James Herring
Feb 1, 2023

If purpose is our only purpose, Cannes Lions has no purpose

Brand purpose campaigns will again sweep the Cannes Lions this year, and when they win, we all lose.

If purpose is our only purpose, Cannes Lions has no purpose

It’s been constant ever since a statue of a girl dared defy a charging bull.

Last year, 28 of the 32 Grand Prix-winning campaigns flouted purpose.

I fear many have learned the wrong lessons from 2017’s ‘Fearless Girl’, who faced off against Wall Street’s famous Charging Bull on International Women’s Day to show ‘the power of women in leadership’. It won four Grand Prix and 18 Lions.

Except that months later, the client, State Street Global Advisors, was hit with a $5m fine for discriminating against black and female employees, and consumers rightly saw red.

From this case study, the industry learned how to win awards with hollow words and hot air.

Gen Z especially hate virtue signalling. They’ve developed finely tuned bullshit radars. They hate smug back-patting from the very corporations they believe are falling short on sustainability and dodging tax. They can see through the woke-washing, the greenwashing, the pride-washing.

And it gets worse. Most purpose campaigns are boring and interchangeable. By all means be delusional, but never be boring. Many such campaigns aren’t ownable, distinctive or memorable.

At a time when the cost-of-living crisis bites into margins the world over, isn’t it time marketers get back in touch with their own purpose?

Sixty per cent of consumers demand support from brands to get through tough times. That sounds like a purpose we should get behind. In December, 64 per cent of consumers said they were switching to cheaper brands, often retailers’ own labels.

Many people out there are having to decide between eating or heating. It would follow that their interest in ethical products will wane. Altruism is a privilege many can’t afford right now. And that goes for us, too.

It’s good to do good, but do-gooding alone doesn’t grow margins, keep production lines busy, create jobs, boost salaries, fund breakthrough research or grow economies.

We need real campaigns that resonate with real people to have any positive influence in the world. Not made-for-awards campaigns that make the industry feel better about itself. Or work that, when Googled, has only shown up in trade press.

Treating corporate ethics and purpose like a comms issue garners a comms answer and does a massive disservice to the issues ahead. This conflict is encapsulated at Unilever, once the home of brand purpose, who some investors are claiming has “lost the plot”.

Sometimes drain unblocker is just drain unblocker.

Dental floss doesn’t need to possess a higher calling.

Suspect we’re about to learn that the hard way. Brands who stick to the (seemingly forgotten) basics of marketing will see success this recession.

It might not be the flashiest work but while some CMOs roleplay as soap-selling saviours on the Palais, true CMOs will find purpose in selling good value products to good people, making their lives easier and making them happier.

If we can convince our clients to be better global citizens, perhaps that’s purpose enough.

Let’s hope that Cannes juries put bullshit brand purpose out to pasture.

James Herring is chief executive and co-founder of Taylor Herring


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