Your Brand Story Needs Antagonism and This is Why

“Our brand story has to be engaging and unique!” — this sentiment if frequently heard CEO:s and CMO:s around the world. In the quest for the engaging and unique, one thing is often sorely lacking, making brand storytelling fail: antagonism, i.e. all the reasons you might fail.

Let me tell you how Harry Potter most likely would have been written if a random CEO out of all the ones I have met would have written it:

In a cupboard under the stairs lives a boy young boy. His parents are dead so he lives with his aunt and uncle. They are consistently mean to him. One day, on his eleventh birthday, he finds out that he has magical abilities and starts studying at a secret magical school. He becomes the best student of all time. He is friends with every student and all the teachers simply adore him. After seven years he graduates with top remarks, becomes the new school headmaster and lives happily ever after.

Huh? Something missing? As charming as Harry Potter, his friends and all the magical stuff that goes on in J.K Rowling’s world are, the above would never have been a successful story. And that’s because it’s missing a crucial ingredient: Voldemort, Death Eaters and all sources of conflict in Harry’s life.

Judging from how many brands tell their stories today, however, this is seems to be how most CMOs or CEOs would have written it. Most brand stories, you see, are told without conflict and antagonism. Without Voldemort.

The interesting story isn’t about why you’re going to succeed and why you’re so great. It’s about what you are up against and why you just might fail.

Sort of important guy for the Harry Potter saga. Image: Warner Bros.

What is brand story?

First off, what does “brand story” even mean? The term is widely used and certainly holds different meanings for different companies and people. I use it to describe what people most often seem to be asking for when they ask us at Uppfatta to “help them find and tell their brand story”. It turns out they usually want to find a way to put the brand’s mission, values, messaging and, to some extent, history into a coherent narrative.

This narrative can then be applied across different media, interpreted in different ways by different employees. No matter the medium through which it is told or who tells it, the output should give the audience the same feeling. An idea of what the brand is trying to achieve, why, what its backstory is and, of course, how the product or service fits into the narrative.

A brand story, as told by an employee or an ad or a Facebook-post, doesn’t begin with “Once upon a time”. That’s obvious to most people, but the word “story” and the pairing with “storytelling” seem to lead many in the wrong direction. The important thing when discussing brand stories, is not what we might call the plot. A movie needs a plot — the plot of the brand story is ongoing. For brands it is much more interesting to look at all the things that set the stage for a great plot. The components and the tools to craft them well.

Antagonism, as I’ll get into in just a moment, is one such component.

“The more powerful and complex the forces of antagonism opposing the character, the more completely realized character and story must become.” — Robert McKee

What is the ultimate purpose of a brand story?

Above, I listed the more concrete things that seem to go into a brand story. That’s about the what — not the why. So why do you need to tell your brand story, why is it useful?

You tell it to gain followers.

Yes, I like to put it as simply as that. When someone learns about your brand and all those things that the story encompasses, she should feel that she wants to be part of it. And once she’s using the product or service, she should want to come back and, most importantly, tell the story to others.

Ah, the campfire. The original storytelling arena of mankind.

Antagonism and it’s virtues

With the stage set as to what a brand story is and why it’s useful, let’s get into antagonism. This is one central component for anything claiming to be a story. And as I said above, it is often sorely lacking in the storytelling coming from brands, or at least poorly handled.

Let’s tackle four common mistakes and misconceptions around antagonism and give you some juice to fire up your brand story. I’ll dive into some examples along the way to illustrate my points.

MISTAKE 1: YOU THINK ANTAGONIST AND VILLAIN ARE THE SAME THING

The things that provide conflict, that oppose the main character in a story, are the forces of antagonism. The forces of antagonism represent values that are in different ways opposed to that of the main character.

The force of antagonism might take the shape of a villain. In many movies, books or games, a great villain is key. A Bond movie is never better than the villain. Star Wars would have been forgotten today without the iconic Darth Vader. And Harry Potter, well he needs his Voldemort.

However, the antagonistic force might a not be a physical entity — it might be something else entirely. I love the classic Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt comedy As Good As It Gets. Nicholson portrays Melvin, a narcissistic writer who is entirely full of himself. He meets Carol (Helen Hunt) and you can tell there’s chemistry there, but one big thing is standing in the way of their potential relationship. Not a villain, not another man or woman creating a love triangle, but Melvin’s personality. So Melvin is the main character, but at the same time the antagonist — the force of antagonism is his personality. He has to change or this relationship will never happen.

Now, most brands are not at war with themselves (even though internal problems often do stand in the way), but most brands also don’t face Bond-type villains. You have to identify the forces of antagonism in your brand’s story.

GREAT EXAMPLE: THE NEW WASHINGTON POST SLOGAN
Early 2017, renowned American newspaper The Washington Post changed its slogan to “Democracy Dies in Darkness”. Powerful stuff, and inappropriate according to some.
I will say this: In the context of Trump’s election win and his constant comments about fake news and the “failing media”, this slogan says so much. With it, The Washington Post makes a bold claim. They are the light that stands against the darkness, preservers of democracy. You’re no longer paying for a paper when you subscribe — you’re supporting democracy.
Will they win over many Trump supporters with this stance? Hell no. That’s not the point though; the point is to rouse followers of the opposite side.
With moves such as this, and the rise of Trump as a clear force of antagonism (who also happens to fit the description of a classic comic-book villain), American newspaper subscriptions are on the rise. It’s sad in this case, but antagonism helps.

MISTAKE 2: YOUR STORY LACKS ANTAGONISM

The can be no story without conflict. The main character wants something, but they can’t have it because X. Without X, there is no story. Without X, Frodo DOES simply walk into Mordor and throw the ring into Mount Doom.

Nope, doesn’t do it.

In a movie or book, there are one or multiple antagonistic forces creating conflict. Frodo has to dodge the minions of Sauron (personal conflict), as well as overcome the treacherous landscape of Middle-Earth (extra-personal conflict), while also battling his own psyche and doubts that he can do it (inner conflict). It is conflict on many levels and the story becomes more engaging thanks to the complexity it brings.

Conflict poses choices, and choices are when characters just as well as brands have their moments to shine. How will you tackle the tough choices your brand will have to make? That says a lot about your brand.

GREAT EXAMPLE: COCA-COLA AND THE FIGHT AGAINST SUGAR
Coca-Cola. Talk about a strong brand. And a popular, simple product at the core of it. And yet, visit their webpage and you might think that they’re struggling. It’s a hard to find content about regular Coke on the website. This is because they have acknowledged society’s wake-up to the dangers of over-consuming white sugar.
Coca-Cola could go the easy route and simply bet heavy marketing dollars on keeping us buying the original Coke. Instead they have acknowledged the antagonist — The Sugar Consumption Monster; a monster Coca-Cola certainly has helped feed over the years — and are acting accordingly. Marketing content as well as new products from them focus on less or no white sugar, such as the 2018-line of new Diet Cokes seen above.
I’m no fool, I know Coca-Cola still makes tons of money from selling regular Coke. This is about the positioning and storytelling coming from the brand. And with their focus on Coca-Cola Zero and Diet Coke, the story is that they’re rising to fight The Sugar Consumption Monster, keeping the brand aligned with the times.

MISTAKE 3: YOU THINK NO CONFLICT IS GOOD FOR YOUR BRAND

In his book Story, Robert McKee writes:

“The more powerful and complex the forces of antagonism opposing the character, the more completely realized character and story must become.”

Unfortunately I see many brands wanting to tell their story without conflict. They think they won’t get people to listen to the story unless it’s the simply walk into Mordor-version:

“We came up with this idea for a service, we tested it and the responses were great! And there is nothing quite like it in the market! Everyone will like it and use it and it has no drawbacks. It is simply the BEST!”

Struggle is core to the human experience.

Not only is this uninteresting — it is never true. Even if your product is a yummy powder which makes you immortal if you mix a teaspoon of it into your drink of choice, your brand will face immense hurdles and have to make tough choices. There will still be a lot of people who will not like and use your product.

So I ask you: What sources of conflict stand between your brand and success?

Please don’t answer “we have no competitors, but people don’t know our brand, so our competition is ignorance!” or “we have to reach out, we’re not getting through to the right people.”

Because then I’ll just reply: “Great, just spend all your savings on marketing and you’ll have the reach.”

You won’t do that, of course, because deep down you know of some more complex hurdles. “Well, actually, there’s also a slight risk people will think it’s too expensive …”

And here we start get to the good stuff: The actual sources of conflict which transform your brand story from a non-story of walking into Mordor, to an engaging struggle.

What are the forces of antagonism that your brand has to rise against? What are the values that you oppose and have to overcome? The thing you define as antagonistic to your brand, also defines you.

GREAT EXAMPLE: SONOS AND THE COMPARISON TO BLUETOOTH-SOLUTIONS
Boy have I sat in meetings with clients who would never do this simple thing that Sonos does. Sonos know that they face competition from Bluetooth-based speakers, and so they have a actually kind of candid web page where they compare wi fi-based speaker solutions (Sonos) to Bluetooth-based ones. They acknowledge that Bluetooth has “its advantages” and also include a quote from PC Magazine where they actually partially recommend Bluetooth.
This is no masterclass in humility. It’s simply telling the truth: For some users, Bluetooth is better. And instead of shying away from that, Sonos incorporates it into its narrative, because they know people will compare to simpler and cheaper Bluetooth options.
This example is small-scale, but it can be scaled up and should affect all types of storytelling.

MISTAKE 4: YOU’RE CERTAIN YOU ARE THE GOOD GUYS

Archetypal stories have taught us to think in terms of good and evil, right and wrong. But in the real world, there are few objectively evil villains who are just wrong. So don’t tell your brand story as if your competitors are Sauron, Voldemort or nazis.

Your competition consists of people working for another brand, who probably see your brand as the villain. You think the market needs your product, so you fight for it to gain market share. They obviously think theirs is better, so they fight to keep their share.

A story about good versus evil, a choice between right and wrong, has no conflict.

Okay, but why not paint a more exciting picture where your brand is the knight in shining armor, won’t that engage more people?

No, because a story about good versus evil, a choice between right and wrong, has no conflict. There’s no choice, no story. In a brand storytelling scenario, we’re back where we started. If you tell the story of your brand as if it is simply the best and all the competitors and obstacles you face are evil and dumb, then why should the audience care? Specifically, why would someone join you if you are already sure to win? (Plus, such storytelling often comes with an arrogant tone.)

Besides, remember that many of your future followers may today be followers of those evil enemies of yours. They don’t want to be spoken to as if they’re stupid. Would you? If you always buy one type of soap, and then a new brand enters the marketing with the messaging that the brand you’re right now using is liquid poison for the environment and everyone who buys it is stupid — how does that make you feel?

Avoid this by accepting our complex reality and making sure you tell the story as if the other options are if not good then at least understandable — and why yours is slightly better in the end.

I hope this makes things more complicated!

Has this story made it a bit more convoluted for you to think about your brand story?

Good. I’m not saying your story should be convoluted, but if you want it to be interesting enough to engage and stick with people, it can’t be a simplistic sunshine story. Dare to give it a bit more bite by acknowledging that there are antagonistic forces, strong ones. And you need followers to join you or otherwise the antagonistic forces will win out.

Tell me about what you’re up against, and I just might join you in your struggle.