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"Innovate or disappear" - Notes from Cannes Lions 2021


June 28, 2021 By Aurelia Noel, Global Head of Innovation & Transformation, dentsu X

The pandemic has changed our lives in ways we could have not anticipated. It made us rethink everything we took for granted but gave us the opportunity to stop, think and ponder what being human really means as the world broke loose in front of our screens. Brands were no different, they had to find new ways to reach consumers, had to adapt and navigate a new reality but, more importantly, were able to define not what but who they wanted to be.   

When most of the things you took for granted are gone, you need to find new avenues to interact, albeit virtually, and your only way out is Innovation.  

In Cannes 2021, innovation and technology have fuelled creativity and were ever more recognised through two new awards: Market Disruption within the Culture and Context section and Creative Business Transformation which celebrates changes that drive business forward.

What really impressed me is the level of innovation and technology demonstrated across all categories, but today, two innovative Lions winners stood out for me.

The first one is Boards of Change, winner of 14 Lions this year.


 The beauty of innovation in this case is that it turned a simple initiative into a systemic transformation making  the city of Chicago an inspiration for an entire nation.

The idea was simple, using the plywood boards that covered Chicago storefronts during Black life Matter protests into voting booths to encourage voter registrations and participation in the 2020 US elections.

People were urged to take charge of change by scanning a QR code on the booth that then allowed them to register to vote on the spot. The QR code also provided additional resources about upcoming deadlines, voter rights and how to request mail-in ballots.

What resonated was the winner’s comments around how trusting relationships drive change and why brands should believe in their agency and allow them to be brave.

The second winning case study that impressed me Womanikin, the first female CPR dummy.

Did you know that women are 27% less likely to be given life-saving CPR by bystanders in the street, just because of their anatomy? This campaign snagged the only gold honour in the category. In this case again, the innovation was simple - let’s give the CPR mannequin some boobs - and deeply rooted in human insights.

One of my favourite session this week was Innovate or Die, presented by Rachel Ferdinando, CMO of Frito-Lay, North America, and Margaret Johnson, Chief Creative Officer at Goodby Silverstein & Partners, and offered a retrospective of a decade of innovation for brands like Cheetos, Doritos, and Stacy’s, to only cite a few.

This power couple shared some interesting ideas about innovation:

  • Stay true to purpose – make your brand and products a force for good and create moments of joy.
  • Go with your gut – something Ryan Reynolds supported a bit later in the day. Don’t overthink it and do what you like.
  • Be iconic and act iconic – Doritos is so much more than a snack brand, it’s an entertainment brand.
  • Plan B is often better than plan A – Fail fast, act quickly and wonders will happen.
  • Don’t be a cultural tourist – stay ahead of culture and embrace trends where you can be part of the conversation.
  • Timing is everything.
  • And, my personal favourite, develop ideas that are platform specific.

Talking about another innovative brand, I was thrilled to see Burger King being crowned Brand of the festival for the second time. I must admit 34 Lions is pretty impressive!

Cannes has shown that the current period of disruption makes an ideal ground to allow change to happen and innovation count.

Post pandemic, more than ever before, brands will have to stay ahead of the pace of change or they're toast.