In recent years it has become fashionable for marketers to refer to themselves as “storytellers” for their brand. But a lot of branded narratives are deadly boring. That’s because they lack that one element that every good writer uses: conflict.
Every great story, be it a novel, a play, a film or a television series, is based on a dramatic conflict – a protagonist’s struggle to get what he or she wants in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It is this tension that makes us interested and addicted: We want to know whether our hero succeeds or fails.
Without this element of risk, a story can be flat, predictable, and boring.
Unfortunately, a lot of brand content and brand stories are all of these things. The characters and the setting are nice so that they don’t reflect the organization badly. As if by magic, wonderful things happen to the protagonists. Difficult topics are avoided and negativity is frowned upon. There is no conflict.
Obviously, I’m not suggesting we put Freddy Krueger and Hannibal Lecter in cornflakes commercials (although “Cereal Killers” would be awesome to watch). But we should always ask ourselves why anyone should care about our brand stories.
I think it’s helpful to consider the different types of conflict that storytelling experts say make the best narratives.
Five types of storytelling conflict
1. Character vs. Self
Some of the greatest novels and films revolve around an internal conflict, but such turbulence is usually avoided with branded content because it is seen as a sign of a lack of confidence.
Nevertheless, the admission of self-doubt can be used to strengthen the empathy for the character – your brand or its products – and to emphasize strength.
What concerns might your prospects have about buying from you? What myths or taboos could they put off? Instead of avoiding these problems, let them flow into your story and show how you can overcome them.
2. Character vs. character
This conflict is a classic storytelling: David vs. Goliath, King Kong vs. Godzilla, Kramer vs. Kramer. It’s also common in marketing: Pepsi vs. Coke, Mac vs. PC, Burger King vs. McDonald’s. But it’s not easy to pull it off. It can seem petty and inadvertently draw attention to your rival.
The character versus character storyline only makes sense for a challenger brand. Market leaders should avoid mentioning competition. (If they’re drawn into a fight like this, you know they’re in trouble!)
But upstarters need to make their conflict entertaining for a wider audience, not just their own advocates, and one way to do that is through humor. How could you make fun of your bigger, slower rival?
3. Character vs. nature
This is an increasingly popular act in films. It has even spawned a new genre sometimes called “Eco-Apocalypse” or “Kli-Fi”. But it’s almost untouched by brands in a classic example of organizations trying to avoid conflict: They want to steer customers into green decisions, but don’t want to scare them with the consequences of inaction.
Again, I’m not saying your branded content should start with flooded cities or burning forests. But think twice before going straight to the solution.
Can you catch the battle that went on creating your green product? Can you show that nature’s destructive power is being tamed? Can you set up a ticking eco time bomb and then show how to defuse it?
All of these scenarios fire the imagination rather than the pretext that the world is perfect.
4. Character vs. technology
This is another conflict that Hollywood writers use more often. After all, the relationship between man and machine is one of the big issues of our time.
In marketing, of course, we usually try to sell a technology, so we tend to focus on its benefits. But let’s face it, there are downsides, and sometimes leaning on those frustrations in your marketing storytelling can highlight the strengths of your product.
Can you take advantage of the category’s concerns and then come up with an alternative? Can you dispel myth or unravel confusion? Above all else, can you make your technology feel human and loved, not just mechanical and efficient?
5. Character vs. Society
In such conflicts, the protagonist absorbs social forces such as prejudice, ignorance and oppression. It is currently a dominant topic in fiction and is also becoming increasingly popular with commercial organizations.
Used well, the conflict between character and society can tell a compelling story and help make the world a better place. But it should be used with caution.
First, your brand should have a strong and relevant story to tell. Otherwise you could be accused of “purposeful laundering”. Second, make sure your narrative goes beyond platitudes. Otherwise there is no real conflict; You’re just talking empty words on a subject that everyone agrees on anyway.
To get this right, ask yourself what social issues your organization is genuinely interested in and how it can move the subject forward instead of just jumping on an already rolling bandwagon.
Brand storytelling: from conflict to solution
Some of the suggestions in this article may seem counter-intuitive to content creators who were brought up with the need to highlight the positive. That should be your goal, but you should also think about how to get there.
Of course, a happy resolution is critical to any brand storytelling. But first and foremost, you have to get people to take care of it, and that’s where the conflict comes in.
I leave the final words on this subject to one of the greatest storytellers of all time: the late, great John le Carré. In the course of his career he has sold more than 60 million books – often with very complex storylines. But his philosophy was simple and it was about conflict: “‘The cat sat on the mat’ is not a story,” he once said. “But ‘the cat sat on the dog mat’ is the beginning of a story.”
The next time you’re creating content for your brand, ask yourself: is your narrative just a cat on a mat?
If so, find a dog.
More resources on brand storytelling
26 universal questions about brand positioning (and creating your brand story)
A framework for brand stories by Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
How Marketers Can Be Effective Business Storytellers (And Why They Should Be)