Every good story revolves around conflict. Whether it’s person versus person, technology, or institution, the structure of narrative builds up to the climax of conflict, and concludes with the resolution of that conflict. Kurt Vonnegut diagrammed the story structure as a narrative arc that rises and falls, from situation to complication, and finally to resolution. Applied to brand storytelling, conflict is when we identify a problem or challenge and become compelled with the process of solving it.
In the post-advertising digital era, content is now perceived as something audiences choose to consume and share. While most brands realize the value of storytelling, few understand that embracing conflict is what makes a story compelling and can even help define who they are. The idea of conflict might sound negative or controversial, but it’s what actually catches and holds an audience’s curiosity and imagination. Framed strategically, conflict can convey deep consumer insights and cultural truths.
According to story craft expert Robert McKee, “a story is a dynamic series of events that hooks and holds, and moves people to action.” A good story not only resonates emotionally, but impacts our behaviour. Biologically, we’re hardwired for it. Neuroscientist Paul Zak found that the narrative arc stimulates the release of three chemicals in our brain. When a reader empathizes with a situation, it triggers the feel-good “love” chemical, oxytocin. Then, as conflict is introduced, the stress chemical, cortisol, is released. While stress usually gets a bad rap, it actually elevates our alertness and attention, helping us become more invested in the story. And finally, the satisfaction of resolving the conflict incites the other feel-good chemical, dopamine. Combined together, these three chemicals create a perfect storm of feeling connected and moving us to action.
When it comes to both your brand’s core values and how you position yourself in the market, conflict is integral. According to Content Writers Group managing editor Erin Brand, it should always inform your brand stories. “Everyone struggles against obstacles in life, and this ever-present conflict is part of what makes the success worth it.” She elaborates that whether it’s about the obstacles faced by your customers or by your business, “brands that only tell the bright side…need to rethink their storytelling.”
Messaging that brags about a company’s success doesn’t actually propel a story forward or drive any real engagement. To deeply connect with your target audiences, you need to leverage the conflicts that have relevance and value to them. What problems, challenges, or fears do your customers face, and how can your brand help solve them? What does your brand not only stand for, but against? One example Brand describes is: “If your story is about making a great advance in design, then your conflict is with the model or technology that currently rules and with consumers’ reluctance to change.” Embracing conflict is crucial to keeping consumers compelled by the storyline and invested in how it will unfold. Your brand can then shine through the resolution.
Airbnb is a company that is just as much about what they are as what they aren’t. They’re all about the authentic, people-first travel experience with local hosts putting their homes onto the platform. They communicate this through a narrative about what they’re against: mass tourism and seeing the world through a touristic lens. While messaging like “Don’t go to Paris, don’t go see the Eiffel Tower, and please, don’t ‘do’ Paris” might seem confrontational, it tells the story that you shouldn’t “go” there as a typical tourist, but “live” there and experience the city like a Parisian. By bringing dramatic conflict to life, they animate their brand purpose of feeling at home anywhere. For Lulu Skinner, Airbnb’s senior marketing manager, “conflict is a fundamental part of our brand positioning, how we think about ourselves and our relationship with the world.”
In a similar vein, Harley-Davidson recently challenged the long-time stereotype that their brand was only for white guys over 50. They launched a 12-part road-tripping documentary that featured a diverse demographic of riders from across Canada, New Zealand, Mexico and India. They effectively positioned themselves for a wider market, confronting cultural myths by championing consumer diversity, with the literal and metaphorical vehicle of exploring the open road.
The UK insurance company Direct Line boldly confronted the problem that consumers were not only totally apathetic about, but actually losing trust in, insurance providers. In an industry predicated on being there for consumers at the worst of times, building brand loyalty and trust was ironically the industry’s greatest challenge.
Direct Line positioned itself in, well, direct opposition to the sector’s traditional focus on price comparisons and tugging on consumer fears and heartstrings. Instead, they aimed to inspire consumer trust — not by offering the cheapest solution or a shoulder to cry on, but by simply and powerfully getting things fixed. As the antidote to the industry’s stodgy and conservative personality, Direct Line reinvented itself as a colourful, high-performance innovator, aligning the brand with pop culture’s ultimate “fixer”: the gangland character Winston Wolfe from Pulp Fiction.
Most recently, the brand has also been repositioning itself from a business of restitution to one of prevention, fuelled by forward-thinking technology. In a popular campaign, they showcased their creativity and commitment to safety by solving the real problem of darkness on UK countryside roads. They came up with the concept of human-centric adaptable lighting, with a fleet of responsive drones equipped with high-beam lights and driven by GPS technology.
Beyond being brave and creative, these brands show that dramatic conflict is the essence of connecting with an audience’s emotional intelligence. So don’t be afraid to uncover and tell your full story. It’s the hook that will capture a customer’s imagination for believing in what your brand represents.