Cannes Lions 2024: Exploring marketing in a divided world

From ideological diversity in marketing teams to the power of storytelling, industry leaders discuss strategies for connecting with consumers across the widening social gap

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Exploring marketing in a divided world
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Cannes: The widening ideological gap and its impact on brand communication emerged as a prominent theme at the 2024 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. 

A panel titled "When Societal Progress Meets Resistance," hosted by Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman, tackled this critical issue head-on. The session featured Bozema St. John, Founder of The Marketing Company; Luis Miguel Messiano, Global CMO of Anheuser-Busch InBev; and Nicholas Johnston, Publisher of Axios, in a conversation that explored the challenges and opportunities for brands navigating a world increasingly fractured by social and political beliefs.

The session centred on a question that has become increasingly relevant for marketing professionals: can brands effectively connect with consumers in a world where social and political beliefs are deeply entrenched and often divisive? 

Richard Edelman, the session's host, opened the discussion by emphasising the need for marketing teams to reflect the ideological diversity of today's consumers. "The right has learned how to be very activist," he said. "The left has dominated the conversation for 30 years. Now the right is more activist than the left. The anti-woke is prevalent not just in the US but in the West. It is now becoming something important." 

He argued that traditional approaches to marketing team composition, which often prioritise geographic diversity, are no longer sufficient. To this end, Nicholas Johnston said, "Brands need to have a position and take into consideration factors like country of origin, corporate values, how they treat employees, and what they stand for. Executives are responsible for leading this effort.

Edelman then proposed a shift towards ideological diversity within marketing teams, allowing brands to better understand the anxieties and beliefs of their target audiences.

Nicholas agrees with Luis Miguel that teams need to be diverse in terms of viewpoints to reflect the real world. He believes “the conversation about diversity needs to start from the top.

Brands cannot be everything to everyone.” It's important for brands to take a stand, as customers have more loyalty to brands with a position.

Edelman pointed out a decline in trust in traditional authority figures, including government agencies and scientific experts.

"There are people who do not like government," he said. "There are people who had a bad experience with misinformation and COVID. They feel that that was, you know, a media conspiracy or a government conspiracy, and they don't believe the experts anymore. They're sceptical." 

So how can brands connect with these sceptical consumers in an age of information overload? Edelman offered a clear solution: transparency. "We also have to give them the straight story," he said. This includes providing clear information on a product's origin, labour practices, and distribution channels. Building trust through transparency is key to fostering a sense of connection with consumers in a world where scepticism runs high.

"We have to be the hope and the optimism," he asserted. However, “let's not make this something negative and something to be afraid of," he said, emphasising the need for brands to remain grounded in reality.

Bozema St. John, founder of The Marketing Company, echoed Edelman's sentiment on the importance of understanding consumer values. "We have to understand what motivates people," she said. St. John emphasised the need for brands to connect with consumers on a deeper level, beyond demographics. "You've got to go a little bit deeper and understand what their aspirations are and what their fears are," she said. By connecting with these shared values, brands can build more authentic and long-lasting relationships with their customers.

Luis Miguel Messiano, Global CMO of Anheuser-Busch InBev, highlighted the power of storytelling in a fractured world.

"Storytelling is the most powerful tool that we have as marketers," he said. Messiano argued that brands can use storytelling to bridge divides and connect with consumers across ideological lines. "Stories have the power to connect with people on an emotional level," he said. "They can help us to understand each other better and to see the world from a different perspective.”

Messiano further elaborated on the specific qualities of effective storytelling in a divided world. "We need to tell stories that are human-centric," he said. "Stories that focus on the shared experiences that we all have as human beings, regardless of our political beliefs." He offered an example: "We all want to feel connected. We all want to feel loved. We all want to feel like we belong." By tapping into these universal human desires, brands can craft stories that resonate with a broad audience.

Building on the theme of authenticity, St. John added her perspective. "Consumers can smell BS a mile away," she said. "So, if you're not authentic, if you're not true to your purpose, they're going to see right through it." She emphasised the importance of brands living their values and purpose in a way that feels genuine. "Walk the walk, don't just talk the talk," she declared. This authenticity is crucial for building trust with consumers in a world filled with scepticism.

The session concluded with a call to action from Edelman himself. "We need to be optimistic about the future," he declared. "The world is not going to hell in a handbasket. There's a lot of good happening in the world." He emphasised the need for brands to take concrete steps to connect with their audiences in a more meaningful way. 

As Luis Miguel Messiano, Global CMO of Anheuser-Busch InBev, succinctly summarised, "The challenge for marketers is to understand the human story behind the data." By embracing this approach, brands can develop strategies that resonate with consumers across the ideological spectrum.

politics authentic consumers storytelling experience market