What is your brand’s tension point?

“Every good story needs a conflict. Without conflict or tension, there’s nowhere to go. “

Our Executive Creative Director Jonathan Rouxel said something quite arresting to me the other day:

“The best strategies [in advertising] are built on, and powered by, cultural tension. As with tectonic plates and especially weather patterns, collisions and tensions between conflicting forces produce powerful currents—from tornadoes and hurricanes to gulf streams. When a strategy is built on these currents, great ideas burst out of them.”

In addition to its spectacular use of metaphor, this was an insight worth chewing on. It took me back to something I learned in screenwriting class as an undergraduate: every good story needs a conflict. Without conflict or tension, there’s nowhere to go. All you have is a Hallmark card—something with a nice sentiment, but nothing that provokes real emotion.

A brand, as we’ve all come to learn, is like a character living a story. That’s why we talk about “brand values” and “brand personality”: things that personify the brand and give it utterly human qualities. Put another way, if a brand is an “it” or a “what”, then we’ve failed to make it relevant or compelling. A brand must be a “who”, through and through.

So, going back to Jonathan’s statement. What are some vivid examples of “cultural tension” points at the epicenter of brands? Many come to mind… .

Consider the Toyota Prius. What is this vehicle, if not the answer to a cultural tension around our increasing discomfort with combustion engines and their impact on our environment? And what is Apple, if not our culture’s response to a deep and mounting inner conflict about the rise of machines and our potential enslavement to them? Ridley Scott’s sweeping “1984” spot was indeed a volcano rising from that tension. As for Airbnb, one could argue that it’s a brilliant resolution to the tension travelers feel about not only the cost of hotels, but also the sense of dislocation that comes with traveling to a strange city. “Belong anywhere,” the campaign beckons.

Finding the right tension point is easier said than done. It’s so easy to recognize it in retrospect, and to merely describe it historically, as I just did. It’s much harder, and more exciting, to search for that tension point with insightful tools, to meet with consumers and do ethnography, to map our own minds, and to search our imaginations and behaviours for clues that lead to the fault line where pressure is building a largely invisible place that is ready to erupt with ideas.

Right now, in this nearly surreal, contradictory and, yes, tense period in our lives, those of us who work with brands have an unprecedented opportunity to find tension points to exploit. In our physical reality, we might want to avoid the areas where forces collide, like the people who live in Tornado Alley or on top of the San Andreas Fault. But in the reality of brands, we should be actively seeking them out.