Raymond Carver’s famous short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” tracks two couples having drinks over the course of an afternoon in one of the couple’s homes. The conversation begins on a happy not but by sunset things have gotten ugly. The booze has taken hold and problems between the lovers, previously swept under the rug, have come to light. The happy couples finish their evening in misery.
Love is fraught with conflict, at least for Carver’s characters. Problems give his stories, and virtually all good fiction, heft and dramatic tension.
Conflict also creates tension in marketing. The time-tested approach is to present the problem and then the solution. Avoid sunburns. Use this sunscreen. Have a headache? Take this aspirin. Can’t get your kids to eat their veggies? Give them this supplement.
Marketing exists to communicate the solution to a problem, whether it’s new cordless drill for weekend handymen or a new program of enlightenment for frustrated corporate leaders.
Last winter, I worked briefly with a client in the latter industry. This client didn’t want to discuss the problem they solve. They told me this upfront. They explained that negativity, i.e. problems, contradicted their mission of creating positive change for corporate executives and their teams. It was a huge red flag, which I ignored. The idea seemed, well, inconceivable.
The client wouldn’t budge from their position, even after I’d posed a series of questions reminiscent of the narrative arc in traditional fiction: What is the central conflict? Who are the heroes in your customer’s story? The villains? What happens when the conflict is resolved?
I’ve used these same questions successfully with many clients. They elicit answers that are more nuanced and meaningful than simply, “What problem are you solving?” and help shape an engaging marketing narrative.
Marketing that doesn’t refer to the problem misses the whole point: To tell a problem-solution oriented story that connects consumers with the brand.
To be sure, some marketing avoids overt references to the problem, but it’s there in the subtext. Isn’t drinking Barcardi about belonging (solving a feeling of isolation), and dabbing Poison behind the ears about making us desirable to the opposite sex?
The tension is in the problem, relieved by the solution you’re providing. You can’t have one without the other.
But unlike fiction readers, who accept ambiguous and even sad endings, consumers require a happy resolution to their problems.