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How a good business villain vamps up your brand’s story

Lego figures of Two Face and Joker with a background of an explosion

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Why read this? : We explore why creating a business villain strengthens your brand’s story. Learn why you need a villain to create the conflict for your story’s hero. Read this to learn how to vamp up your brand’s story with a good business villain. 

Bruce Wayne supped his breakfast coffee. 

“Anything bad happening out there on the streets of Gotham today?”, he asked Alfred. 

“No Master Wayne, it’s all quiet. As it’s been all week”.

So Bruce went off to play golf with friends, met a friend for dinner and then turned in for the night back at Wayne Mansion.

Lego figures of Two Face and Joker with a background of an explosion

Dullest Batman “story” ever, right? Unlikely to make it into the comic books, TV shows, movies, or video games. Why? Because in Batman’s world, as in any story world, something “bad” has to happen to start the story. An inciting incident as storytelling experts call it. That something (or someone) bad kicks off the story. This antagonist or villain opposes the hero. They give the hero something to fight against. 

It’s the Joker (and many others) for Bruce Wayne. 

It’s Darth Vader. Hans Gruber. Nurse Ratched. Every great story has a great villain. Stories without a villain are deathly dull. 

So if you want to tell a great brand story, you have to work out who or what your business villain is. The creator of the conflict for your hero customer. The person or thing that’s causing your customer’s problem.

The villain embodies the hero’s problem

The “hero’s problem” is a key element in a story’s structure. It’s a person or force that represents the opposite of what the hero desires. They create a barrier to what the hero wants, and that sets the story in motion.

Conflict creates drama, and drama drives stories. 

Creating a “good” villain is a key component of crafting a great story. Robert McKee in Story argues you should think as deeply about your antagonist as you do about your hero.

Person holding up an illustration of an angry face

One-dimensional villains whose only motivation is they’re “evil” or “bad” are boring. It’s why Batman’s villains are so engaging because we know what’s behind the actions of The Joker, Two-Face and the Penguin.

McKee also argues that the hero’s antagonism can work at different levels. It can be :- 

  • extra-personal conflict – e.g. a broader societal opposition like a political ideology, a threatening army or even the forces of nature.
  • personal conflict – e.g. a family member, friend, or colleague who is in the way of what the hero wants. 
  • inner conflict – e.g. a crushing lack of self-confidence or a destructive streak that has awful consequences.

The business villain embodies the customer’s problem

Let’s apply this to brand storytelling. In that world, the customer is the hero. They want something.

But for their story to work, they need some sort of “business villain” that gets in the way of what they want. Your brand’s role is to guide them to get what they want by working out how to overcome the villain of their story.

Using McKee’s 3 levels of conflict model, that means the business villain in your brand’s story could be :- 

Triangular warning sticker with large exclamation mark on a wall. Sticker has many rips and tears in it.
  • an extra-personal conflict – a broader organisational or societal challenge that your brand provides the customer with a means to join the battle.
  • a personal conflict – someone close to the customer who’s stopping them from getting what they want and your brand can give them the upper hand.
  • an inner conflict – a worry or fear the customer has that your brand helps reduce or even eliminate.

Once you define this conflict, then you’ve got the driving force behind your brand’s story. It gives the audience a reason to follow the hero’s story to see how they take on the business villain and if they succeed. 

Let’s look at some examples.

Extra-personal conflict

Extra-personal conflicts are often linked to a brand’s purpose and values.

For example, toilet paper business Who Gives a Crap take on the “conflict” of poor water sanitisation.

Their “business villain” is the failure of governments and other businesses in the category to invest in this.

So they create a hero’s story about putting half their profits into improving sanitation. 

Screengrab of the Who Gives a Crap website home page with the header banner Talking Crap - We launched a blog

The extra-personal conflict can also be more mindset or lifestyle driven.

For example, when Apple’s advertising went after Microsoft back in the 1990s. Apple’s “business villain” was the boring and banal corporate-ness that Microsoft’s office products embodied.

They created their hero’s story around their products enabling cooler creativity and bolder ideas. 

It can even be a conflict closer to the product and its functional delivery.

For example, British brewer Brewdog’s business villain is “bland and tasteless beer”.

They make it clear they’re opposed to this and create a hero’s story for their customers where they craft more interesting and tasty beers. The opposite of bland and tasteless.

These types of extra-personal conflicts work especially well for challenger brands who want to tell an Overcome the Monster story type. In these stories, your business villain is the monster your brand helps the hero overcome. 

It gives customers a rallying point around which they can buy into what the brand helps them do to take on the forces of opposition. Customers buying into the brand feel like they experience the hero’s story of taking on the business villain.

Personal conflict

Extra-personal conflicts usually play out in the external communications and adverts that customers see.

Personal conflicts though tend to work closer to home. In these, the idea of a business villain is to oppose what a brand is trying to do inside its own business, and so can be used to shape a business or brand’s culture

In particular, for businesses driving change, the business villain is the force opposing that change.

Man in a suit sitting at a desk holding a phone and angrily shouting into the mouthpiece

Let’s look at some examples we’ve shared previously across marketing, creativity and e-Commerce.

Example business villain - barriers to marketing

For example, in our barriers to marketing article, we tell the story of a newly promoted marketer who wants to bring in brand storytelling as a new marketing technique. However, the leadership team is initially against it.

There’s conflict for this story’s hero when the team say they don’t get it, they don’t think it’s for them, that it’s not needed, not big enough and that they’re too busy. These are all forces of opposition. They’re the words and actions of the team who represent the business villain in that story.

Man on apartment balcony holding hand in front of face to say stop

Example business villain - barriers to creativity

Our barriers to creativity article tells the story of 3 types of senior managers you run into when trying to make your business more creative :-

  • Controlling Chris – needs to feel they’ve made their mark on any new idea and / or is against anything that might risk their reputation. 
  • Devious Dan – uses subtle idea-killing tactics like delaying or talking about being professional to crush creative ideas.
  • Interfering Ivan – overloads ideas with requests for details or rejects ideas by saying he doesn’t understand them.
Man with hand in front of camera and the words creativity stores here on his hand

Each of these is a business villain in that story – someone who creates opposition to what the hero of the story wants (more creativity).

Example business villain - barriers to e-Commerce

Finally, our barriers to e-Commerce article shared some of the objections raised before we set up our first direct-to-consumer (D2C) store.

Senior managers who said things like, “You don’t want to upset retailers” and, “We’re not a retailer”

Those people felt they were offering reasonable and logical advice. But for that launch, together they acted as the business villain in that story.

Running track with hurdles set up for a sprint race

They were the opposing forces who tried to get in the way of what we (as the hero of that story) wanted – a new online store.

Inner conflict

This brings us to McKee’s final level of conflict, the inner conflict.

This suggests that what’s getting in the way of your story might be some sort of limiting belief living in your head.

You could argue that each villain in our personal conflict examples above had some sort of inner conflict which drove them to oppose what someone else was doing.

man in a blue T-shirt looking at the ceiling

They feared change and were reluctant to learn new things. They had concerns about priorities or needed to feel in control and have their status acknowledged. 

These are all very human properties. And therein lies the key to how you create a good business villain for your brand’s story. Because at some point, each of us will be the villain in someone else’s story. No one wakes up and thinks, “I’ll be a villain today”. (Well, not unless they’re a sociopath). The villain always thinks what they’re doing is right. And what you (the hero) are doing isn’t. Great stories come from that human conflict, that opposition of views.

Taking on the challenge of someone or something that opposes us is how we grow. It’s how we learn. It makes life interesting

You should welcome opposing ideas as they force you to keep an open mind. You can’t be right all the time. Sometimes you’ll be wrong. and that’s OK. Learn from it. Accept the fact that at some point you’ll be the villain in someone else’s story. And that’s OK too, because it makes the story stronger.

Conclusion - How a good business villain vamps up your brand’s story

Storytelling is a pervasive and persuasive communication medium because it lets the reader safely live out scenarios vicariously. 

The story reader “experiences” challenges that “might” happen to them. They follow how someone else takes these challenges on, and get to learn and reflect on what they would have done.

They experience the challenge of taking on the Joker or Darth Vader or Nurse Ratched without having to meet those characters in real life.

Lego figures of Two Face and Joker with a background of an explosion

But this challenge needs a catalyst to exist. A force of opposition to what the hero wants. A villain. And in the case of brand storytelling, a business villain. 

The business villain might represent an extra-personal conflict. A global water sanitation challenge. A boring approach to work. Or even just bland and tasteless beer. 

The business villain might represent a personal conflict. An internal business villain that opposes something you want to change about what your business does and how it does it. 

And of course, the business villain might be in your head. Overcoming the beliefs that hold you and your business back. Opening your mind to new ideas. Recognising that even though you think you’re always the hero, in someone else’s story, you’re the villain. And being OK with that because as Batman says, the night is darkest just before the dawn. 

Check out our brand storytelling guide and our story structure and story type articles for more on this. Or get in touch if you need help creating the business villain for your brand’s story.

Photo credits

Two-Face and Joker Lego : Photo by Mehdi MeSSrro on Unsplash

Angry face : Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

Attention sign : Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Man shouting at phone : Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash

Hand / Stop : Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Hurdles : Photo by Jeremy Chen on Unsplash

Man looking at ceiling : Photo by Anton Danilov on Unsplash

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