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Carrots, Candy, and Category Conflict

Conflict is an engagement engine.

I’m not saying people like conflict. Most don’t. But it does capture and compel our attention.

That’s why conflict is the fuel that drives stories. Stories start when something goes wrong—the world falls out of balance—and they keep going until the conflict is resolved—the end. As long as the conflict is going, so is the story.

Conflict should be one of every brand’s primary tools. If you want to fuel engagement for your brand, show conflict.

Knowing that, it can be tempting to just pick a good conflict and run with it. Unfortunately, if you pick a conflict that’s not authentically part of the experience of your brand, you’re likely to create an engaging story that audiences don’t connect to your brand. Have you ever seen a really funny commercial but had a hard time remembering which brand it was for? Or worse, an emotionally moving commercial that shoots itself in the foot at the end by revealing a brand connection that leaves you scoffing? That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. The conflict has pulled you in, but the connection to the brand just isn’t there or doesn’t feel authentic.

Identifying authentic conflict in your brand can feel like a struggle because most of the current tools of brand building were designed to ignore or minimize conflict. Your brand is supposed to offer a perfect solution to a problem for the audience. You’ve fixed it. Now the audience lives happily ever after, The End. That’s not using conflict, that’s denying it.

So, how can you find conflicts that will build your brand? One way to kick-start the process is to begin by looking at your category.

Every brand exists within a category—like transportation, insurance, cosmetics, laundry detergent, or food—and every category has an inherent category conflict. Whether you are aware of it or not, your brand is already connected to that conflict, and you can consciously use it to power your brand story and increase engagement and connection with your audience.

Every category of goods or services is built on a struggle between conflicting needs that people are trying to address through their use of those goods or services. For example, food.

When someone puts out a tray of snacks at a meeting that offers both raw veggies and M&M’s, you can watch people struggle as they consider what to choose. Should they pick the wholesome, good-for-them choice, or the indulgent, delicious choice? If they pick the M&M’s, should they only take a few? If they have some carrot wedges and broccoli florets first, can they take a whole handful of M&M’s?

What they’re wrestling with is the food-category conflict—virtue versus pleasure. This conflict captures the struggle people face when choosing between foods as safe, nourishing fuels to keep them healthy and alive versus foods as sensual, pleasurable experiences that satisfy them physically and emotionally.

Often, if not always, these impulses pull in opposite directions, causing people to struggle with their food choices. Healthy, whole foods lean toward the virtue side of the struggle. Delicious, treat-foods lean toward the pleasure side. Most foods fall somewhere along the spectrum between the two poles. All brands within the category, whether they are conscious of it or not, participate in the struggle and have the potential to suggest their distinct perspective or point of view about how to choose. And in the end, that’s mostly what a brand is—the crystallization of a distinct point of view about how to thrive when torn between the positive opposite urges that shape a particular category.

Anyone who has been to Character Camp knows that one of my favorite examples of harnessing the virtue-versus-pleasure conflict of the food category to drive engagement is M&Ms. There was about a forty-year period in which the M&M characters denied the conflict of their category and suffered for it. From the 1950s to the mid ‘90s, Red, Yellow and their friends were just pleased as punch to be eaten by fans of the brand and didn’t seem to care about anything other than letting the audience know they were delicious chocolate candies with a thin sugar shell. That got them to a point where virtually everyone knew who they were and no one really cared.

All of that changed in 1995, when the brand introduced conflict in the characters. The new incarnations of Red, Yellow, and the gang were torn between the pleasure of being loved and appreciated versus their desire to stay safe and alive. And overnight, they went from ranking near the bottom of brand-character popularity to literally outperforming Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse—raising the profile and significantly improving the financial performance of the M&Ms brand in the process.

Like M&M’s, your category conflict is waiting to be tapped as a source of connection and engagement for your brand. If you want to make more effective use of story, your category conflict can make an excellent starting point.

“For B2B businesses, Character is a powerful tool. I have used Character three times in my leader marketing roles, 2x were in B2B businesses. The Character work was the foundation of a transformation in product innovation/commercialization, rebranding, M&A, sales growth, and employee engagement. Character’s work helped us take dead brands and make them relevant again and helped us establish lesser-known brands with high share in a B2B market. What’s so unique is that you don’t create something that the ‘marketing talking heads’ think the company needs, you use the history, culture and DNA that is already part of the company to bring out the true story that is unique to only your brand. The Character team is so special, genuine, and has the perfect mix of creative and business knowledge to lead cross-functional executives through this process. ”
—Melissa Minihan, Head of Digital Commerce & Marketing, Veritiv Corporation

“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