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Why brands need stories with conflict

You might think that since brand films (or branded content) are typically concerned with positive emotions, they should be largely devoid of conflict. But the truth is, brands need conflict to bring their stories to life.

Conflict builds tension, drives narrative and acts as the catalyst for transformation, from bad to good and from point A to point B. Bound up in conflict (and its resolution) are a whole bunch of emotions that make a story good — like suspense, triumph, connection, love, loss and inspiration.

Conflict can come from almost anywhere, but there are a few key types usually spotted in brand films.

Internal conflict

Brands want to connect with humans, so its not surprising that internal conflict (between a human and their thoughts) are especially prevalent in brand films. Such stories are driven by an individual’s battle to overcome some internal block, such as fear, doubt, ability, or uncertainty, to realise full potential.

We are drawn to people that overcome their internal conflict, because we share similar doubts about our own capabilities. And we yearn for evidence that such internal hurdles may be overcome. So for example while it seems unlikely that a brand synonymous with performance would align itself with stories of failure, that’s exactly what Honda did in its 2009 series (below).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iJAq6drKKzE

Honda realised that the story of overcoming failure was more powerful than unchallenged success.

Last year when we set out to capture the real stories of students attending a local trades school, we looked for those voices who suggested an internal conflict taking place. We found students like Jayde whose internal struggle led to a discovery that set his life on a new course.

https://vimeo.com/87162776

Conflict with nature

The story of humans in conflict with nature is timeless, and thanks to cameras like GoPro, there are few missed opportunities to capture this story. The greater the stage of conflict (ie the higher the peak), the more powerful the message. Take this classic Red Bull stratosphere jump documentary:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOoHArAzdug

Or the view from the top of a tree:

https://vimeo.com/86136784

Nature takes on many guises, like in this short for GE:

https://vimeo.com/39420349

Conflict with society

Society imposes its own pressures that can generate conflict. When charity organisation The Smith Family set out to highlight the plight of disadvantaged children in Australia, they envisaged each story as an animated web short — each a window into a real child’s story:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7SRUIF528ik

There is a basic human desire to see evidence that social, political or geographical circumstances can be bested. In the below Guiness brand documentary on the Society of Elegant Persons, eccentricity is juxtaposed with the harsh realities of life in the Congo after decades of conflict.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CScqFDtelrQ

At first it seems an odd place to find a beverage brand. But, with 1.6m views and counting, the brand is well served by the films core message ‘defy circumstance’ and supports the brand’s own slogan ‘Made of More’.

Conflict with other people

You’ve no doubt barracked for the underdog at some point in your life. At least, that’s what Chrysler was hoping with their 2011 Super Bowl doco positioning the brand as emerging from the grit and determination of Detroit — a city almost forgotten by the automotive industry that spawned it over 100 years ago.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iHozLw6f5rI

Or this 2008 doco epitomising the enduring underdog story which formed (at least that’s how the story goes) one of the world’s most recognisable sports drinks:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hpCSvV70SCY

And who could forget 2012’s KONY campaign, which highlighted the plight of Congolese child soldiers through a compelling hero/villain narrative:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4MnpzG5Sqc

When brands search out conflict, they invariably find the basis of a good story. But as filmmakers, teasing that conflict out is often the result of small decisions made along the way; like following a tangent during an interview or leaving the camera on as a character sits idle on the side of set.

The challenge of a telling good story is in the commitment to it. To not accept the obvious, or the easy, but to hunt for a moment of tension, and work at representing it.

Putting storytelling to work

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Mark Welker

Mark Welker

Mark Welker is an award winning short fiction writer, filmmaker, day dreamer and company director at video agency Commoner.

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