In recent years, it’s become fashionable for marketers to describe themselves as “storytellers” for their brand. But many brand narratives are deadly dull. That’s because they lack the one element that every good writer uses: conflict.
Every great story, whether a novel, play, film, or TV 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. That tension is what gets us interested and keeps us hooked: We want to know whether our hero will succeed or fail.
Without that element of jeopardy, a story can be flat, predictable, boring.
Sadly, much of branded content and brand storytelling is all of those things. The characters and setting are nice, lest they reflect badly on the organization. Wonderful things happen to the protagonists, as if by magic. Difficult themes are avoided, and negativity is frowned upon. There’s no conflict.
Obviously, I’m not suggesting we start putting Freddy Krueger and Hannibal Lecter into Cornflakes ads (although “Cereal Killers” would be amazing to watch). But we should always ask ourselves why anybody should care about our brand stories.
I think it’s helpful to consider the various types of conflict that storytelling experts say make for the best narratives.
Five Types of Conflict in Storytelling
1. Character vs. Self
Some of the greatest novels and films revolve around an inner conflict, but such turmoil is usually avoided in branded content because it’s believed to signify a lack of confidence.
And yet, acknowledging self-doubt can be used to heighten empathy toward the character—your brand or its products—and emphasize strength.
What concerns might your prospects have about buying from you? What myths or taboos might put them off? Instead of avoiding those issues, why not make them central to your story and show how you can overcome them?
2. Character vs. Character
This conflict is a storytelling classic: David vs. Goliath, King Kong vs. Godzilla, Kramer vs. Kramer. It’s common in marketing, too: Pepsi vs. Coke, Mac vs. PC, Burger King vs. McDonald’s. But it’s not easy to pull off. It can come across as petty and it can inadvertently draw attention to your rival.
The character vs. character storyline makes sense only for a challenger brand. Market leaders should avoid mentioning the competition. (When they get dragged into a fight like that, you know they’re in trouble!)
But upstarts need to make their conflict entertaining to a wider audience, not just to their own stakeholders, and one way to do that is using humor. How could you poke fun at your bigger, slower rival?
3. Character vs. Nature
This is an increasingly popular plotline in movies. It’s even given rise to a new genre sometimes called “eco-apocalypse” or “cli-fi.” But it’s almost untouched by brands in a classic example of organizations’ trying to avoid conflict: They want to steer customers toward eco-friendly choices but don’t want to scare them with the consequences of inaction.
Again, I’m not saying your brand content should start with flooded cities or burning forests. But think twice before cutting straight to the solution.
Can you capture the struggle that went into creating your green product? Can you show nature’s destructive power being tamed? Can you set up a ticking eco-time-bomb then show how it can be defused?
All of those scenarios are more likely to grip the imagination than a pretense that the world is perfect.
4. Character vs. Technology
This is another conflict that writers are using more often in Hollywood. After all, the relationship between people and machines is one of the great themes of our time.
In marketing, of course, we’re typically trying to sell a technology, so we tend to focus on its benefits. But let’s face it: Downsides exist, too, and sometimes leaning into those frustrations in your marketing storytelling can highlight your product’s strengths.
Can you harness category concerns, then present an alternative? Can you dispel myths or untangle confusion? Above all, can you make your technology feel human and loved, rather than just mechanical and efficient?
5. Character vs. Society
In this kind of conflict, the protagonist takes on societal forces such as prejudice, ignorance, and oppression. It’s a dominant theme in fiction right now, and it’s increasingly popular with commercial organizations, too.
Used well, the character vs. society conflict 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 “purpose-washing.” Second, ensure that your narrative goes beyond platitude. Otherwise, there’s no real conflict; you’re just mouthing empty words about a topic that everyone agrees on, anyway.
To get this one right, ask yourself what social problems your organization genuinely cares about and how it can move the issue forward instead of just jumping on a bandwagon that’s already rolling along.
Brand Storytelling: From Conflict to Resolution
Some of the suggestions in this article may feel counter-intuitive for content creators who have been brought up on the need to accentuate the positive. That should be your goal, but you should also think about how you get there.
Obviously, a happy resolution is crucial for any brand storytelling. But you need to make people care about it in the first place, and that’s where conflict comes in.
I’ll leave the last words on the subject to one of the greatest storytellers of all time: the late, great John le Carré. He sold more than 60 million books—often with very complicated plots—over the course of his career. 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’s mat’ is the beginning of a story.”
The next time you create content for your brand, ask yourself: Does your narrative consist only of a cat on a mat?
If so, find a dog.
More Resources on Brand Storytelling
26 Universal Questions for Brand Positioning (and Creating Your Brand Story)
A Brand Storytelling Framework From Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
How Marketers Can Be Effective Business Storytellers (And Why They Should Be)