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.