" ` Reconciling tensions: The three types of tensions | Haines McGregor

Things are getting tense

The idea of tensions in branding and consumer insight is becoming more influential, but what they are and what the benefits of using them are, is much less clear. In this blog we explain where they come from, three main different types of tension, and where they are most useful.


Personality replaces proposition

One of the reasons they have become more popular is that the idea of a brand ‘answering a problem’ or being proposition led, is being replaced by the notion that brands need to align with how consumers see themselves. As a result they are less advertising or campaign driven and instead more interactive, more multifaceted in terms of touch-points, and defined more by personality. In short, instead of a comms’ strategy, brands need to offer a consistent experience.

From a management perspective it means first, understanding the consumer’s identity aspirations and secondly engineering a creative handwriting to deliver a consistent experience. This means the product or service, the brand behaviour, the way the product is presented or packaged, how it performs and where it is seen, as well as the various ways of communicating with modern consumers. Gone are the days of telling a seductive story on TV and delivering the opposite at point of sale, as BA have found to their cost. Or worse still, claiming to solve world problems with a can of Pepsi and completely failing to understand the psyche of their audience. Brands today, are not so much top down, as grass roots up.


The modern malaise

Whether we are talking about people and contemporary lifestyles, or the contradictions that we see around us we have to accept that life is complicated. We are all, in the psychological lingo, ‘conflicted’.

More than ever people seek meaning in their lives. They have aspirations and anxieties. Traditional moral frames have been largely cast aside and replaced with the notion of ‘freedom of choice’. But the reality is that social comparison is stronger than ever and the desire to succeed a constant pressure; people are not free to do as they please. We are all confined by social and cultural norms, peer pressure, expectations etc. and limited by the practicality of education, law, geography, religion and of course money, to name just a few. The brands people choose are a manifestation of these questions. We surround ourselves with the trappings that reaffirm to us, and if we’re lucky those around us, the person we want to be.

So above all a tension can help us to better understand the consumer and more widely the cultural pressures of our age. Tensions are at play within society as a whole and within our own heads. In 2004 two books were published in the same year, outlining the context for such societal dilemmas. Status Anxiety, by Alain de Botton and The Paradox of Choice by Barry Scwartz. Both explained the pressures that people feel about the breadth of choice and the corresponding reduction in moral certainty. They both pointed out that this apparent freedom, far from offering the pleasure sought, tended to make people unhappy.

The tension resulting from these societal issues can therefore shed light on the fundamental concerns that people have. Either as an insight in itself, or as a stepping stone to a positioning. The tension helps people to recognise issues that are important to them, not because they answer problems but because the better reflect the human condition.


When is a tension not a tension?

It’s quite easy to get lazy in thinking about conflicts. We would suggest that it’s not a tension if it sounds like a one sided affair. In other words a motivation expressed with the opposite attached. For example the idea that it can be expressed as ‘I want x, but I find that y gets in the way’. This places no ambiguity in people’s mind. In fact it sounds more like a traditional proposition. Like a good insight, for a tension to be useful it should shine a light into needs that are buried or often subconscious. They should resonate with people because they are inescapably some deeper universal conflict.


Types of tension

There are different types of tensions doing different jobs. Here are three types that play a role in both research and positioning and examples of brands that deploy them.

1. Excuses to Indulge

In developed societies the abundance and variety of food available has meant that people are inclined to want to balance out their consumption: In a day, over a week, even over the year. It helps to assuage a sense of guilt. Why else would January be the most popular month for dieting or going to the gym. These self imposed compensations become a justification or permission to reward oneself at other times. Tensions take the form of indulgent styles of product and emotional benefit, counterbalanced with a rational reason to believe.


Cadburys Dairy Milk

This famous brand has been variously positioned over recent years, mostly to do with higher order emotive benefits such as joy or uninhibited pleasure. But for decades the rational counterbalance of the nutritional glass and a half of milk has provided the excuse.

Innocent Drinks

The frequently sited Innocent brand, started life with a collection of all natural smoothies. They presented themselves as having a child like purity with a strongly integrated brand personality that powered their early growth. That all sounded great but the truth was these were quite expensive, sugar laden indulgent drinks, with a slice of guilt taken out.

Jack Daniels

The first two examples are about balance sheet consumption. The emotional benefit of Jack Daniels is more about asserting masculine independence, the devil may care rebelliousness of rock and roll. Who doesn’t at some time want to be that person, especially if you’re middle aged man in a mundane job. But the tension in the brand is that all that teenage rebellion is balanced with communication and brand theatre that talks almost exclusively about the care and attention and craft heritage that goes into making the drink. The other interesting tension is that, what you might expect to be a challenging product experience, is in fact very smooth and easy to drink.

2. Opposites Attract

We quickly get tired of people without much depth of personality. On the other hand we tend to be drawn towards those who have some complexity about them or to some extent people who are flawed. In these tensions brands have personalities that are more multifaceted or at opposite poles.


Gordon’s Gin

Gordon’s, like nearly all gins, align quite strongly with the British character. That’s to say, on the one hand we are known for heritage, pageantry and tradition, and of course formality and emotional reserve, and on the other for creativity, rock music, Monty Python and eccentricity. Gins tend to play various tunes along this axis.


Most beers are something to do with the relationship between the individual and the group. The choices we make within the group makes a statement about how closely we conform to expectations or assert our separation. No brand exemplifies the contrast more eloquently than Guinness. In Ireland it is the communal, bonding drink, whilst in other markets it’s the most distinctive choice. Most beer brands are somewhere between the two.

Haagen Dazs

Haagen Dazs is a potent cocktail of both masculine and feminine archetypes. The femininity comes from the eating experience, its sensuality and the fact that its core consumer is predominantly female. Where-as the brand has a quite masculine name, is dark and formal in its semiotics and known for its price and premium quality. The imaginary world the brand conjures up is a combination of these two, or the attraction between them. As our erstwhile head of research, Charlie Skinner put it, Mr Darcey in a pot.

3. Have your cake and eat it

Perhaps the most compelling style of tension is to take a widespread social or cultural issue and reflect how it might be resolved. It often consists of accepting the predictable side of the equation but adding an opposite dimension in a way that challenges convention, in a positive way.



Dove has championed the idea of natural beauty. Beauty products help people to modify their look. Dove put forward the notion that beauty is better unadorned, less artificial or superficial, and more to do with the authentic you. It turns beauty conventions on their head and satisfies opposite perspectives.

Wash and Go

On the face of things this tension is both functional and mostly about convenience. From a tension point of view it’s interesting because it combines washing and conditioning into a single product. The conflict is something to do with pampering triumphing over the pressures of the day. That you can perform at your best happy in the knowledge that your hair won’t let you down.


Persil versus Ariel is a long standing battle between FMCG giants P&G and Unilever for the no1 brand in detergent. Traditionally Persil has always been the caring one, whereas Ariel has been seen as more about functionality than emotions. Unilever explored the whole backdrop to modern parenting and came up with an insight and indeed conflict that was, perhaps, quite surprising. That parents today are so anxious about their kids, they no longer let them out to play. So the opportunity was for Persil to offer both care and nurture and the opposite, releasing children to explore the world. Satisfying both ends of the equation with the phrase ‘dirt is good’.