Sadly this year’s Cannes has been cancelled. Instead it’s a fifteenth consecutive week working from home in our kitchen. And yet there would have been much to talk about in a 12-month period when brands weighed into the COVID-19 crisis and the Black Lives Matter movement changed the rules forever.
Over the past decade at Cannes, we’ve seen how Lion-winning campaigns have marked sea changes in marketing and communications.
In 2013 for example, campaigns such as Metro Trains Australia’s ‘Dumb Ways to Die’ safety drive or Unilever’s ‘Real Beauty Sketches’ for Dove showed how highly creative, values-driven short films could go viral and connect with millions of consumers. Arguably, both these had learned from President Obama’s powerful and successful digital election campaigns in 2008 and 2012.
In 2016 and 2017 much of the discussion was about the Facebook-driven campaigning employed by President Trump and Vote Leave, and whether brands should employ such a controversial micro-data profiling approach.
For the past few years, gender equality and the environment led the narrative. In fact, last year the climate change discussion became so intense that Extinction Rebellion took their campaign to the Cote D’Azur with banners over La Croisette and ‘lie down’ protests outside the event itself.
Amid all this Nike’s film supporting ostracised black footballer Colin Kaepernick – called ‘Dream Crazy’ – swept the board in the awards, setting a high bar in politicised, purpose-driven campaigns.
So what would have gained the plaudits and the conversation in Cannes this week had we been there?
“Undoubtedly Black Lives Matter, plus government and brand respond to C-19 and economic freefall,” is the view of the creative director of one of the UK’s best-known PR agencies. “Mercifully, we wouldn’t be talking about a mouldy whopper, which would’ve won the Grand Prix, which it was created to do.”
There is certainly a sense that pure ‘commercial creativity’ as has successfully been applied by Burger King and others in recent years, will now take a back seat in this year’s crisis-riddled world. There seems little room for flippant brand humour in such serious times. Yes, corporate purpose has never been so high up the brand agenda.
Indeed, the past month alone has seen every brand leader across the world spend a significant amount of time working out how their organisation addresses the Black Lives Matter revolution that gained momentum since George Floyd was killed in May.
Exactly how they should respond has given the chief communications and chief marketing officers – in particular - sleepless nights, especially those with largely Millennial or Gen Z customers; younger generations now see this issue as their revolution.
But the really big change in 2020 is a growing realisation that it’s no longer even an option just to ‘keep your head down’ on controversial issues such as diversity. Equally, responding inauthentically, or without tangible and effective initiatives, will only make things worse in long-term reputational terms.
One experienced corporate comms advisor, now part of a start-up consultancy, tells me: “It’s no longer good enough just to make a grand statement on an issue like Black Lives Matter and put it on your website and social media. People will inevitably call you out on it if it lacks substance. Much better surely to quietly get your house in order, and then work out more subtle ways of communicating your position.”
He was alluding to some serious backlashes to brands’ supposedly ethical posturing at this febrile time.
Beauty brand L’Oréal was quick to lend its support BLM last month but subsequently suffered a torrent of criticism driven by black transgender model Munroe Bergdorf who says she was fired from representing the brand three years ago when L’Oréal said her Facebook post supporting BLM back then was “at odds with our values”.
Even iconic brands of the younger generation such as Nike and Adidas, with a decent track record on such things, have learned some important lessons when it comes to ethical purpose campaigning.
Late last month, Nike responded to the renewed BLM furore by releasing a short film encouraging Americans to not turn their backs on racism: “For Once, Don’t Do It.” Unusually, arch-rival Adidas immediately retweeted the Nike campaign with the message: “Together is how we move forward. Together is how we make the change.”
Incidentally, this is another brand behaviour theme that has emerged in recent years; famous rivals – even Burger King and McDonald’s – in surprise collaborations when it comes to a big ethical issue.
And yet this time many media, including The Sunday Times, slammed Nike for still employing no black executives on its top team, and pointed out that neither the executive nor supervisory boards of Adidas features a black face.
Both brands have been forced to seriously up their efforts since. Adidas, for example, has committed to filling at least 30 per cent of all new positions with black and Latinx people and pledged $20m in programmes for black communities in the US.
What organisations are learning is that the rules have changed. Young people are demanding tangible, permanent action, not merely passionate messages of support – and brands must realise this when it comes to their communications.
Inevitably the other big trend to dominate Cannes this year, bearing in mind the C-19 crisis, would have been healthcare initiatives.
Some of these would have been running since long before the crisis such as the ‘We Are the NHS’ campaign from agencies including MullenLowe and Freuds, but would have taken on much greater significance over the past few months.
And public health campaigns from the World Health Organisation or national bodies such as Public Health England would have been thrown into sharp focus, for better or for worse.
In some ways it’s fitting that we are not in Cannes, because such serious times are probably not best reflected in such a glamorous location. And some of the pure consumer brand communication work produced pre-crisis, however creative and effective, would have felt irrelevant, even glib.
But overall, while it’s a challenging time in brand promotion, I’d argue these post C-19 trends are good news for experienced comms professionals, who tend to advise on c-suite issues, particularly during crises - just as long as they can lead this maturing debate on ethics and genuine ESG (environmental, social and corporate governance).