Ben Bold
May 21, 2023

Should ​​Cannes juries put ‘bullshit' brand purpose out to pasture?

With all but four of last year's Grand Prix winners being purpose-themed, a debate arose around the loss of authenticity in 'made for award' campaigns.

Clockwise top left: a megaphone (Getty Images/Bitter), Nicky Bullard, Ete Davies, Mark Elwood, Richard Brim and Debbie Ellison
Clockwise top left: a megaphone (Getty Images/Bitter), Nicky Bullard, Ete Davies, Mark Elwood, Richard Brim and Debbie Ellison

The Cannes Lions is a mere month away, adland will be parading the Croisette, while ad folk behind various purpose marketing campaigns will no doubt be sauntering proudly onstage to pick up numerous trophies.

Writing in Campaign sister title PRWeek earlier this year, James Herring, chief executive and co-founder of comms agency Taylor Herring, pointed out that 28 of the 32 Grand Prix-winning campaigns last year were purpose-themed.

While Herring clearly took no issue with brand purpose per se, he noted a growing tendency from advertisers and agencies to enter made-for-award campaigns rather than ones that truly had brand purpose at heart. "Sometimes drain unblocker is just drain unblocker, he wrote. "Dental floss doesn’t need to possess a higher calling."

He argued that society needs "real campaigns that resonate with real people" and not "made-for-awards campaigns that make the industry feel better about itself".

Herring wrote that "Gen Z hates virtue signalling". It's not an accusation levelled at those with genuine virtue in mind (often attacked by the so-called alt-right) but at those who would cynically exploit it.

Last year, the IPA published a report that sought to win over the critics as well as urge some rigour around the effectiveness of brand purpose. It identified five steps to enhance brand purpose discussions. They included evaluating purpose on "all relevant measures, especially non-financial outcomes"; and perhaps not talking about brand purpose at all, citing the likes of Guinness and John Lewis, where it is "part of organisations committed to purpose at a corporate level, but this has not played a significant part in advertising effectiveness".

Herring claimed that most purpose campaigns are "boring" and "interchangeable". "By all means be delusional, but never be boring," he wrote.

Campaign therefore asked some ad practitioners, whether it was time to put brand purpose back on the shelf with those Cannes Lions golds collecting dust.

Richard Brim

Chief creative officer, Adam & Eve/DDB

Bullshit brand purpose should never be in the conversation to begin with, let alone put out to pasture, but I agree there is a lot of it knocking about. I think this is where the problem lies, because as an industry we are treating it as a trend, something that should change because we are bored of it, but true brand purpose, when done properly, is a deep-rooted business strategy that the whole company rallies around and should be applauded.

Dove, Patagonia, et cetera are brands that truly live their purpose; they deserve to not be tarred with our "I just want something that's stupid that's not saving the bald tiger" brush.

Now, that is fucking difficult, but the Cannes jury should look for the most exciting, brilliant, game-changing ideas that the world has ever seen but they need to dig deep into them, really dig. The cause should not be awarded, I've been on juries where this has been argued over the idea, which is fucking madness. They should know that every idea sets the internet on fire, started the biggest movement ever and had trillions of organic media impressions; question it, because we've all claimed it.

Most importantly, it needs to be authentic and baked into the business or a genuine problem, not a cause crow-barred into an idea that another cause wouldn't buy. Once all of this is done, then they should look at: how does it make me feel, will it stay with me and am I jealous of it? The best ideas should always win, purpose or not, but saying that, I do want to see a bit more stupid.

Debbie Ellison

Global chief digital officer, VMLY&R Commerce

Brands that press "snooze" on their purpose and values, while they go into battle to deliver on cost, quality and convenience, will do so at their peril.

During a cost-of-living crisis brands need to play a more meaningful role in people's lives and there has never been a more important time to do so. We're experiencing a dental crisis in the UK so I'd argue that dental floss does need a higher calling. People are having to choose between heating and eating – where bargain prices still wouldn't be a solve for them (insert roll call for energy, grocer and FMCG brands).

To be truly transformational, we need to see brands connect purpose with profit, values with action – like Unilever, helping shoppers in India combat plastic pollution by letting them use competitive brands' plastic waste, as well as Unilever packaging to "smart-fill" products like Comfort, helping save the planet and deliver 85% repeat purchase. With creativity, it can be done, and thankfully we've got that in spades.

Ete Davies

Chief operating officer, EMEA, Dentsu Creative

Yes. We shouldn't reward work that's contrived, inauthentic or irrelevant to the brand and its customers, especially when there's no intention of long-term measurable impact.

But the prevailing conversation on purpose is reductive, and also risks conflating pro-bono, charity work with purpose-led brand work. We acknowledge brands are more trusted and potentially more influential than many institutions. We laud how we've "shaped and influenced culture" and can change the behaviour of millions. If that's true, then our entire industry ecosystem, especially brands and agencies, has a responsibility to be "net positive".

Moreover, we have empirical evidence that purpose-driven work is effective, that purpose-driven brands outperform their competitors, have greater workforce and customer satisfaction. It's undeniably good for business.

And yet there's a quiet backlash against brilliant ideas because of "purpose fatigue". As an industry perennially questioning its relevance, appeal, and contribution, shouldn't our objective be to use creativity for the good of business, people and society?

Easier said than done, but it's a challenge we should strive to meet.

Nicky Bullard

Group chief creative officer, MullenLowe Group UK

I have read many a comment that claims brands doing good is getting boring. That purpose-driven work is just awards fodder.


I totally agree that purpose washing is abhorrent. But for me, so is purpose bashing.

Personally, I applaud any big brand that is prepared to put a big budget behind big change. Purpose isn't a nice to have; for most brands it's what keeps them relevant and innovating.

Purpose drives progress. It's the strategic glue and creative spark for work that works. And if our industry can help the world end up with less plastic in our oceans, more women with financial independence or pain being properly understood then that's a really amazing thing, isn't it?

And for those concerned that it should be more dental floss than fearless girls winning Cannes Lions, then it's on us to do better work for dental floss.

Mark Elwood

Executive creative director, Leo Burnett

Ahhh, this old chestnut... First, surely all brands have a purpose: that's to "sell" stuff. Whether that's cars, holidays, FMCG, apps and beyond.

Some brands legitimately have a wider social purpose as well, but where purpose starts to become bullshit is when it's not intrinsically baked into the brand. Has it been adopted solely in search of a Cannes Lion? I hope juries this year can tell the difference.

A great example of work with true purpose was "The lost class" from Leo Burnett Chicago, which won at Cannes last year. The client was a non-profit called Change the Ref, founded by a family that had lost a child to a school shooting. That deserved the plaudits for creative bravery.

Brand purpose work has its place on the podium. But does it come from the very heart of the brand it represents? That's the question that jurors at Cannes need to answer.


Campaign UK

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