Marketing, Psychology

Brand Tension – A Brand’s Best Friend and Why it Works


How brand tension gives people a reason to stick around.

Brand Tension - What happens next?
Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash

Hero With a Purpose

Batman and the Joker are my favourite hero-villain combination. Almost every time they meet, the Joker reminds Batman of how much fun they have together.

JOKER: Kill you? I don’t wanna kill you. What would I do without you? Go back to ripping off mob dealers? No. No. No! No you — you complete me.

Without the Joker, Batman is just some Bruce. With the Joker, Bruce Wayne is Batman. A hero fighting against evil.

The Joker, the villain, creates tension and gives purpose to the hero’s existence.

Creating Tension

Tension evokes emotions and creates situations. Conflict, stress, worry, anxiety, doubt, and fear are a few by-products of tension. These emotions bring life to a story.

A great source of tension makes for great stories.

The envy between Woody and Buzz to be Andy’s favourite toy creates great tension in “Toy Story.” When that subsides, their escape mission from the evil Sid to reunite with Andy becomes the moving tension.

What Story Is It?

Good stories contain a hero and a villain. They’re tense and taut. Insipid ones have characters without purpose. They’re unremarkable and loose. People love good stories and forget the not-so-good ones, even if they weren’t bad.

A Brand’s Purpose

A brand’s purpose is its reason for existence. A brand exists because of customers, and a brand’s purpose is to enable its customers to become heroes.

Now, if several brands are competing to make their customers a hero, what makes one of these brands remarkable? A remarkable story.

And what makes a remarkable story? A determined villain — the tension. A brand’s role is to enable the customer to break away from their tension and move forward to become a hero. A hero with a purpose.

How Brands Communicate

Brands communicate with people all the time. They communicate like how humans communicate with each other — by telling stories. Stories in the form of advertisements, promotions, press releases, and just about anything with the brand’s name on it.

People prefer brands with a purpose because they have interesting stories to tell. They stand for something. Purpose creates successful brands.

Like real life, people love something with a spark. Check the brands you own and the people you hang out with.

Finding Brand Tension

Finding the right tension point is easier said than done, but let’s try searching. Tension can be traced to three sources:

Cultural tension

A discomfort that arises out of an imbalance of our external environments and our heart. Apple’s “1984” spot harnessed the tension of the rise of the machines versus personal enslavement.

Personal tension

A discomfort that arises out of dissatisfaction of where we are versus where we could be. Nike’s “Just Do It” campaigns are an ode to this tension. They inspire you to break out of your shackles and…just do it.

Status tension

A rebellious discomfort against the rules of society. They challenge the status quo. Apple’s “Think Different” tackles this in a wonderful manner.

Tension is a fulcrum around which you can spin a great brand story. The right tension can always be identified by observing the customer. What are their greatest worries?

An Example

Someone downloading a cocktail ingredients app is not downloading it to drink great cocktails. They’re downloading it to make cocktails that make their friends go ‘wow!’ They want to be the people who know stuff. They want to tell people how to make a cocktail.

They want to be great hosts.

There’s personal tension written all over it. What if they can’t host a great party? What if it’s a boring party? What if no one wants to be their friend? What if a get-to-know-you party turns out to be embarrassing?

The role of the cocktail brand is to solve this tension and let the ‘someone’ be the next Gatsby.

Why Brand Tension Works

Photo by Ralph Blvmberg on Unsplash

Here are five reasons to use tension in brand stories.

  1. Tension creates emotional excitement. This makes stories less predictable.
  2. Tension creates anticipation. It’s forward-looking. The joy of anticipation is a powerful psychological hook.
  3. Tension creates engagement. The mind wakes, sits up, and takes notice.
  4. Tension can be a universal language. Overcoming tension inspires people. Check out this IKEA ad, which doesn’t even need words to be inspiring.
  5. Tension unshackles freedom. Freedom is universally desirable. Freedom from a challenge? Nike says, ‘Just do it.’ Freedom from a location? Airbnb says, ‘Belong Anywhere.’

Final Thoughts

Great stories are the result of palpable tension. Tension lends the ability to empathise and walk along with the story.

Tensions that tackle human truths are a great source to build a brand around. Human truths remain unchanged and are universal. At the same time, these truths are also personal.

This universal yet personal trait can help brands build communication that’s true for everyone, yet unique in motivation to a person.


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