The dramatic tensions that characterize a good movie plot are being adopted by the world of marketing, sports and even news and politics. That’s the argument of Alby Anand Kurian, a marketing communications practitioner and theorist whose clients have included Procter & Gamble, Pepsi Foods, Nestle and Unilever.
In this opinion piece, Kurian describes the idea behind Conflict as a Marketing Tool (CAMT). He says the basic movie plot treatment of “setup, conflict and resolution” used to grab audience attention is being employed in many scenarios outside of Hollywood. Kurian also teaches in the MBA programs at the University of Bradford in the U.K. and the Grenoble Business School at the Management Development Institute of Singapore. His first book, The Peddler of Soaps, made the India Today bestseller list.
Conflict as a Marketing Tool (CAMT) has its roots not in marketing but in screenplay writing. You will find frameworks for screenplay writing in textbooks on the subject — Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting is generally acknowledged as an authoritative source. Field details how nearly all screenplays can be broadly divided into three sections: setup, conflict and resolution.
“Setup” consists of the introduction of the characters, the stage, the setting, the situation and the various relationships – that is, the background to the entire story. “Conflict” is the backbone of all screenplays; without it, the story becomes a yawn. Whether it’s Romeo and Juliet, The Godfather, a soap opera or even religious texts such as the Bible and the Ramayana, without conflict, the narrative would not come alive. Finally, of course, there’s “resolution” – does it end in tragedy or does all end well?
This three-part structure applies to Romeo and Juliet and Hollywood blockbusters, and we are now going to apply it, in the first instance, to sports as well.
The Screenplay of Sports
In the evolution of an economy, once conditions for survival are in place, you will find that a fair share of the country’s economy is devoted to entertainment — television, cinema and so on. As society further evolves, you tend to find that a fair share of the money is then taken up by sports.
Now, sports are truly wonderful – remember the quote about the Battle of Waterloo being won on the playing fields of Eton? It teaches one fair play; it makes one physically fit, mentally alert and all those marvelous things. All of us learn to admire the natural-born skills of a sportsman, and we admire the technique that he has perfected.
“This three-part structure [of setup, conflict, resolution] applies to Romeo and Juliet and Hollywood blockbusters, and … sports as well.”
But when we look at sports as an industry and we see its evolution today, we see a different dimension to it. It still is about admiring a sportsman’s skill, technique and temperament, but today it must be seen as entertainment. There is a natural resistance in us to think of it as such — sports seem of a higher order than mere “entertainment.” It seems as though we are bringing it down a notch or two — as though it makes it lesser than what we thought it was.
Now, whether this makes it less or not is a different matter — what we are establishing here is what sports is today. Sports is entertainment and should be seen as part of the entertainment industry.
So how do the rules of entertainment, that have evolved over the years, apply to sports?
Let’s take the example of Wimbledon. In the setup phase, there is the game of tennis. It’s a game that has been played for a very long time; it has a long history and tradition to it – it’s probably the most gentlemanly of games – and nowhere as raucous as football. And, of course, Wimbledon is also about the royal box and eating strawberries and cream as much as it is about the sport.
But entertainment needs conflict. Enter tennis stars Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg. Sport in the classical sense should mean that as long as they play great tennis, who plays and who wins is irrelevant. But that is certainly not the case, is it? Enter Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, and one finds that the audience has already taken sides.
So, in a cricket match between India and Pakistan (two countries that have gone to war with each other), it is obvious that interest will run high, even if the battle is now on a playing field and not in a combat zone.
The Indian Premier League was a bit of a question mark, really. Where would the conflict happen, who would be “Us,” who would be “Them?” But the conflict between the different clubs was created and began to take shape, albeit in a friendly way. All credit to the organizers for that – they got the conflict going in just the right way.
Conflict in Business: Apple vs. IBM
No less a person than Apple co-founder Steve Jobs used conflict skillfully to his advantage. As Walter Isaacson was to record in his authorized biography of Jobs, throughout his life and career Steve Jobs represented himself as a warrior against the forces of evil — who, of course, were his rivals in the marketplace.
“Throughout his life and career, Steve Jobs represented himself as a warrior against the forces of evil — his rivals in the marketplace.”
When IBM launched its own personal computer in 1981, Apple placed a newspaper ad that said, “Welcome, IBM. Seriously.” Jobs skillfully positioned Apple against IBM when there were many other companies in the fray. He went so far as to say, “If for some reason we make some giant mistakes and IBM wins, my personal feeling is that we are going to enter sort of a computer Dark Ages for about 20 years.”
It was the same with Microsoft and Bill Gates. The sharp differences in style between the two would exacerbate an acrimonious divide in the digital industry that Jobs played up, again to his advantage. He did the same with Dell, even going so far as to use a giant picture of Michael Dell with a target on his face to motivate his employees.
The Screenplay of the Newsroom
Let us now apply the concept of conflict to a new area — the world of news. One can look at news gathering and dissemination in an idealistic manner — it can then be seen almost as an academic exercise, and perhaps it was so in the early days. It was about gathering information, disseminating that information and, of course, analyzing and dissecting current events in a rational manner.
We are not disparaging the industry in any manner. We are only affirming that the pressure of competing news channels, newspapers and other forms of news media will force the news to become … entertainment. No value judgment is being made either way — we are only putting news into the context that it exists in the present day.
We must accept that even the audience is changing. The viewer has had a rough day – the long commute to work, the attendant tensions, his boss, the clients – all have