Conflict Is Story: What It Means for Marketing Storytellers

Conflict by Joe Kalinowski

Conflict is story. Graphic by Joe Kalinowski based on a photo by Gianluca Ramalho Misiti.

Without conflict, there is no story. It is conflict that defines the story.

Whenever a writer is sharing a story idea with me, I’m listening for the conflict. Specifically, what is preventing the main character from reaching a specific, desired goal. And whenever a marketer references the brand “storytelling,” I’m listening for the same things. Let’s explore…

Without conflict, the story is just a setup. It may be an anecdote or even a nice scenario, but ultimately, great (heck, even good) stories require some sort of conflict. And lest we think this applies only to fiction, this is also relative to brand stories told in marketing. Read on…

Let’s start with a story example. Everyone loves zombies, so let’s make this a story set in the zombie apocalypse. Now, consider your main character Bob. What does Bob want? Does he want to win the zombie-slaying trophy? If so, why? What will winning the trophy be?

It doesn’t matter if Bob is from present day or from the future (a guy from the future fighting zombies is a nice setup!). All that really matter is that Bob wants something and why he wants it can be clearly defined.

There are lots of different theories on story conflicts, but many educators agree there are generally four types of conflict. (Meta irony: Someone will disagree with this.) These are conflicts that work both in fiction, non fiction, and marketing stories.

The four types of conflict:

  • Man vs self
  • Man vs man
  • Man vs nature
  • Man vs society

Those are in no particular order. (That’s not completely true; I ordered them to look nice stacked in a list.)

Man vs Self
In fiction: Bob wants fight the zombies, but they are all former friends. Is Bob avoiding this conflict because he hopes one day there will be a cure? Is Bob feeling guilty that he may have been the cause of their zombifcation? Bob is in conflict with himself.

Man vs Man
In fiction: What keeps Bob from getting what he wants? Is it another character, like Mary for instance? Does Mary want this zombie trophy too? That would create an obvious conflict where two people want the same thing. That’s easy enough, as long as we know why Mary also wants this trophy, since the other character can’t just be an empty archetype (eg, a villain from central casting). Bob is in conflict with another human.

Man vs Nature
In fiction: What if the weather prevents Bob from getting his trophy? The weather has no motivation. The weather is based in science, which makes Bob’s conflict less personal, compared to the conflict with Mary. Nature makes a really good foil to Bob, since Bob will probably try to personify the nature of nature. He may shout into the hurricane, but the hurricane ain’t gonna care. Still, the weather is a conflict that prevents Bob from reaching his goal. Zombies, although unnatural, can be considered a force of nature. Hence, Bob can have multiple forms of nature conflict, all of which are apathetic to Bob’s goals.

Man vs Society
In fiction: Is society really behind Bob? What if the zombie apocalypse was a weapon against societal enemies or some other scenario? Bob doesn’t just need to survive, he must also convince society that he’s doing the right thing. Bob is in conflict with society.

Once you’ve defined the characters (Bob, Mary, etc.), you must give them a conflict. This begins the story.

Conflict in Marketing Stories
But marketing isn’t fiction, at least it’s not supposed to be. That begs the question: What’s the conflict in marketing storytelling?

This gets a little tricky, since many marketers think The Story is “we’re pretty wonderful, buy our stuff.” That’s not a very compelling story outside of the company. It’s more like a brand selfie.

It helps to think of your marketing story through the eyes of the user. What conflict does the user have and how does your brand become part of their narrative? This changes the point of view (POV) of the conflict and resolution. If you work in content marketing or content strategy, you must guide your team to fully embrace the POV of the target user, not just deliver a brand message. Great storytellers don’t talk at people, they engage them.

Your brand isn’t likely to be the star of anyone’s personal story because their story is defined by their own narrative and complicated by their own conflicts. In certain cases, however, your brand can be a solution to the personal conflicts of your customers. Yes, your brand can be the turning point in the story that helps the hero (your customer) arrive at a satisfying conclusion.

The best way to do this is to understand your target customer. You must know them like the characters you write in a fiction story. You must understand what they want, what motivates them, and what creates a conflict for them.

If you were creating a fictional character, you’d work on a background bio to understand that character’s personal history and how it shaped their wants, needs, and desires. In marketing, you might create a detailed persona, which would help define your target customer’s wants, needs, desires. Ultimately, you want to understand “target users” and “fictional characters” as real humans with actual needs.
If your brand team is trying to create a brand story without a full understanding of your customer needs, you may not actually have a story. You probably just have the setup for a story. It’s time to dig deeper.

Let’s go back to Bob, our futuristic zombie slayer. If your brand helped Bob solve his conflict(s), you’d be a solution.

If you call your brand a solution, reverse the POV to determine if you’re solving someone’s problem or if you’re taking a brand selfie. If you can map a scenario where you really, truly, actually solve someone’s conflict then, yes, you are a solution.

As you go through this story mapping process, you’ll know what your user needs at any point in their user journey and what role your brand can play. Tell THAT story.

From an app to an immersive experience to a simple infographic, your users need something from you. Understanding what this is will help you deliver the right message and the right time in the right place because they are looking for answers. And, if you’ve done your job right, you’re brand will be at last part of that answer.

If you’re in the business of marketing, you’re in the business of storytelling. You just need to remember who the story belongs to, what the role you play in that narrative, and how to respond to the inevitable zombie apocalypse.

Conflict is story zombie.

Conflict is story. Graphic by Buddy Scalera based on a photo by Gianluca Ramalho Misiti.

Additional Reading:
Terrifying Tales of Marketing Zombies Curating Content

Brand Storytelling Lessons From a Successful Screenwriting Instructor

In the event of a Zombie attack

Bonus Video: