Can brands be a force for social good? This simple question seems set to become a major talking point at this year's Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. We at Warc are celebrating our 2013 Admap Prize winners, who discussed this very topic, with an event on the Croisette on Wednesday. And executives from Coca-Cola today took to the stage at the Palais des Festivals with a convincing argument that their firm has not only made doing good a key aim, but has been responding to social causes for decades.

The soft drinks giant is planning to sharpen its focus on the issue as part of its ongoing Content 2020 marketing platform, Ivan Pollard, Coca-Cola's vice president for global connections, told the audience. "We believe that doing good work - work that does good - is as important as work that does good business," he said. "It's a huge creative opportunity. Our powerful position gives us the opportunity to create significant positive change in the world."

Pollard's co-presenter, Jonathan Mildenhall, the company's vice president for global advertising, detailed the historical roots of this positioning. He argued that Coca-Cola's positive communications over the years may seem non-controversial, but have in fact served as a long-term breaker of racial and sexual boundaries. First, he pointed out, Coca-Cola has featured African-Americans in its ads since the 1950s, a time when, needless to say, race relations in the US were very different to today.

Mildenhall added that the famous 1971 spot, I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing, created by McCann Erickson, could be seen to represent "a defiant rallying cry for hope, peace and love around the world" at a time when international conflicts were rumbling on in Vietnam and the Middle East. Even the Diet Coke spots from the 1990s featuring women objectifying a desirable - and mute - male could be seen as a comment on gender roles and stereotypes. Looked at one way, it seemed like "female liberation," Pollard said.

Coca-Cola is set on maintaining its upbeat but progressive stance. This can be seen in its "A billion reasons to believe" campaign from 2011, which was created in Africa and celebrated the continent's dynamism as other regions, primarily Europe and North America, suffered in the financial crisis. It's both uplifting and slyly subverts stereotypes about the region. "We live in full colour while the rest of the world turns grey," as the campaign had it. "Not all work that matters needs to be serious and heavy," Mildenhall said.

Finally, Coca-Cola is now turning its hand to perhaps its most intractable social problem yet: the ongoing India-Pakistan conflict. Using experiential marketing rather than above-the-line ads, the firm has rolled out special vending machines that function as a sort of "communication portal" between the two warring nations.

Do brands really have a role in such serious and complex social issues? On the evidence of this seminar, and our Admap Prize entries, it seems that more and more marketers believe that they do. After all, as Mildenhall put it, "all around the world are opportunities for brands to reflect greater diversity and equality. All of the Coca-Cola brands should lean in to make a social stand. We encourage you to do the same for your brands."