As Cannes Lions Live streamed into the makeshift home offices of the advertising industry for a second year, brand marketing leaders speaking at the event shared their hard-learned lessons from the COVID-19 era, and the new changes that they believe will shape the future of marketing as the industry emerges from the toughest year in living memory. 

Takeaway 1: Get comfortable with uncertainty

If the upheaval of COVID-19 has proved nothing else, it’s that flexibility, speed and creativity are now three crucial performance indicators for any marketing team. After a year where plans were made and discarded many times over, marketing leaders are now thinking differently about how their teams operate. 

“[We] tried new marketing techniques, all done virtually...speed was really what mattered and lives were at stake,” said Kathryne Reeves, Chief Marketing Officer at Illumina.

Few marketing leaders have a desire to move back to the often-glacial pace of decision making and ultra-long timelines that typified large organisations before the pandemic. These days, even the biggest brands are thinking like a start-up. Uncertainty is a given, and agility is now the norm.

“[The pandemic has] been a lot of scenario planning, a lot of being comfortable with uncertainty, and a lot of thinking client-first,” said Lynne Biggar, Global Chief Marketing Officer at Visa, in a discussion at Lions Live. 

General Motors implemented ‘ventilator time’ as an internal benchmark for solving and executing on problems that arose during the crisis. A ventilator takes about 30 days to produce. As normal life starts to resume, GM’s Chief Marketing Officer Deborah Wahl anticipates that ‘ventilator time’ will become a permanent way of thinking for the automotive giant.

“[COVID-19 has] been a true test of agility and living in the moment and understanding where people are and meeting them in that way. GM has really risen to that challenge,” she said.

Takeaway 2: Creativity isn’t just about marketing ideas, it’s about solving real life problems

Practical applications of creativity have been top of mind for marketing leaders in the last 18 months, as they seek to put the influence of their brands behind solving real-world problems.

“We like to view creativity in the sense of bringing novel solutions for consumer problems. Sometimes in marketing, we just see creativity as creative advertising. In the world today, we need advertising focused on holistic solutions and solving problems.” said Pedro Earp, who heads up marketing at alcoholic beverages giant AB InBev.

Patricia Corsi, Chief Marketing and Digital Officer at Bayer Consumer Healthcare, agrees: “Brands are focusing more on the problem they are trying to solve versus the things they are trying to sell. I love that shift, because we are much better placed to serve the people we represent as the need is there.”

General Mills, which owns many of the world’s most iconic food brands, turned its attention to tackling food shortages in the early stages of the pandemic. According to Chief Brand Officer Brad Hiranaga, marketers intentionally leaned into the joy and nostalgia of its brands in a difficult time.

“[COVID-19] accelerated our mindset toward something that we always knew: brands need to be useful, and they have to solve problems. We created a rallying cry last year about how our brands need to solve problems and deliver joy.”

Takeaway 3: Communicate clearly, authentically and honestly  especially in an era of disinformation

The last few years have seen fake news and disinformation become major problems, not just for the media ecosystem, but also for brands who are increasingly concerned about brand safety. Healthcare brands have often found themselves at the front lines battling disinformation, especially during COVID-19, even though the healthcare industry has by far the highest expectations in terms of trustworthiness of companies.

Many consumers are scared and susceptible to dangerous disinformation, for example, about vaccines. According to Tamara Rogers, Global Chief Marketing Officer at consumer healthcare brand GSK, brands need to ensure their communication connects in a clear and honest way.

“We've lived through this time with fake news and all sorts of misleading information. I think one of the most important things that companies can do is to give honest, trustworthy and transparent information to help people make decisions,” Rogers said.

“We let the message and the power of the importance of the moment speak and it was really authentically received and, frankly, it has led to amazing business results,” said Reeves.

Takeaway 4: Customer expectations are increasing and brands need to up their game

An increase in customer expectations throughout the pandemic is set to be a permanent change. Brands will need to step up or risk losing out to more customer-centric, innovative brands which connect with changing shopper behaviours and motivations.

“More than ever, the Venn diagram [overlap] of customer and brand values is where growth and loyalty happens. One of the things that we've also noticed is that within the last 18 months, customer expectations of what brands will do have only increased,” noted Claudette Cheever, Chief Marketing Officer at Amazon.

Many brands have also been dialling up their insights capabilities, working with customer data and social listening tools to keep their finger on the pulse of consumer sentiment and adapt quickly.

“Data and data platforms are helping us a lot to understand consumers so much better, segment consumers so much better, understand what the pain points are and then solve them in a more individualised way,” said Earp.

Brands are also using technology better understand the path to purchase, especially as more customers move online. 

“Modern aspects of technology has enabled – and the COVID period has accelerated – more omnichannel techniques and ways to integrate and blend physical and online interactions,” said Kyriakos Konstantinidis, Global Marketing Director at pharma company AstraZeneca.

Takeaway 5: Focus on the data ‘value exchange’ with consumers

Data offers big opportunities to build effective CRM marketing and better understand consumers, but brands need to be cautious about maintaining customer trust as well as staying on top of regulatory requirements. While there’s more customer data available for marketers to dig into than ever, customers are also more wary of how their data is used by brands.

According to Alastair Macrow, Chief Marketing Officer at McDonald’s, the brand is currently rolling out loyalty programmes around the world and focused on ensuring that users get the most value and enjoyment in exchange for their data.

“The most important thing is to make sure that we give customers fair value for their data, and we think about making sure that they're getting something back that really works for them,” he said.

Although data offers huge opportunities, marketers also need to be aware of falling into a short-termist trap which can underline brand growth in the long term. 

“We've lived through 8-10 years of being very data-driven in marketing. That’s fantastic – you truly get to understand your audience and you can be highly relevant. But it's also driven an incredible amount of short-termism… if you're just on short term optimization, e.g buy it now, it’s very easy for competitors to come in,” Rogers said.