Three months ago, I asked is marketing at a crossroads?, after several pre-eminent industry thinkers appeared to have reached, largely independently, a common vision of a future in which corporate social responsibility takes centre stage. Now, after spending a week in the South of France, I am more convinced than ever that change really is in the air.
Stay with me, this is not some dodgy reaction to the rosé, but observations of what appeared to be a growing realisation from all quarters that doing ‘good’ really can be good business.
With the backdrop of globalisation and the rise of social media, consumers are connected and empowered like never before, and the smart brands and agencies have realised it makes sense to think about more than simple profits.
Leading the charge was Joseph Tripoli, executive vice-president and chief marketing officer of The Coca-Cola Company, who admitted his focus was no longer about pushing products, but more on how to become part of consumers’ lives in a meaningful way. He underlined the importance of partnerships with NGOs to drive cultural leadership, along with collaborations with retailers.
"Loyalty used to be the word at the top of the pyramid," he said. "But now it’s advocacy. We can use this wired, global network to create advocates for our brand. Remaining relevant is the key."
For Locog chairman Lord Coe, Coke, along with McDonald's and Lloyds TSB were among those deserving of specific praise for their role in making London 2012 happen, including much of the positive legacy programmes for communities. Noting it was very easy to criticise Olympics sponsorships of fast-foods and soft-drinks, he said, "I’m a great believer of inputs and outputs frankly."
Many different terms were bandied around in an attempt to identify largely the same group of upcoming consumers, but whether it's Generation Y, the Millennials, or, my personal favourite, Generation Social, the message was the same: authenticity is key for brands today.
One multi-conglomerate undeniably consistent in its approach to adopting a more socially responsible and sustainable approach to the world is Unilever, the world’s second largest advertiser. The group’s momentum in this space continued in Cannes with the launch of Waterworks, a not-for-profit programme designed to provide safe, clean drinking water to communities who need it most.
Social media sits at the heart of the initiative, with a Facebook app that will potentially connect millions of people with water-poor communities and enable charitable donations. Announcing the launch, Unilever’s CMO Keith Weed said: "We believe that small, everyday actions can add up to a big difference; and that the power of social connections can drive real change around the world."
Such a sea-change from clients demands a corresponding realisation from those behind the ads, and Amir Kassaei, DDB’s global chief creative officer, and as my encounter on a beach later in the week proved, Omnicom’s own fire-starter, was suitably on message.
"We can’t get away with it any more," he said. "We can’t go on selling bullshit products and fooling people… it is time to start delivering substantial, relevant touch-points that add real value to people’s lives."
Kassaei suggested the new age of social creativity will mean "using our talent not to make funky ads, but to find or create the truth and deliver it in a fresh way".
This idea of harnessing advertising’s ability to put "apparently disparate but profoundly related facts together in a simple way, that explains what the issue is" was furthered by none other than Bill Clinton, the 42nd President of the United States.
Speaking in front of a packed-house of thousands, and despite it being 7pm in the evening and beach parties beckoning, Clinton reminded our international contingent that "some of you can make a good living" out of emphasising and focusing on human differences, and called for "honest, synthesised intelligence" instead.
The president believes hope lies in social networks of openness, diversity and dialogue, and asked those involved in creating commercial messages to "think about how you can both do well and do good".
A common response to all of the above of course, is that such lofty ambitions are soon lost once a marketer’s commercial objectives begin to bite. But what was also notable this year was just how much of the critically acclaimed work and winning ads at Cannes reflected this new found sense of meaning and purpose.
Included among them was the Cannes Film Lions winner, Chipotle Mexican Grill ad, which also won the Branded Content & Entertainment Grand Prix too. The animated campaign promoted the company's use of food from sustainable farming. It formed part of a wider initiative to support agriculture, family farming and culinary education.
Another company that has championed CSR for longer than most is Benetton, and the fashion brand scooped the Press Grand Prix this year for its Unhate ad, the one with US President Obama kissing China's Hu Jintao - created by its own in-house agency Fabrica. The winning work supports Benetton’s Unhate Foundation, which has a remit to "organise concrete initiatives that contrast the culture of hatred and promote the arts as a means of dialogue and involving society and the younger generations".
This could yet prove to be the start of an altogether more socially conscious and morally enriching time.
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This article was first published on marketingmagazine.co.uk