Book cover art for Building a Storybrand
Building a Storybrand
Donald Miller

A helpful and straightforward system for building a compelling 'story' as the basis for framing your brand. Helpful with regard to website content especially.

Big Mistakes

Brands make two big mistakes when they try to market what they do:

  1. They don't focus on things that will help customers survive and thrive
  2. They make customers have to think to understand what we are actually offering them

'Pretty websites don't sell things. Words sell things. And if we haven't clarified our message, our customers won't listen.' (Page 4)

The best thing we can do is usually to simplify things, get rid of the noise and tell a compelling story to our customers. Stories have the ability to cut through and engage people, reducing the noise and helping to gain people's attention.

'What we think we are saying to our customers and what our customers actually hear are two different things. And customers make buying decisions not based on what we say but on what they hear.' (Page 13)

The 'Grunt Test' is the best way of telling if your company passes muster on the two big mistakes. If a 'caveman' were to look at your website, would they 'grunt' what you offer?

'This is why we need a filter. The essence of branding is to create simple, relevant messages we can repeat over and over so that we "brand" ourselves into the public consciousness.' (Page 17)

The Hero of the Story Is YOUR CUSTOMER, Not You

Some further key things to remember:

  • People buy solutions to internal problems, not external ones
  • People want guides, not heroes (they are the hero of their own stories)
  • They trust guides who have a plan
  • Customers must be challenged to take action
  • We must help them avoid failure
  • Be explicit in how your brand will change their lives—tell them!

'Here is nearly every story you see or hear in a nutshell: A CHARACTER who wants something encounters a PROBLEM before they can get it. At the peak of their despair, a GUIDE steps into their lives, gives them a PLAN, and CALLS THEM TO ACTION. That action helps them avoid FAILURE and ends in a SUCCESS.' (Page 20)

A Character...

You need to know what they want before you can position yourself as filling that need. Knowing this, we open a 'story gap' so that the brand can close it. It propels the action and events so that things can actually happen.

There will be a different focus for this character depending on the level at which we address them: from the overall company level to the individual product level.

'In business, if we don't communicate clearly, we shrink. When we're motivating a team, convincing shareholders, or engaging customers, we must define a desire our customers have or we will have failed to open a story gap and our audience will ignore us.' (Page 55)

...Has a Problem...

We can talk about problems as being either internal or external in nature. External problems are the tangible problems we can see extant in the world, whereas internal problems are the concerns and worries going on inside of us. For example, a classic combo of this would be the difference between studying to pass a difficult test (an external problem with many possible external solutions) and the internal problem of believing you have what it takes to learn what you need to.

'Companies tend to sell solutions to external problems, but people buy solutions to internal problems.' (Page 62)

Levels of conflict:

  • External: the obvious surface level. The leaking pipe, the hungry diner, the wet shopper in search of an umbrella
  • Internal: the frustration that we have inside us. The deeper story that we are actually living in (and that we often hope will be resolved by solving an external problem)
  • Philosophical: the 'why', a deeper sense of meaning behind all of these things

What challenges are you helping your customers overcome?

One of the best ways we can conceptualise this is to think in terms of 'The Villain'. They provide a clear point of focus so we know where we stand. Who would Batman be without the Joker? They help us position products as 'weapons to defeat the villain'. To benefit from this effect, we need to vilify people's problems as the villains in their lives.

'In a story, a villain initiates an external problem that causes the character to experience an internal frustration that is, quite simply, philosophically wrong.' (Page 61)

Good villains are:

  • Root: the cause (e.g. bacteria) and not the symptom (e.g. a rash)
  • Relatable: immediately recognisable and easy to dislike straight away
  • Singular: just the one. More is too many to handle and understand
  • Real: don't sink to fearmongering

'Is there a deeper story your brand contributes to? Can your products be positioned as tools your customers can use to fight back against something that ought not be?' (Page 68)

...And Meets a Guide...

The hero (the customer) wants a guide... not another hero on the scene. A great example of this was the failure of Tidal. Jay-Z and co turned up and presented themselves as the heroes of the story, nobody really got it and plenty of people ridiculed them.

'The guide, not the hero, is the one with the most authority. Still, the story is rarely about the guide. The guide simply plays a role. The story must always be focused on the hero, and if a storyteller (or business leader) forgets this, the audience will get confused about who the story is really about and they will lose interest.' (Page 77)

Guides have two important characteristics:

Empathy: they create a bond of trust. People want to be seen, heard and understood. Can the guide make them feel that way?

Authority: really this means competence and there are a number of different things that can evidence authority:

  • Testimonials, which gives future customers 'the gift of going second'
  • Statistics, showing people how much they stand to save, or how many people/businesses have been helped in the past
  • Awards, nodding towards genuine success achieved
  • Logos, such as known businesses you've worked with before

...Who Gives Them a Plan...

If you confuse, you lose. What one thing do we want them to do next? You must show them the steps they need to take to get there, to create the transformation they want to create.

'Commitments are risky for our customers because as soon as they make a commitment, they can lose something. Most customers are not going to take this risk yet.' (Page 86)

There are two types of plans that we can present customers with:

The Process Plan: the steps you take before purchase or steps you take/things that happen after the purchase is completed.

The Agreement Plan: a list of agreements, like promises, that you have with your customers. Give it a title to frame it as a thing in the minds of your customers and team members.

'Unlike a process plan, an agreement plan often works in the background. Agreement plans do not have to be featured on the home page of your website (though they could be), but as customers get to know you, they'll sense a deeper level to your service and may realize why when they finally encounter your agreement plan.' (Page 91)

...Calls Them to Action...

We have to give our customers a clear prompt to actually do something. They're a challenge, a call to action, that are framed exactly as things that we want them to do. There are two types of call to action:

Direct CTA: buy now, talk to us...

Transitional CTA: download our PDF, sign up to our newsletter...

The transitional CTA allows you to stake a territorial claim in their minds as being experts in a certain field. It also creates reciprocity and positions you as that guide more firmly.

'The reason characters have to be challenged to take action is because everybody sitting in the dark theater knows human beings do not make major life decisions unless something challenges them to do so.' (Page 96)

...Helps Them Avoid Failure...

Give the story stakes. Know what you stand to lose, and you'll pay attention to and sit up straight. Otherwise, you won't pass the 'so what' test and won't get a good answer. Loss aversion is a greater motivator than making a possible gain.

'As it relates to our marketing, the obvious question is: What will the customer lose if they don't buy our products?' (Page 110)

Don't instil too much or too little fear, though, otherwise it will largely be ignored. You need just enough to get their attention and inspire action.

...And Ends in Success.

Tell them how your brand will change their lives. What do they stand to have changed before and after engaging with your brand in terms of:

  • What they have
  • What they feel
  • What their status is
  • What their average day looks like
'Successful brands, like successful leaders, make it clear what life will look like if somebody engages their products or services.' (Page 118)

Paint a picture of how wonderful things will be when they have your product or are using your service. What will that look and feel like to them?

Stories end successfully when the hero:

  • Wins a position of power or status): gaining access to a secret lounge, benefitting from scarcity status of a limited edition, belonging to a premium tier or association with an identity.
  • Achieves a union that makes things whole: reduced anxiety, reduced workload, more time.
  • Reaches their full potential: inspirational achievement, acceptance for who they are, transcendence to become part of a bigger movement.

Be a Part of Their Transformation

'Brands that participate in the identity transformation of their customers create passionate brand evangelists.' (Page 132)

We need to know who they want to be... then talk about how they get there in all our communications with them. This is primarily a transformation of identity. Who does your customer want to become, and how will you help them get there?

'The best way to identify an aspirational identity that our customers may be attracted to is to consider how they want their friends to talk about them. Think about it. When others talk about you, what do you want them to say? How we answer that question reveals who it is we'd like to be.' (Page 135)

Implementation - Building a Better Website

Keep them simple and straightforward, then provide the following five things.

1. An offer above the fold

And/or a clear claim about what you sell. Say, very clearly, what you will do. If the customer can't tell from your homepage above the fold what it is you will do, then you're sunk.

2. Obvious calls to action

Eyes tend to follow a Z pattern across the homepage, make sure you have at least two in the top area above the fold. Make sure they're in a brighter colour, obvious, bold and then recurring through the rest of the site.

3. Images of success

Close story loops wherever you can by showing people having a great time or experiencing the satisfaction or success that comes with using your product or service.

4. Break things down

What do you sell? Summarise, group those things, make sure they're obvious.

5. Very few words

Don't write a novel. Most people only skim websites, they don't really read them.

Implementation - Transforming Company Culture

'Customers aren't the only ones who get confused when the message is unclear. Employees get confused too, from the division president to the regional manager to the laborer earning minimum wage on the front line.' (Page 157)

A narrative void can exist in your business as much as in your customer base. It's incredibly important to fix this. Mission statements are practically useless at helping with this because they don't really go far enough. Therefore, use the framework internally to help your own people.

'The number-one job of an executive is to remind the stakeholders what the mission is, over and over. And yet most executives can't really explain the overall narrative of the organistory, zation. Here's the problem: if an executive can't explain the team members will never know where or why they fit.' (Page 167)

StoryBrand Roadmap

1. Create a one-liner

This contains the following:

  • Character
  • Problem
  • Plan
  • Success

Draft it, edit and tighten it, memorize it, spread it around the business, put it on your site somewhere, ideally your homepage. Repeat it! Everywhere, all the time.

2. Collect e-mails

Create a lead generator:

  • Downloadable PDF
  • Webinar
  • Free trial
  • Free sample
  • Event

When people sign up to get these things, get their email.

3. Run an automated email campaign

Send them emails to help them and keep them warm.

4. Collect and tell stories of transformation

Not your usual 'I recommend this product' kind of testimonial but real stories about how they worked to change someone's life.

More of this, but in your inbox.

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