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The Party’s Over: Conflict and Cookies

“You’re wrong, Jim,” my friend Jim said as he bit the head off of a Santa-shaped and frosted Christmas cookie. Jim is kind of a competitive guy.

“Say more about that, Jim,” I encouraged around a mouthful of my own Santa.

“Jim phrased that kind of harshly, Jim,” my other friend named Jim said, his hand hesitating over the plate of cookies. Jim is more soft-hearted than competitive Jim or I. “But you do always say a commercial needs conflict to make it engaging, and Jim showed me one yesterday that’s pretty good and it doesn’t have any conflict.”

“Watch this,” competitive Jim gloated. Then he pulled out his phone to play this new Amazon ad about the aftermath of the holidays.

“Awww,” soft-hearted Jim said when it was over. “That gets me every time. I just took down the lights at my house.”

“And it gets him without any conflict,” competitive Jim challenged, taking another cookie off the plate. “It gets me, too. So, take that, Jim! And you take a Santa cookie, Jim.”

“I probably shouldn’t,” soft-hearted Jim said. “I’ve had a lot of goodies during the break. Too many goodies.” He patted his stomach.

“But these are yummy,” competitive Jim said, biting into Santa’s legs to prove his point.

“And somebody has to eat them,” I added. “They’re just going to go stale otherwise.” Soft-hearted Jim took one.

“But look,” I continued, “that commercial does have conflict. Plenty of it. Your definition of conflict is just too limited. You’re thinking of conflict like it’s a fight—a fight between a good thing and a bad thing. That’s a kind of conflict. But the best conflicts for driving stories are rarely just between a good thing and a bad thing in which one side wins. Stories like that may be exciting, especially if they have a lot of explosions—”

“Or a Death Star,” soft-hearted Jim interjected. “A Death Star is always good.”

“Or a fighter-jet-dog-fight sequence starring Tom Cruise,” competitive Jim added around a mouthful of cookie. “He’s still got it.”

“Or an unstoppable serial killer in a mask stalking teenagers,” I agreed, “part ten. But those kinds of stories can tend to be one-dimensional if that’s all there is to them. When I say conflict, I’m including the internal kind. The kind where there’s a tension between two good impulses that happen to tug in opposite directions. Like virtue versus pleasure, safety versus freedom, or standing out versus fitting in. We’re all torn between conflicting desires like that. Both sides are good, so there’s no way to win those kinds of struggles. A victory on one side would represent a loss on the other. Great stories are built around those kinds of struggles because everyone has them, everyone can relate to them, and everyone needs some insight about how to navigate them.”

“Oh crap, he’s going to talk about meaning again,” competitive Jim warned.

“Actually, I was going to say that those kinds of conflicts don’t even always look like conflicts,” I objected. “Which brings us back to the Amazon commercial.”

“Which has no conflict,” competitive Jim said smugly.

“Oh, it’s got conflict. It’s right there from the opening shot of the poor, discarded Christmas tree,” I countered. “But you see it clearest in three moments. When the lady putting away her holiday dishes looks at them with a bittersweet expression, when the little girl pulling the snowflake decorations off the window looks sad, and most obviously when the dad and his daughter hug and look like they’re going to cry. All those characters are experiencing that conflict between sentimentality and practicality we all face when the holidays are done and it’s time to move on and get back to work and reality.”

“But even though it’s sad, it’s also ok, because all that great holiday stuff will be waiting in the garage, or the attic, or wherever until next time we need it,” soft-hearted Jim said, gesturing with his Santa. “It’s still there for us.”

“DANG!” Competitive Jim shook his head. “And so is Amazon! Devilishly clever!”

“And that’s how you use conflict to drive a story to connect with people,” I said, trying not to sound smug. “Even if the audience isn’t conscious of the conflict.”

“Don’t sound so smug about it,” competitive Jim complained. I guess it’s harder to self-regulate sounding smug than I thought.

“Ok,” soft-hearted Jim sighed. “But I still don’t love that you have to have conflict to drive a story. It would be nicer if we could just enjoy things without struggling.”

“I guess, in life, you can’t enjoy the Santa cookie without biting Santa’s head off,” competitive Jim said, stuffing the remains of Mr. Kringle into his mouth.

“It’s not his head, but my belly I worry about,” soft-hearted Jim noted. Then he bit the head off his own Santa. “Mmmm. Yummy,” he noted sadly.

“Character gets to the heart of what good storytelling is all about. They’ve helped Wendy’s focus on what makes us unique, different and special and that’s helped us to get people’s attention, keep their interest and keep the business growing. We compete with much larger brands, but by being overt about how we want to attack those differences, we’ve been able to have a lot of tension and conflict in the story that we are telling. That allows us to keep the story fresh and to fuel it. The more we do that the more positive attention we get as a brand and the more the brand continues to grow, which, in turn, builds our confidence in our storytelling and keeps the courage level high.”

—Kurt  Kane, President U.S. & Chief Commercial Officer, Wendy’s Corporation

“I’ve been through Character’s story framework process four times in my career, and it has always added extraordinary value. It was a central piece of Walmart’s rebranding effort in 2006, as we sought a new articulation of our brand narrative and our purpose. It’s an equally powerful tool for us now, as Walmart defines its place in a rapidly transforming retail environment. And we are currently using it to do the same for Sam’s Club.”

—Tony Rogers, Chief Marketing Officer, Walmart

“Character’s approach to brand building is unlike any other in the business. Jim and his team use the timeless truths of human storytelling to unlock story potential and connect deeply with brand audiences. I’ve worked with Character throughout my career, and my experience with Tabasco was as fascinating, inspiring, and productive as ever. 

Character worked with our team not only to help us re-examine and re-articulate the elemental truths of our iconic global brand but also to develop and apply practical tools that make the brand story framework user-friendly for our entire organization. 

I whole-heartedly recommend Character to any brand marketer who is looking to make intuitive and durable connections with their consumer.”

Lee Susen, Chief Sales & Marketing Officer, Tabasco / McIlhenny Company