Donald Miller has a simple and powerful message for us in Building A StoryBrand – that your customer should be the hero of the story, not your brand.

It’s a secret that the world’s most successful companies understand, and Miller has boiled it down into an easy-to-follow, 7-step system you can use to grow your business.

But before we get into that system, let’s talk about why it’s so important to have exquisite clarity around your message.

The Importance of Message Clarity

Simply put, the more simple and clear a message is, the easier it is for the brain to digest.

Most people understand this intuitively, but seem to forget it when crafting their brand messaging. They don’t focus on the aspects of their offers that help people survive and thrive, and they make their customers use too much energy figuring out what the offering is.

When a prospect comes to your website or looks at any of your marketing material, they should be able to figure out three things within the first 5 seconds: what you offer, how it will make their lives better, and what they need to do in order to buy it.

The StoryBrand method solves this problem by focusing on telling a story, with your customer as the hero. As Miller points out, every great story follows a similar formula:

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.

Let’s look at each of those things in turn.

Principle 1: The Customer is the Hero, Not Your Brand

The most important business challenge for you as a business leader is to define something simple and relevant to your customers, and become known for delivering on that.

There are a few things you need to get right at this stage.

Open Up a Story Gap

The first thing that all great stories do is open up a gap between where the hero is right now, and where they want to go. Once that happens, the brain starts working on filling in that gap. For instance, Jason Bourne wakes up with amnesia, and we wonder whether or not he’ll figure out what happened to him.

When we define something that our prospects and customers want, you create a story gap in their mind with them wondering if you can fill the gap for them.

Choose a Single Focus

You’ve heard this before, but you can’t focus on multiple things. Your brand needs to be known for one story, and one story only.

Choose a Desire Relevant to Their Survival

It’s not enough to create any old desire, it needs to be something that is relevant to their survival, which these days means things like:

  • conserving financial resources;
  • considering time;
  • building social networks;
  • gaining status;
  • accumulating resources;
  • the innate desire to be generous; or
  • the desire for meaning.

Principle 2: Customers Buy Solutions To Internal Problems

All great stories include problems that the hero must overcome. When we clearly identify these problems we increase the customer’s interest in the story we are telling.

Every Story Needs a Villain

Every great story includes a villain that needs to be defeated. There are four characteristics of a great one:

  1. The villain should be a root problem. For instance, frustration isn’t a villain – the high taxes that make us frustrated, are.
  2. The villain should be relatable – your customers should immediately recognize it as something they hate.
  3. The villain should be singular – too many villains and a story falls apart.
  4. The villain should be real – don’t invent a villain that doesn’t exist.

The Three Levels of Conflict

In a story, a villain creates an external problem that causes the hero to experience an internal frustration, that is philosophically wrong.

The external problem is a physical and tangible problem the hero must overcome. The ticking time bomb planted by the villain in an action movie is a classic example.

The internal problem is where the magic happens. In most stories, the hero struggles with the question of whether or not they have what it takes to solve the external problem. This inner frustration is what people are truly motivated to solve. For instance, Miller tells us that Apple solves the inner frustration of being intimidated by computers.

The philosophical problem is all about the question why. Why does this story matter in the grand scheme of things? People want to be involved in a story that’s larger than themselves.

To sum up this step, you need to have figured out the following:

  • Is there a single villain you can stand against?
  • What problem is that villain causing?
  • How does that external problem make your customers feel?
  • Why is it unjust for people to have to suffer at the hands of this villain?

Principle 3: Customers Are Looking For A Guide

If the heroes in the story could solve their own problems, they wouldn’t ever get in trouble in the first place. That’s why they need a guide, and how your brand can become the Yoda to your customer’s Luke SkyWalker.

Miller gives us a dire warning at this point – we either position the customer as the hero and the brand as the guide, or we die.

There are two things that you must do to position your brand as a guide.

Express Empathy

When we empathize with our customer’s dilemma, they feel like we understand them. Customers want to do business with brands that they feel they have something in common with.

Using phrases like “We understand how it feels to…” or “Nobody should have to experience…” or “Like you, we are frustrated by…” often gets to the root of this idea.

Demonstrate Authority

We want our guides to be likeable and to be like us, but we also want them to have experience helping other heroes conquer their challenges.

There are four easy ways to add authority to your marketing: testimonials (other people describing their success with your brand), statistics (how many people have you helped), awards (which work even if customers haven’t heard of the award), and logos (if you are in a B2B environment).

Principle 4: Customers Trust a Guide Who Has a Plan

Imagine your customers standing at the side of a rushing creek they want to cross. They hear a waterfall downstream, and start to wonder what might happen if they fell in and went over the falls.

In order to help your customers feel confident in buying your solution, you need to place large stones in the creek that they can use to get across safely.

Basically, they need a step-by-step plan on how to use your product or service to solve their problem. There are two plans that you should consider creating.

The Process Plan

This is the plan that tells your customer how to buy your product, how to use your product, or both. These plans are about eliminating confusion.

How many steps should the process have? It varies, but Miller suggests that there is at least three, but no more than six.

The Agreement Plan

This is a list of agreements you make with your customers to help them overcome the fear of doing business with you.

The best way to do this is to list all the things that your customer might be concerned about around your product or service, and then address each of those with an agreement that eliminates the fear.

Consider giving this plan a name so that it increases the perceived value of everything your brand offers.

Principle 5: Customers Do Not Take Action Unless The Are Challenged To Take Action

Quite simply, you need to ask your customer to take whatever action you need in order to advance the sale.

There are two different kinds of calls to action.

Direct Calls To Action

Direct calls to action include things like “buy now” or “schedule an appointment” – it’s the ultimate step you want them to take while they are on your website.

Miller suggests that you place a “Buy Now” button in the top right corner of your website, and that you should repeat that above the fold, and then again as people scroll down your website.

Transitional Calls To Action

These are the intermediary steps you can ask your customer to take before they purchase. They contain less risk for the customer and are usually free. Some examples include asking people to watch a webinar, download a pdf, or take a free trial.

They do three powerful things for your brand:

  • They stake a claim to your territory. If you want to be a leader in a certain territory, stake a claim before your competition beats you to it.
  • They create reciprocity. The more generous you are in giving away free information, the more likely your customers will be to purchase from you in the future.
  • They position your brand as the guide.

Principle 6: Every Human Being Is Trying To Avoid A Tragic Ending

Every great story includes what’s at stake. They always tell you the terrible things that will happen to the hero if they don’t succeed.

In your case, the question you need to answer is what the customer will lose if they don’t use your product or service. Most people struggle with this because they don’t want to be perceived as a fear monger. But the reality is that 99.9 percent of brands don’t focus on the negative stakes enough.

As Miller points out, it’s a delicate balance. Ratchet up the fear factor too high and people start to block out the fear. Too little and there’s no motivation to solve the problem.

This part of the process asks you to identify the top few things that your customers should be trying to avoid.

For instance, if you were a used car business you might consider using the fears of (a) getting ripped off by a used car salesman, (b) being stuck with a lemon and (c) feeling taken advantage of.

Principle 7: Never Assume People Understand How Your Brand Can Change Their Lives. Tell Them

The ending to the story should be specific and clear. You need to make it crystal clear what your customers lives will be like if they use your product or service.

There are three main ways that storytellers end a story.

Winning Power and Position (The Need for Status)

If your brand can help your customer more esteemed and respected, and appealing in a social context, you are offering something they want. Brands like Mercedes and Rolex sell status as much as they do luxury.

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

The idea here is that the hero is rescued by somebody or something else that they needed in order to be made complete. Things that fall into this category include a reduced workload (your tool helps them do more with less) and more time (your tool helps them “fit it all in”).

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

We all feel the need to reach our potential. At the core of this need is the desire for self-acceptance. Some of the ways you can do this include inspiration (connecting your brand to inspirational feats), acceptance (helping people accept themselves as they are) and transcendence (inviting customers to participate in a movement).


The process of creating a StoryBrand is simple, but it’s not easy. But in the end, it’s worth its weight in gold.

Clearly communicating how your company can participate in the transformation of your customer not only helps you sell more to everybody who hears about you, it also helps you create brand evangelists.

And that is the most powerful marketing tool of all.