Are we seeing a return to brilliant basics?

Brands that won big were winning big with work that felt more commercially driven than ever, writes Weber Shandwick's Gen Kobayashi

Cannes can often be a good barometer for which direction the marketing communications industry is travelling.

Over the years you can see key themes that have been borne out of the yearly festival in the south of France.

From purpose, big data, politics to personalisation, equality and the metaverse: some of these themes have cemented themselves as enduring, others have burned brightly then rapidly faded away.

While AI (predictably) dominated so many of the conversations at Cannes this year, one thing we noticed was a seeming shift back to getting some of the basics right, too.

For example, this year was the first year since 2011 that we have seen a decline in the number of “purpose”-related shortlists and awards.

Brands that won big were winning big with work that felt more commercially driven than ever.

You only have to look at the Grand Prix that Samsung won for its “Flipvertising” campaign, that was built to literally drive people to watch Samsung advertising to unlock a free phone, or the masterfully direct “Ketchup fraud” campaign from Heinz that took on the pretenders in the category head-on.

Both of these campaigns are brilliant exemplars of work that is unashamedly commercial in approach and that prioritises building brand over anything else.

It was also interesting to note that Maisie McCabe’s reporting of Cannes this year felt like there was a marked shift away from smaller niche campaigns, towards big brands winning big.

This isn’t to say that smaller, purposeful brands didn’t win at all – it was just more noticeable that giant brands like Apple were winning a Grand Prix in entertainment and gold in film craft.

Was this another sign of brilliant basics being embraced by big brands and juries this year?

The other side of brilliant basics we saw in Cannes was the focus and prominence of business growth.

There was ex-Burger King CMO Fernando Machedo’s talk on the focus and need for CMOs to take on the responsibility of being “growth architects” and being the “right hand arm” of the CEO.

Marketing not as a siloed function but an intrinsic growth engine within a business. And Kantar took attendees on a deep dive into their research on “excess difference” and how meaningful brand difference is the number one predictor of abnormal stock returns for any business.

Again, this was a very public refocus for marketing to be a central driver in commercial growth.

Also out in Cannes this year, our Global CEO Gail Heimann was in conversation with Mattel’s President and COO, Richard Dickson.

Richard was speaking honestly about how Barbie came very close to becoming obsolete back in 2015, with one headline on CNN asking: “Is Barbie dead?”

This served as a wake-up call for Mattel, and Richard explained how research told them that Barbie dolls were dated, out-of-touch with modern culture and, importantly, were not representative of young people today.

So the brand went back to the drawing board and focused on getting its own basics right. Fixing the product.

Mattel went about slowly and meticulously re-engineering its dolls to be more representative of the real world.

With 175 different Barbies representing 22 different ethnicities and nine different body types, Barbie now can appeal to a far wider base of consumers and are no longer being seen as irrelevant.

Not only have the team at Mattel gone back to basics with a re-engineered Barbie product, but you only have to look at the launch of the summer’s blockbuster Barbie movie to see how the team seems to have embraced the fundamentals of any successful marketing communications push – including leveraging distinctive brand assets in teaser posters with Barbie’s signature pink and just a nod to a release date.

And then there are the genius partnerships with the likes of Airbnb to stay in Barbie’s dream house in Malibu, race in Barbie’s iconic 1950s pink Corvette in Forza Horizon 5, or wear Barbie’s high heels in partnership with Aldo shoes.

The themes coming out of Cannes this year and the rebirth of Barbie tells a story of returning to brilliant basics which I think we should all embrace.

Fix your product before anything else. Leverage your distinctive brand assets. Create smart partnerships with relevant brands that are value-additive. Add depth to your brand giving more people opportunities to access it in more ways.

All while being in complete lockstep with the commercial ambitions of the wider business, ensuring that marketing is a commercial growth engine for your business.

None of these actions are revolutionary or new. They are all about getting the fundamentals right and I hope we continue to see more of this celebrated in our industry.

Gen Kobayashi is EMEA chief strategy officer, Weber Shandwick

This article first made an appearance on Campaign UK.