourse around the world has resulted in liberal democratic nations and their political leaders losing sight of—or, in some cases, actively ignoring—a way forward. The presence of activists on and off the stage at Cannes shows that the world has moved past looking to politicians and government institutions to effect change and is turning to brands and the media instead. Why? Well, activists are asking for help because brands and their agencies have the money, platform and influence to make things happen.

And the truth is that this power we have to make a difference is where our relevance lies. Enlightened brands, from Patagonia and Toms to Guinness to G-Star, understand that power and are benefitting by making themselves relevant to a new wave of socially-minded consumers. But we need many more to truly embrace it to help lead a way forward and to drive positive change in the world.