Brands as advocates for sustainability: Thomas Hongtack Kim's Cannes judging observations – Campaign Brief Asia

“We’re here to save the world.” Such a sentiment likely echoed in the minds of the Cannes Lions Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) jury as they arrived in Cannes this year.
The SDG category stands out as a unique segment, distinct from any other. Crucially, the brilliance of an idea is secondary if it fails to shift perceptions or contribute to global betterment.
This ethos is evident in the fact that many works that garnered gold or other accolades at different festivals did not even make the shortlist in the SDG category. The judging criteria here are rigorous: 20% for the idea, 20% for strategy, 20% for execution, and a substantial 40% for results and impact.
The SDG category, in collaboration with the United Nations, celebrates brand activism, highlighting how brands can create solutions that serve social good. Essentially, it embodies the principle that “what’s good for the world is good for the brand.”
This year’s Cannes Lions SDG saw 588 entries, each presenting heartfelt solutions aimed at benefiting people, the planet, and prosperity.
Of these, only fifty entries, or 10%, made the shortlist, and a mere 3% (10 entries) won medals.
Despite the intense competition and the hefty entry fees paid by the 518 eliminated entries, there is no cause for regret. All entry fees in the SDG category are donated to the Grand Prix, fostering the scaling of solutions to benefit the world.
In summary, here are the four standout aspects in the SDG space this year.
1) Tech-Driven Solutions
A significant number of the solutions were technology-based, highlighting the transformative power of tech in addressing complex issues and facilitating easy access for beneficiaries. Major players in tech, such as Google, fintech firms, and big data analytics companies leveraging AI, were prominently featured. Exemplifying this trend, the gold award-winning ‘Pink Chip’ and the silver award-winning ‘Fishheart’ showcase how innovative use of data-driven technology can turn logical solutions into seemingly magical outcomes.
2) Simple and Intuitive Solutions
Simple and intuitive solutions gained attention for their effectiveness. The most pressing issues often require agile solutions that are sensitive to the cultural, geographic, and environmental contexts of their application. Two Gold Award winners, ‘Filter Caps’ and ‘Sightwalks’, demonstrated how straightforward approaches can yield powerful impacts.
3) Solid Partnerships
The importance of robust partnerships was another standout theme. Collaborative efforts between brands, governments/NGOs, and companies within the same industry sector were instrumental in problem-solving. This approach aligns perfectly with SDG 17, Partnerships for the Goals. The high impact of these coalition solutions was exemplified by the Gold Award-winning ‘The Move to -15’.
4) Long-Term Platform Solutions
Recognition was given to long-term platform solutions over one-off projects, emphasizing the need for sustainable, practical solutions based on a deep understanding of the issues at hand. The Grand Prix-winning ‘Cars to Work’ by Renault exemplifies this approach, as does ‘The E-commerce of Trust,’ which enabled unbanked Mexicans to engage in credit transactions based on trust, earning it a silver award.
Behind the Scenes of the Judging Process
The selection of the Grand Prix often incites fervent debate, and this year’s deliberations were no exception. ‘The Move to -15’ emerged as a strong contender for the Grand Prix. Amidst the urgent global issue of carbon emissions, the collaborative effort of numerous freight forwarding companies to address this challenge was particularly noteworthy. This initiative effectively embodied two core principles of the Sustainable Development Goals: ‘Climate Action’ and ‘Partnership for the Goals.’
Another formidable contender for the Grand Prix was Renault’s ‘Cars to Work.’ This initiative skillfully tackled the issue of inadequate mobility in rural French regions, helping local residents secure employment while simultaneously bolstering Renault’s brand image.
After rigorous fact-checking of the project’s results and impact, and following in-depth discussions, the Grand Prix was ultimately awarded to Renault’s ‘Cars to Work.’ During this process, all the jurors benefited immensely from the insights provided by the jury from United Nations. His profound understanding of behind-the-scenes details ensured that the jury considered solutions with genuine and substantial impact.
The Rise of Brand Activism
It is significant that brands are increasingly taking the lead in devising solutions for emerging social issues. Historically, brands focused primarily on driving sales. However, it is remarkable that in just one year, we received 588 submissions from brands worldwide, each presenting an idea, executing it, and achieving tangible results for social good. This influx of solutions, including many that did not reach Cannes, highlights a growing trend of brands actively engaging in sustainability.
Unlike traditional print ads with visually appealing content and catchy copy, these submissions represent meaningful actions aimed at saving the planet, promoting social justice, and fostering a supportive global community. This is the essence of brand activism, and the Cannes Lions SDG category provided a platform to showcase these efforts. It was an honor to be part of the judging process and witness this commitment to genuine change.
Thomas Hongtack Kim is CCO of Paulus Korea, a Writer and sits on the One Club for Creativity’s International Board of Directors

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