Craig Bagno
Jun 13, 2022

Examining brand purpose over six years of Cannes Lions winners

When looking at Cannes as a database of creativity, purpose-driven marketing rises to the top.

Examining brand purpose over six years of Cannes Lions winners

Next week, a fortunate few thousand of us will head to Cannes. We’re back — hats and all!

I like to think of Cannes as a vast, longitudinal database of the very best ideas from our industry. It’s an insight engine that tips us off as to what we collectively value. It’s a global GPS that tells us where we’ve been, where we are and where we should go next.

Wait. A database of ideas? Why does that sound like an oxymoron? Because we tend to ascribe mystical qualities to creativity. It seems to come from the blue — like poetry or beauty. But viewing creativity in this way makes us over-careful with it. We worry that if we look at it too analytically, it’ll vanish. The spell will be broken. Poof.  

Creativity isn’t a delicate flower. It’s a rumbling engine. Creativity is the driving force behind a $500 billion global industry that, in turn, powers many of the world’s most valuable brands.

Brand purpose is the new creative currency

We compiled a database of 101 Grand Prix-winning ideas at Cannes from 2016 to 2021, excluding only the Innovation and Craft categories. (These tend to be about technology and execution instead of underlying ideas.)

We then developed a working definition of a purpose-driven idea: An idea that employs a benefit that is societal — as opposed to interpersonal, individual, emotional or functional.

Then we started watching case films — more than one hundred of them — and categorized each as purpose-driven or not purpose-driven. 

We found that 74% of the ideas in our database were purpose-driven, and that the incidence of purpose-driven Grand Prix winners is trending upward over time. In 2016, only 66% of winning ideas were purpose-driven. In 2012, purpose made up just 17% of winning ideas, as just a glimmer on the industry’s horizon. 

Purpose, in other words, has arrived — and seems to be here to stay. It’s a skeleton key that unlocks a cultural role for brands, and a surefire pathway to earning a meaningful role in people’s lives.

There is a formula for purpose

There are two hallmarks of nearly every Grand Prix winning idea we reviewed: the spotlight and the solution.

Purpose-driven ideas aim to shine a light on an injustice in the world. But identifying an injustice isn’t enough; it needs stopping power. Sometimes, that comes from finding something that has been flying under the radar. Other times, it’s about generating outrage to mobilize collective action. Often the magic is in the mechanism — how we go about identifying the injustice as opposed to what the injustice is. Spotlighting gives the topic gravitas and lends heft to the brand’s role and beliefs.

The best purpose-driven ideas create real solutions to real problems in the real world. But they aren’t always literal or linear. Some efforts create conditions that will support a solution in the future. Others galvanize a constituency to make a difference. Others still set an example for other brands or industries to follow. Solutions give brands the credibility and permission to play in this space.

Purpose proliferation means we must evolve

On the surface, it looks like the lesson from Cannes is purpose, purpose and more purpose. But maybe purpose proliferation is really just a by-product of something bigger.

Not so long ago, brands could “win” at the expense of others. They held superior cultural firepower (thanks to dominant paid media budgets); a monopoly on information (thanks to limited internet access); and pushed the narratives that drove consumer behavior. In short, they were in charge. 

Today, things are different. This era calls for kinship with consumers rather than the top-down campaigns that worked in the past. Today brands can’t win at the expense of others. Everyone needs to win — your brand, people, society and the planet. Sometimes even other brands — because we’re all in this together. 

Today, brands with generous intentions at the heart of everything they do will win. Brands must pay attention to creating relentless value with our products, our beliefs, our values, our platforms — all the things that add up to our role in the real world.

Our industry has the will and way to change the world. If we can drill that lesson down into all things marketing, we can change the world in big ways.

Craig Bagno is managing director, global strategic excellence, McCann Worldgroup.


Campaign US

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