CANNES — Brands have an unprecedented opportunity to lead social change, despite wariness about technology and platforms, claimed Richard Edelman at the Cannes Lions Festival today.

Edelman was speaking during a session entitled 'Fame or Fail' that also featured actress Ellen Pompeo and was moderated by journalist Kirsty Wark. He referred to research from Edelman's new Trust Barometer social media study, which found that consumers believe brands should play a leadership role in addressing issues like fake news and data privacy breaches.

With that in mind, Edelman believes that brands effectively represent the "new democracy", with governments unable or unwilling to tackle difficult issues. "You are in the middle of an unprecedented moment — where the two sides are not speaking to each others," said Edelman of political deadlock in numerous countries. "I like the idea of brands being able to step in where governments stepped out."

Brand marketers, he added, are the "best hope we have in a very dysfunctional world." Agencies, meanwhile, should be helping "brand people see the opportunities and the risk."

"Many of you brand folks just need connectivity to civil society and constituencies you don’t necessarily have," said Edelman. "And make the case to the CEO that marketing has the chance to make the biggest change to the business." 

Wark, however, queried this assertion, noting that people are wary about brands and the platforms on which their marketing appears. Edelman, though, reiterated his belief that consumers will not buy from brands who "don’t stand with them on the issues that matter."

"We’re in a battle for truth," added Edelman. "More than half of the people in the world rely on social media for their news and we’re failing them because there’s fake news. There’s a sense now that the platforms can’t reform themselves. We have a polluted ecosystem, and brands are being asked to push platforms to reform themselves. People are deeply upset about things marketers have taken for granted — cookies, location-based marketing, loyalty programs."

Pompeo, for her part, supported Edelman's position, noting that brands have the power to drive cultural change. She cited the example of Lonely Whale, whose "#StopSucking campaign enlisted support from Starbucks to tackle the use of plastic straws.

"Brands have more power than they may believe," said Pompeo. "The truth is they have all the power. Every moment is an opportunity for change. If the brands adopt that and act with certainty and have a moral spine and follow that up with conduct that is also moral and also courageous, and are not afraid to speak up for what they believe in, people will follow."

That goes for diversity and inclusion too, with Edelman pointing to HP CMO Antonio Lucio's high-profile effort to improve standards at this agency. "I hope all of you brands do the same thing because we’ll respond to the stimulus," said Edelman, which fell short of HP's criteria last year. "We’ll find a person of colour if we have to keep the account, you’re damn right."