I spent three days last week surrounded by 7,000 business leaders from 50 countries at C2 Montreal, an international commerce and creativity conference. It’s not your typical business event – it’s very eclectic. I heard from a story architect at NASA, the founder of the Museum of Ice Cream, a lawyer who left everything to become a spear fisher, and The Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am.

The theme of the conference was tomorrow. Participants were encouraged to take action and make a meaningful difference in the world in the next 365 days. It was exciting. It was inspiring. Here are some key takeaways.

1. Brand ‘doing’. It’s not enough for companies to stand for certain values and promote them in ads, they have to put those beliefs into concrete action. For example, Yard, a French creative agency that specializes in urban culture, worked with Nike to build basketball courts and soccer fields in the poor areas of Paris.

Before and after of Nike’s renovation project

2. Authenticity. The new generation of consumers has grown up with brands and influencers trying to sell them things constantly. They crave authenticity and can smell ‘fake’ a mile away.  

Yard creative directors Tom Brunet and Yoan Prat explained how Nike launched their latest shoe with pop-up shops in urban communities first – even before giving it to their sponsored athletes. This allowed the style to gain real ‘street cred’ before spreading to the mass market.

3. Pull marketing. We’re no longer in the push media age. Algorithms and technology serve us a personalized experience. Therefore we have to view marketing not as campaigns we push onto people with reach but in a more fluid, segmented way. This includes two-way conversation via messaging and peer-to-peer interaction. It requires a different mindset and approach.

4. Social responsibility. We’ve been talking about corporate responsibility for decades, but what is new is the willingness of consumers to boycott brands based on their values (83% for Gen Z).

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5. User experience. Online or offline, every part of the consumer experience needs to feel effortless and reflective of the brand values. It sounds obvious but a presentation by SAP’s Chief Marketing Officer Alicia Tillman showed how disconnected CEOs were from their clients. When asked to rate the level of service, 88% of CEOs said their company provided ‘superior service’, while only 8% of customers agreed. That’s a big perception vs. reality gap.

6. Art. Music and artistic expression were everywhere at C2 Montreal. It makes you realize how art and commerce are not polar opposites, but intrinsically linked. A beautiful design creates desire, music sets a mood, and those are important branding elements. Art is not superfluous, it contributes to the bottom line.

7. Nature. Nothing breaks the ice between corporate folk like a bunch of goats. As you came into the C2 Montreal site, immediately to the right was a pen with goats and sheep. They had little ties on, it was adorable.

The takeaway here is an opportunity for our industry to be more present and champion the human-animal bond. As society becomes more urbanized, it can become increasingly disconnected with nature. We could be in a position to bridge that gap.

8. Humanity. Artificial intelligence is all the rage but we must remember to put human beings at the center of what we do. Companies are made up of people, and clearly consumers are people. It’s so simple, I’m almost embarrassed to have had this ah-ha moment. Bozoma Saint John, CMO at Endeavour, said in her presentation: “I got into marketing because I love people”. My inside voice immediately went, “hey, me too!”