Building a Story Brand by Donald Miller

Rating: 7/10

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High-Level Thoughts

A good guide to aligning your branding with the hero’s journey. I liked it as I was reading it, but when I went through after I found it less applicable than “Obviously Awesome.”

Summary Notes

Your customer should be the hero of the story, not your brand. This is the secret every phenomenally successful business understands.

To get the most out of this book, I encourage you to do three things:

  1. Read the book and understand the SB7 Framework.        
  2. Filter your message through the framework.        
  3. Clarify your message so more customers listen.


The more simple and predictable the communication, the easier it is for the brain to digest. Story helps because it is a sense-making mechanism. Essentially, story formulas put everything in order so the brain doesn’t have to work to understand what’s going on.”

The first mistake brands make is they fail to focus on the aspects of their offer that will help people survive and thrive.

The second mistake brands make is they cause their customers to burn too many calories in an effort to understand their offer.

The key is to make your company’s message about something that helps the customer survive and to do so in such a way that they can understand it without burning too many calories.

What we often call marketing is really just clutter and confusion sprayed all over our websites, e-mails, and commercials. And it’s costing us millions.


Jobs released Lisa with a nine-page ad in the New York Times spelling out the computer’s technical features. It was nine pages of geek talk nobody outside NASA was interested in. The computer bombed.

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.

Remember, the greatest enemy our business faces is the same enemy that good stories face: noise. At no point should we be able to pause a movie and be unable to answer three questions:        

  1. What does the hero want?        
  2. Who or what is opposing the hero getting what she wants?        
  3. What will the hero’s life look like if she does (or does not) get what she wants?

Here’s the kicker: if these three questions can’t be answered within the first fifteen to twenty minutes, the story has already descended into noise and will almost certainly fail at the box office.

they should be able to answer these questions within five seconds of looking at our website or marketing material:

  1. What do you offer?        
  2. How will it make my life better?        
  3. What do I need to do to buy it?


  1. A Character
  1. Once we identify who our customer is, we have to ask ourselves what they want as it relates to our brand. The catalyst for any story is that the hero wants something. The rest of the story is a journey about discovering whether the hero will get what they want.
  1. Has a Problem
  1. If we sell lawn-care products, they’re coming to us because they’re embarrassed about their lawn or they simply don’t have time to do the work. If we sell financial advice, they’re coming to us because they’re worried about their retirement plan. It may not be as dramatic or sexy as James Bond going to Q to grab the latest high-tech spy weapons, but the premise is the same: our customers are in trouble and they need help.
  2. Almost all companies try to sell solutions to external problems, but as we unfold the StoryBrand Framework, you’ll see why customers are much more motivated to resolve their inner frustrations.
  1. And Meets a Guide
  1. Brands that position themselves as heroes unknowingly compete with their potential customers.
  2. Their subconscious thought pattern goes like this: Oh, this is another hero, like me. I wish I had more time to hear their story, but right now I’m busy looking for a guide.
  1. Who Gives Them a Plan
  1. Making a purchase is a huge step, especially if our products or services are expensive. What customers are looking for, then, is a clear path we’ve laid out that takes away any confusion they might have about how to do business with us. The StoryBrand tool we will use to create this path is called the plan.
  1. And Calls Them to Action
  1. A call to action involves communicating a clear and direct step our customer can take to overcome their challenge and return to a peaceful life. Without clear calls to action, people will not engage our brand.
  1. That Helps Them Avoid Failure
  1. Brands that help customers avoid some kind of negativity in life (and let their customers know what that negativity is) engage customers for the same reason good stories captivate an audience: they define what’s at stake.
  1. And Ends in a Success
  1. Everybody wants to be taken somewhere. If we don’t tell people where we’re taking them, they’ll engage another brand.

The first project I’d like you to BrandScript is the one that represents your overall brand. Next you’ll want to create a BrandScript for each division of your company, and after that, each product within each division. If you like, you can even create a BrandScript for each segment of your customer base.

Once you complete your BrandScript at, you will have the basic messages to employ the SB7 Framework on your websites, in keynotes, in elevator pitches, and in all manner of marketing and messaging collateral.


StoryBrand Principle One: The customer is the hero, not your brand.

Financial Advisor: “A Plan for Your Retirement”         

College Alumni Association: “Leave a Meaningful Legacy”         

Fine-Dining Restaurant: “A Meal Everybody Will Remember”         

Real Estate Agent: “The Home You’ve Dreamed About”         

Bookstore: “A Story to Get Lost In”         

Breakfast Bars: “A Healthy Start to Your Day”

When you define something your customer wants, the customer is invited to alter their story in your direction. If they see your brand as a trustworthy and reliable guide, they will likely engage.

Open a “Story Gap” 

place a gap between a character and what they want. Moviegoers pay attention when there’s a story gap because they wonder if and how that gap is going to be closed.

Hunger is the opening of a story gap and a meal ushers its closing.

When we fail to define something our customer wants, we fail to open a story gap. When we don’t open a story gap in our customers’ mind, they have no motivation to engage us, because there is no question that demands resolution.

Once a brand defines what their customer wants, they are often guilty of making the second mistake—what they’ve defined isn’t related to the customer’s sense of survival.

Consider these examples:

  • Conserving financial resources.
  • Conserving time.
  • Building social networks.
  • Gaining status.
  • Accumulating resources.
  • The innate desire to be generous.
  • The desire for meaning.

The goal for our branding should be that every potential customer knows exactly where we want to take them: a luxury resort where they can get some rest, to become the leader everybody loves, or to save money and live better.

brainstorm what potential desires your customers might have that you can fulfill.

Make a decision. Choose something your customer wants


StoryBrand Principle Two: Companies tend to sell solutions to external problems, but customers buy solutions to internal problems.

The problem is the “hook” of a story, and if we don’t identify our customers’ problems, the story we are telling will fall flat. As soon as the conflict in a story is resolved, audiences stop paying attention.

The villain is the number one device storytellers use to give conflict a clear point of focus.

The villain doesn’t have to be a person, but without question it should have personified characteristics. If we’re selling time-management software, for instance, we might vilify the idea of distractions. Could we offer our product as a weapon customers could use to stop distractions in their tracks?

Here are four characteristics that make for a good villain on your StoryBrand BrandScript:

  1. The villain should be a root source. Frustration, for example, is not a villain; frustration is what a villain makes us feel. High taxes, rather, are a good example of a villain.        
  2. The villain should be relatable. When people hear us talk about the villain, they should immediately recognize it as something they disdain.        
  3. The villain should be singular. One villain is enough. A story with too many villains falls apart for lack of clarity.        
  4. The villain should be real. Never go down the path of being a fearmonger. There are plenty of actual villains out there to fight. Let’s go after them on behalf of our customers.

Is there a villain in your customers’ story? Of course there is. What is the chief source of conflict that your products and services defeat? Talk about this villain. The more you talk about the villain, the more people will want a tool to help them defeat the villain.

The three levels of problems heroes (and customers) face are: 

  • External Problems
  • Internal Problems
  • Philosophical Problems


Well, most of us are in the business of solving external problems. We provide insurance or clothes or soccer balls. If we own a restaurant, the external problem we solve is hunger. The external problem a plumber fixes might be a leaky pipe, just like a pest-control guy might solve the external problem of termites in the attic.


By limiting our marketing messages to only external problems, we neglect a principle that is costing us thousands and potentially millions of dollars. That principle is this: Companies tend to sell solutions to external problems, but people buy solutions to internal problems.

The purpose of an external problem in a story is to manifest an internal problem.

What stories teach us is that people’s internal desire to resolve a frustration is a greater motivator than their desire to solve an external problem.

For example, if we own a house-painting business, our customer’s external problem might be an unsightly home. The internal problem, however, may involve a sense of embarrassment about having the ugliest home on the street. Knowing this, our marketing could offer “Paint That Will Make Your Neighbors Jealous.”

Starbucks was delivering more value than just coffee; they were delivering a sense of sophistication and enthusiasm about life. They were also offering a place for people to meet in which they could experience affiliation and belonging. Starbucks changed American culture from hanging out in diners and bars to hanging out in a local, Italian-style coffee shop.

The philosophical problem in a story is about something even larger than the story itself. It’s about the question why. Why does this story matter in the overall epic of humanity?


After creating their BrandScript, a global consulting firm we worked with began to talk about how everybody deserved to work for a great manager. A pet-store owner who came to us hung a sign in her window that said, “Pets deserve to eat healthy food too.” A fun-loving travel agent came to us and adopted the seasonal line “Because this summer should be remembered forever.”

If we really want our business to grow, we should position our products as the resolution to an external, internal, and philosophical problem and frame the “Buy Now” button as the action a customer must take to create closure in their story.


  • Villain: Gas guzzling, inferior technology        
  • External: I need a car.        
  • Internal: I want to be an early adopter of new technology.        
  • Philosophical: My choice of car ought to help save the environment.


  • Villain: Coffee machines that make bad coffee        
  • External: I want better-tasting coffee at home.        
  • Internal: I want my home coffee machine to make me feel sophisticated.        
  • Philosophical: I shouldn’t have to be a barista to make a gourmet coffee at home.

A large problem most of our clients face is they want to include three villains and seven external problems and four internal problems, and so on. But, as I’ve already mentioned, stories are best when they are simple and clear. We are going to have to make choices.


  • Either alone or with a team, brainstorm all of the literal and metaphorical villains your brand takes a stand against.        
  • Brainstorm the external problems your brand resolves. Is there one that seems to represent the widest swath of products?        
  • Brainstorm the internal problem (frustration or doubt) your customers are feeling as it relates to your brand. Is there one that stands out as a universal experience for your customers
  • Is your brand part of a larger, more important story? Is there a philosophical wrong your brand stands against?


StoryBrand Principle Three: Customers aren’t looking for another hero; they’re looking for a guide.

The fatal mistake some brands make, especially young brands who believe they need to prove themselves, is they position themselves as the hero in the story instead of the guide. As I’ve already mentioned, a brand that positions itself as the hero is destined to lose.

The crucial mistake: Jay Z failed to answer the one question lingering in the subconscious of every hero customer: How are you helping me win the day? Tidal existed to help the artists win the day, not customers. And so it failed.

The two things a brand must communicate to position themselves as the guide are Empathy and Authority

Empathetic statements start with words like, “We understand how it feels to . . .” or “Nobody should have to experience . . .” or “Like you, we are frustrated by . . .” or, in the case of one Toyota commercial inviting Toyota owners to engage their local Toyota service center, simply, “We care about your Toyota.”

Once we’ve identified our customers’ internal problems, we simply need to let them know we understand and would like to help them find a resolution. Scan your marketing material and make sure you’ve told your customers that you care. Customers won’t know you care until you tell them.

When I talk about authority, I’m really talking about competence. When looking for a guide, a hero trusts somebody who knows what they’re doing. The guide doesn’t have to be perfect, but the guide needs to have serious experience helping other heroes win the day.

There are four easy ways to add just the right amount of authority to our marketing.

  • Testimonials
  • Statistics
  • Awards
  • Logos


  • Brainstorm empathetic statements you can make so your customers know you care about their internal problem.        
  • Brainstorm the many ways you can demonstrate competence and authority by exploring potential testimonials, statistics that demonstrate competence, awards you’ve won, or logos from other businesses you’ve helped succeed.


StoryBrand Principle Four: Customers trust a guide who has a plan.

A process plan can describe the steps a customer needs to take to buy our product, or the steps the customer needs to take to use our product after they buy it, or a mixture of both.

  1. Schedule an appointment.        
  2. Allow us to create a customized plan.      
  3. Let’s execute the plan together.

with a complicated piece of software, we might want to spell out the steps or even the phases a customer would take after they make the purchase:

  1. Download the software.        
  2. Integrate your database into our system.        
  3. Revolutionize your customer interaction.

A process plan can also combine the pre- and post-purchase steps. For instance:        

  1. Test-drive a car.        
  2. Purchase the car.        
  3. Enjoy free maintenance for life.

Remember, the whole point of creating a plan is to alleviate customers’ confusion. Having more than four steps may actually add to, rather than reduce, confusion. The key is to simplify their journey so they are more likely to do business with you.

An agreement plan is best understood as a list of agreements you make with your customers to help them overcome their fear of doing business with you.

Afraid you’ll be stuck with a lemon? CarMax refuses to sell a car that doesn’t meet their standards, and they put every car through a renewal process to be sure it earns their quality certification seal.

Once you create your process or agreement plan (or both), consider giving them a title that will increase the perceived value of your product or service. For instance, your process plan might be called the “easy installation plan” or the “world’s best night’s sleep plan.” Your agreement plan might be titled the “customer satisfaction agreement” or even “our quality guarantee.” Titling your plan will frame it in the customer’s mind and increases the perceived value of all that your brand offers.


  • Either alone or with a team, brainstorm the simple steps a customer would need to take to do business with you (either a pre- or post-purchase process plan or a combination of both).        
  • What fears do your customers have related to your industry? What agreements could you make with them that would alleviate those fears? Feel free to use the notes feature of your BrandScript, where there is more room, to document your agreement plan. Use the plan section, then, to document the title of your plan.        
  • Do you share unique values with your customers? Can those values be spelled out in an agreement plan?


StoryBrand Principle Five: Customers do not take action unless they are challenged to take action.

Your customers are bombarded with more than three thousand commercial messages per day, and unless we are bold in our calls to action, we will be ignored. If our calls to action are soft, they will not be noticed.

The reality is when we try to sell passively, we communicate a lack of belief in our product. When we don’t ask clearly for the sale, the customer senses weakness. They sense we’re asking for charity rather than to change their lives. Customers aren’t looking for brands that are filled with doubt and want affirmation; they’re looking for brands that have solutions to their problems.

At StoryBrand we recommend two kinds of calls to action: direct calls to action and transitional calls to action. They work like two phases of a relationship.

It bears repeating: there should be one obvious button to press on your website, and it should be the direct call to action. When I say, “one obvious button,” I don’t mean “only one button,” but rather one that stands out. Make the button a different color, larger, a bolder text, whatever you need to do. Then repeat that same button over and over so people see it as they scroll down the page.

Direct Calls to Action

  • Order now        
  • Call today        
  • Schedule an appointment        
  • Register today        
  • Buy now

Transitional Calls to Action

When you help your customers solve a problem, even for free, you position yourself as the guide.

Transitional calls to action come in all shapes and sizes. Here are a few ideas to create transitional calls to action of your own:

  • Free information
  • Create a white paper or free PDF educating customers about your field of expertise.
  • Testimonials
  • Samples
  • Free trial

Once customers decide to buy our products, how can we increase the perceived value of those products and deepen the positive experience they have with our brand?

To do this, we must define the stakes. What’s at stake in the customer’s story if they do or do not choose to do business with us? If we’ve not defined the stakes, we’ve not made the story interesting.


  • Decide what direct call to action you want to make obvious on all your marketing material.        
  • Brainstorm any transitional calls to action you can create that will stake a claim to your territory, create reciprocity with your customers, and position your brand as a guide.


StoryBrand Principle Six: Every human being is trying to avoid a tragic ending.

Brands that don’t warn their customers about what could happen if they don’t buy their products fail to answer the “so what” question every customer is secretly asking.

What will the customer lose if they don’t buy our products?

What negative consequences are you helping customers avoid? Could customers lose money? Are there health risks if they avoid your services? What about opportunity costs? Could they make or save more money with you than they can with a competitor? Could their quality of life decline if they pass you by? What’s the cost of not doing business with you?


  • Brainstorm the negative consequences you are helping your customers avoid.        
  • Write down at least three of those consequences on your StoryBrand BrandScript.


StoryBrand Principle Seven: Never assume people understand how your brand can change their lives. Tell them.

Successful brands, like successful leaders, make it clear what life will look like if somebody engages their products or services. Nike promised to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete. Likewise, Starbucks offered to inspire and nurture their customers, one cup at a time. For years, Men’s Wearhouse promised, “You’ll like the way you look,” and they even guaranteed it.

The three dominant ways storytellers end a story is by allowing the hero to        

  1. Win some sort of power or position.        
  2. Be unified with somebody or something that makes them whole.        
  3. Experience some kind of self-realization that also makes them whole.

1. Winning Power and Position (The Need for Status)

So how can our brand offer status? There are many ways:

  • Offer access: My wife loves using her Starbucks membership card because it gains her points, which gains her status and the occasional free latte.
  • Create scarcity: Offering a limited number of a specific item creates scarcity, and owning something that is scarce is often seen as a status symbol.
  • Offer a premium: Most companies earn 70 percent or more of their revenue from a small percentage of their clients.
  • Offer identity association: Premium brands like Mercedes and Rolex sell status as much as they do luxury.

2. Union That Makes the Hero Whole (The Need for Something External to Create Completeness)

  • Reduced anxiety: For years, brands that sell basic items like dish detergent and glass cleaner have almost comically positioned their products as anti-anxiety medication.
  • Reduced workload: Customers who don’t have the right tools must work harder because they are, well, incomplete.
  • More time: For many customers, time is the enemy, and if our product can expand time, we’re offering to solve an external problem that is causing an internal frustration.

3. Ultimate Self-Realization or Acceptance (The Need to Reach Our Potential)

  • Inspiration: If an aspect of your brand can offer or be associated with an inspirational feat, open the floodgates. Brands like Red Bull, Harvard Business Review, Under Armour,
  • Acceptance: Helping people accept themselves as they are isn’t just a thoughtful thing to do; it’s good marketing. Not unlike the Dove campaign, American Eagle turned heads when they launched their Aerie campaign.
  • Transcendence: Brands that invite customers to participate in a larger movement offer a greater, more impactful life along with their products and services. Tom’s Shoes built a name for itself by selling stylish shoes while simultaneously giving a pair to somebody in need in what they called a “one for one” model.

Offering to close a story loop is much more simple than you think. Even the inclusion of smiley, happy people on your website is a strong way to offer the closing of a story loop. People want to be happy, and those images promise your product will deliver.


  • Brainstorm the successful resolution you’re helping your customers achieve. What will their lives look like if they use your products and services?


Your brand is helping people become better versions of themselves, which is a beautiful thing. You are helping them become wiser, more equipped, more physically fit, more accepted, and more at peace. Like it or not (and we hope you like it), we are all participating in our customers’ transformation, which is exactly what they want us to do.

Who does our customer want to become? What kind of person do they want to be? What is their aspirational identity?

A hero needs somebody else to step into the story to tell them they’re different, they’re better. That somebody is the guide. That somebody is you.

Here are some examples of aspirational identities from StoryBrand alumni:

  • PET FOOD BRAND From: Passive dog owner To: Every dog’s hero
  • FINANCIAL ADVISOR From: Confused and ill-equipped To: Competent and smart


  • Brainstorm the aspirational identity of your customer. Who do they want to become? How do they want to be perceived by others?        
  • Use the “to” lines of your BrandScript to define an aspirational identity. Filling out the “from” line is then simple. It’s simply the opposite of whatever you define as their aspirational identity captured in the “to” line.


The BrandScript you’ve put together has to show up on websites, in e-mail campaigns, elevator pitches, and sales scripts. You must edit existing marketing materials and create new and better materials, then get those materials in the hands of potential customers.

The third section of Building a StoryBrand gives both large and small companies tangible, practical steps they can take to apply their StoryBrand BrandScript.


  1. An Offer Above the Fold
  1. Above the fold, make sure the images and text you use meet one of the following criteria:
  1. They promise an aspirational identity.
  2. They promise to solve a problem.
  3. They state exactly what they do.
  1. Obvious Calls to Action
  2. Images of Success
  1. We believe images of smiling, happy people who have had a pleasurable experience (closed an open story loop) by engaging your brand should be featured on your website.
  2. Images of people smiling or looking satisfied speak to us.
  1. A Bite-Sized Breakdown of Your Revenue Streams
  2. Very Few Words

As customers scroll down your page, it’s okay to use more and more words, but by more and more I really mean a few sentences here and there. Some of the most effective websites I’ve reviewed have used ten sentences or less on the entire page.


A one-liner is a new and improved way to answer the question “What do you do?” It’s more than a slogan or tagline; it’s a single statement that helps people realize why they need your products or services.

If you use the following four components, you’ll craft a powerful one-liner:        

  1. The Character        
  2. The Problem        
  3. The Plan        
  4. The Success


  • This start with a character. A busy mom. A retiree. People need to be able to say “That’s me!” when they hear your one-liner.


  • Defining a problem triggers the thought in your customer’s mind: Yeah, I do struggle with that. Will your brand be able to help me overcome it?


  • You won’t be able to spell out your entire plan in your one-liner, but you must hint at it.


  • This is where you paint a picture of what life could look like after customers use your product or service.

Consider your first one-liner a rough draft. Write it down and test it repeatedly.

Print your one-liner on your business cards and in your social media bios. Print it on your packaging. Include it in your e-mail signature. Repeat it over and over to increase the percentage chance customers will read it.

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