Future-fit marketing in a changing climate

Simon Cook, managing director of Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, explains why brands must act decisively and double down on creativity if they want to thrive during a crisis

Moving from response to forecasting and future-gazing is difficult at the best of times. As we know, economic downturns are cyclical, predictable in many ways, and we can lean on history to give us a reliable steer.

But a looming recession in combination with the current crisis? Well, let’s just say we’re going to need more than history books and a crystal ball.

During a time when traditional business models are being upturned and everyday routines are being dismantled, more than ever we’re looking for reliable, constant forces. A north star to help us navigate these choppy waters.

It’s unusual then that we’re not seeing more organisations double down on creativity when, dusting off the history books, we know brands that invested heavily in creativity and brand-building activity during the last recession recovered nine times faster than the competition. At a time when creativity is needed, arguably more than ever, we are seeing marketing budgets being slashed and advertising spend cut.

The latest Institute of Practitioners in Advertising Bellwether Report confirms what will have already seemed obvious that the coronavirus pandemic is having a detrimental impact on marketing budgets in the immediate term.

Is now the time to cut budgets?

Meanwhile, according to a recent Ebiquity survey of global brands, 81 per cent have cut their advertising investment this year and 73 per cent expect to see no sales growth this year. Those are big numbers. Add to that, we’ve seen Coca-Cola announce it has paused all marketing spend over an apparent lack of return on investment.

The forecast looks even gloomier when you hear that a 2019 McKinsey study found “some 23 per cent of chief executives do not feel marketing is delivering on the growth agenda and 40 per cent of chief financial officers don’t think marketing investments should be protected during a downturn”.

So, it would seem marketers are suffering from a lack of faith in their ability to drive business. And to add to their problems, 86 per cent of consumers have changed their behaviour as a result of COVID-19, according to YouGov research recently published by WARC (World Advertising Research Center). So with tumbling budgets, a lack of support and a changing consumer market, it’s fair to say the global marketing community is staring adversity in the face.

As we shift from response to forecast, small shoots of hope are emerging and we’re hearing more from brands playing the long game

At Cannes Lions, one of our most coveted awards is the Creative Marketer of the Year, the recipients of which consistently produce brave, creative and innovative marketing solutions. The common thread between them, brands like Apple and Burger King, is they have all invested heavily in creativity as a driver for growth and seen net higher returns as a result.

Recent research by Forrester, The Cost of Losing Creativity, suggests investing in creativity will help companies achieve significantly higher returns over a six-year period. In the current climate though, it has become clear creativity is not just a lever for driving growth, but for driving progress: significant industry, societal and organisational change.

Savvy brands still playing the long game

It’s reassuring then that as we shift from response to forecast, small shoots of hope are emerging and we’re hearing more from brands playing the long game. Over the past few weeks, we’ve spoken to many members of the global community who have shared fascinating stories of invention, collaboration, renewal and compassion. Individuals, communities and corporations who are achieving new levels of innovation every day to build brands and reimagine entire business models.

If you’re after an example of genuine, change-driving innovation, then you need look no further than AB InBev Brazil that in the face of the pandemic have shifted their production from beer to hand sanitiser.

I recently spoke to the company’s vice president of marketing Ricardo Dias for the Cannes Lions podcast Progress Through Creativity and he told me: “A brand that’s not doing something right now is making a mistake. It’s almost like you have no choice, you either do or die.”

He lists collaboration, speed and creative problem-solving as key drivers in a brand’s current survival and believes that once we come out of this, consumers will look to the brands that are actually doing something, leaning in rather than pulling back.

If people are looking for forces for good, consistency and stability at a time when governments are floundering and being criticised for not showing decisive leadership, look to those who are using creativity as a tool to take a position and stand for something solid that stands out and cuts through among the double-speak and uncertainty.

Brands must be transparent and act responsibly

In our recent Let’s Get Back to Brand report, Bruno Bertelli, global chief creative officer of Publicis, says: “People believe in brands. Where politicians and governments fail, brands provide products that people love and rely on. But with this comes a responsibility to be transparent and act responsibly, and act consistently.”

It’s not just the “good” brigade either. Brands and their agencies are beginning to look ahead and are getting comfortable with embracing the opportunities to be had as new categories, channels and approaches emerge and come into focus.

When I caught up with Titanium Lions Jury president Susan Credle, global chief creative officer at FCB, she told me clear-thinking marketers have a chance to expand and accelerate the growth of their brands and businesses over the next few months. She points out that if you follow a sensitively developed strategy, this is a time for investment, not retrenchment.

Opportunity, it would seem, is no longer a dirty word, and Susan believes creativity should sit at the core of this approach, rather than be commonly viewed as a nice to have.

She says: “This is a unique time for the creative community. For the last 20 years, we have been thought of as executors of briefs. Today we have the chance to prove we are business problem-solvers. In a crisis, marketing and creativity become critical. In many cases, they are the difference between a business failing or thriving. It’s time to prove advertising, in the broadest sense of the word, is not a spend, it’s an investment, and creativity is not an optional extra, it’s an economic multiplier.”