Harnessing Conflict to Fuel Storytelling

by Karen Nardozza, President and CEO

I wouldn’t blame you if you were sick of the word “storytelling” as it relates to your company’s marketing efforts. The term has become so overused it’s starting to sound cliché. But there’s good reason for our modern focus on telling stories: nowadays, stories are one of the few ways brands can stand out.

Think about all the noise, chaos, and crowding in our modern media lives. We’re constantly being marketed to. Research suggests we may be exposed to an average of 5,000 marketing messages a day. We’re talking email, digital display, outdoor, video, search engine marketing, event marketing, experiential marketing… Heck, most elevators I step into nowadays have a little screen that markets at me for the few seconds I’m traversing a few floors. In that environment, how could any brand hope to stand out?

The Answer Is Storytelling

More and more, research suggests that story is the principal idiom that humans use to understand the world. Stories help us find patterns in the confusion around us. They engage us and entertain us. They allow us to learn valuable lessons without having to experience them firsthand. And we like stories. Why else would stories, especially gossip, make up 65% of all human conversation in public places?

Jonathan Gottschall, a scholar who focusses on the intersection of science and art has said:

“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.”

How Do We Harness Story?

OK, fine, we need to tell stories. Got it. But how exactly are we supposed to do that? Many brands have tried their best and failed spectacularly. Or more likely, they did their best and ended up with something that was flat, boring, and easy to ignore.

What separates those failures from the brands that seem to be able to tell compelling stories, over and over again?

The Difference Is Conflict

Many of the brands I’ve worked with over the years have considered “conflict” to be a bad word, at least at first. In fact, I’ve worked with clients who have very specific rules for avoiding conflict in marketing messaging. “We can’t say the word ‘no’ in ad copy.” “Everything needs to be happy.” “We can’t show any imperfections.”

Have you ever binge-watched a TV series where everything was perfect? I didn’t think so. Perfect is boring. Conflict is interesting. In fact, you have no story if you have no conflict. We’ve known that since 9th grade English—novels and movies are filled with conflict. But fights, murder, and heartache don’t really fit in marketing, right?

The Conflict of Two Positives

My favorite way to create brand conflict is to find two positive aspects of the brand that are in opposition. That is, two beneficial attributes of the brand that normally would be opposites.

For Apple, those attributes are technology versus design. Technology is science. Design is art. Technology is functional but ugly. Design is beautiful but impractical. The two don’t go together—they’re in open and obvious conflict. But Apple forces them together in their brand and in their marketing, and the tension created there has helped to make Apple one of the most powerful brands on the planet.

Dove’s women’s beauty care line has harnessed conflict to tell lots of compelling stories online. That conflict is internal confidence versus external beauty. Those two attributes are so in conflict it’s almost hard to understand how they could coexist in one brand. But Dove’s stories show women discovering new internal confidence based on their own unrealized physical beauty.

What Is My Brand’s Conflict?

I’ll admit, it gets tricky here. I’ve been doing this for two decades and it still takes lots of mining, probing and even soul searching to excavate your brand conflict. It can’t be shallow or simple gloss. We need a conflict that is important, intriguing, and foundational to your company or product.

The two conflicting attributes shouldn’t be minor aspects of your brand either, they should be definitive. And they also shouldn’t easily apply to your entire category—they should be specific to your brand. Sure, your tangerines may be “sweet versus sour,” but so are everyone else’s tangerines.

Finally, it’s far preferable if your attributes aren’t just functional. Attributes like savory, blue, cheap, or 50% larger are all fine, but they’re just describing a thing. What are the juicy, intriguing, and most importantly real attributes of your brand that we can harness?

Not One Story. Endless Stories.

Once you’ve discovered the two attributes that collide to create your brand conflict, you’ll find it surprisingly easy to not just tell one story, but to instead tell story after story about your brand from multiple viewpoints.

Apply that conflict to every aspect of your brand, every person it touches, and every way it effects our lives. You’ll find the same conflict can be used in so many different ways. Think of it this way: the movies Fatal Attraction, Alien, The Cable Guy and Gremlins may be wildly different films, but they all harness the same conflict: a scary person (or creature) is after the hero because of a bad decision.

A single conflict doesn’t mean a single story. It is the springboard for every story you tell, and it can influence every brand communication, from packaging to video to your next social media post.

This may all seem pretty confusing right now, but take a look around the marketing world in our industry. Surely you’ve noticed those companies that are doing a great job engaging with customers, consumers and employees with compelling stories. And you may have noticed the effect those connections are having on their success. You have great stories to tell. Just don’t be afraid of letting conflict be part of it. It’s the hook that will begin to build true and memorable connections.