Cannes reconnects with consumers and puts purpose in its place
Driving genuine purpose: Volvo
Away from the incomprehensible chatter of the panel discussions, Jury President Tracey Follows witnessed brands moving conceptual ideas into genuinely purposeful activity for people in the real world
For years Cannes has been criticised for losing touch with the advertising that ordinary folk enjoy and awarding work that not many people have seen or heard of.
Well that was certainly not the case this year, a year that feels like a watershed for the festival in throwing off some of those old tropes and cementing its relevance.
To my mind, there are four Cannes experiences: the first experience is to be on a jury, judging the work of a category, craft or channel. The second is to participate in the Palais events: speaking, presenting, debating and educating on the issues of the industry. The third is the agency environs, where creative and media agencies as well as tech platforms take their own space to curate a Cannes experience for their clients. And finally, the meeting and greeting of colleagues from around the world, who rub shoulders with journalists and potentially clients too, and for whom it is a networking opportunity.
If you are lucky you can combine all four aspects of Cannes and enjoy the full enchilada. But not many people have the appetite or time to cram all of that in.
What struck me this year was just how important the first type of Cannes experience had become in working out what is going on in the industry today and giving us direction on the landscape of tomorrow.
I’ve judged at Cannes more than once before but this year there seemed to be a renewed focus on forensically explaining exactly why Lions had been awarded for specific work, further articulating the trends and themes taking hold, and a proper extrapolation about what it all might mean for the future of creativity.
I contrasted all that with the debates and discussions going on in the second and third of those experiences, that of the curated Palais presentations and the curated agency experiences for clients. And there was something rather aloof about a lot of these discussions, something rather removed from the actual, tangible work that was being awarded over the course of the week.
People boomed out over microphones the words ‘Purpose’ ‘Transformation’ ‘Activism’ and ‘Diversity’ whilst the sun beat down on the beach. Brands like Target were near incomprehensible in debating the meaning of these concepts and pondered how we could ‘build a circle big enough for us all’.
But back in the judging rooms and award ceremonies, it was clear that lots of the work was already applying these concepts - not in ways that were aloof or removed - but in ways that were intrinsically mainstream and practically relevant to everyday consumers.
Even a cursory look at some of the main Grand Prix winners shows that all of this was already baked-in to the best work.
Droga’s videos for The New York Times lobbied for high quality journalism and reporting of difficult topics, going way further into issues than armchair or streetwear activism can go. It won the Film and Film Craft Grand Prix. The Print and Publishing Grand Prix Lion was won for a campaign that used a front page white-out in a Lebanese newspaper, to send a message to the Government.
The PR Grand Prix went to The Tampon Book by Sholtz and Friends and the Creative Strategy Grand Prix Lion was awarded to Forsman & Bodenfors who closed the Gender Safety Gap with the Volvo Eva Initiative making road safety as safe for women as it is for men.
FCB/Six Toronto leveraged a message of hate ‘Go Back to Africa’ to reframe tourism to Africa for customers of Black and Abroad. And Ikea’s disability-friendly ‘Thisables’ was all about making their furniture accessible to all, for which they received the Healthcare Grand Prix.
Norwegian fashion brand Carlings won a Digital Craft Lion for using technology to achieve sustainability, creating virtual fitting rooms with Dress The Future and the Radio and Audio Grand Prix was awarded to the Maze by HBO for using voice activated digital assistance to engage with viewers: ‘Alexa, Open Westworld’.
Nike won the Media Grand Prix for transforming Sao Paulo city walls into Nike stores by getting graffiti artists to update their previous street artworks to include the dropped sneakers.
The only way for consumers to buy the pre-sale sneakers was to visit a graffiti’d wall, access nike.com and unlock their purchase with the geo location. Something that felt like the precursor to augmented reality advertising.
Along with Nike’s many awards, Burger King picked up Titanium Grand Prix and Creative Brand of the Year, and Apple landed Creative Marketer of the Year. Global brands that have democratised fashionable fitness, quality fast food, and made aesthetic tech a luxury for all. You don’t get more mainstream than these brands and their advertising.
Overall, what became clear in looking at the winning work was that:
- Data and digital tools were already being employed by brands to improve user experiences and to make them sustainable;
- Campaigns and initiatives enabling more inclusivity for under-represented groups were entirely mainstream; and
- Activism was front and centre as many a winner was awarded for making a campaign more campaigning.
Rather than in recent years, where conceptual ideas like purpose and cause took centre stage, brands had already taken it on and were delivering more purposeful activity in amongst their business as usual. Take the Volvo Initiative EVA, it won in the category I was judging, Creative Strategy. Volvo identified a disconnect between two data points.
One which said that 80% of car purchases are heavily influenced by women and that women’s first priority is safety. And another which showed that women were 17% more likely to die in a road traffic accident than men. Why? Because crash test dummies were always based on the male body. Volvo then went back into its own archive, excavated over four decades of real-world crash data and then open-sourced it to make it available to the auto industry as a whole.
This is purpose. Not with a capital ‘P’ but with a small one.
The Volvo brand has always championed safety and this was a contemporary take on that. It has always taken a leadership position through democratising safety, and here it was doing so again. In addition it was closing a gender gap that no-one even knew existed and correcting a cultural and social bias but in an altruistic way.
Purposeful and inclusive, this was not ‘cause-related’ but ‘brand-related’, not removed from the customer but directly affecting the customer, not an extraneous add-on but something intrinsic to the very product Volvo has always delivered.
And my conclusion is that brands are once again better articulating their role for people in the real world, now that they have stopped reaching for a higher purpose, taking on aloof global causes. In doing so, brands’ advertising has become more closely connected to and understood by consumers - and as a result, more relevant. This is facilitating a reconnection to consumers where once there may have been a gap.
Higher purpose, cause-related activism, and diversity are all well and good for panel discussions and high profile platform presentations but they make for poor real-world relevance.
It was high-time brands showed they can be more accessible and inclusive where they need to be; use data, and digital tools to better articulate their brand as it is rather than transform it into something it isn’t; and make clear the role of the brand in people’s lives in a simple yet profound way. That is purpose.
In a similar vein, Cannes did the same for its own brand this year. It made the festival more inclusive, used data in meaningful ways and made its purpose one of getting back to real world creative ideas that are powerful but also relevant to ordinary people in everyday life.
No grand gestures of Higher Purpose, none required. Just brilliant, aspirational creative work, as recognised just as much by its consumers as by its creators. After all, what is the Creative Director on the Croisette other than just a man on the street.
(or woman, don’t @ me)
Tracey Follows is the founder of futures consultancy Futuremade, and was Jury President for the inaugural Creative Strategy Lion at Cannes this year.