Building a Storybrand

These are my detailed notes of the great marketing/storytelling book, Building a Storybrand by Donald Miller.

Section 1: Why most marketing is a money pit

  • the key to being seen, heard, and understood
  • the secret weapon that will grow your business
  • the simple SB7 framework

Section 2: Building your storybrand

  • a character
  • has a problem
  • and meets a guide
  • who gives them a plan
  • and calls them to action
  • that helps them avoid failure
  • and ends in a success
  • people want your brand to participate in their transformation

Section 3: Implementing your storybrand brandscript

  • building a better website
  • using storybrand to transform company culture


  • Customers don’t care about your story, customers care about their own story!

Chapter 1: The Key to Being Seen, Heard, and Understood

  • Pretty website don’t sell things, words sell things.
  • We aren’t just in a race to get products to market, we’re also in a race to communicate why our customers need those products in their lives.
  • The more simple and predictable the communication, the easier it is for the brain to digest. Story helps because it’s a sense-making mechanism.
  • Mistake 1: Brands don’t focus on aspect of their offer that will help people survive and thrive.
    • Focus on what is evolutionary important
    • Example: we know the exits in a room, not the number of chairs
    • Tell a story about the ‘exits’ not the number of chairs
  • Mistake 2: Brands cause their customer to burn too many calories in an effort to understand the message.
    • If there is too much (useless/non-essential) information, people ignore the brand
    • The key is to make your company’s message about something that helps the customer survive and to do so in a way that they can understand without burning many calories
  • Stories have a necessary ambition, defines a challenge, provides a plan to conquer challenges.
  • This creates a map customers can follow to engage with our products and services.
  • The formula for movies is the same as will be explained (StoryBrand Framework).
  • The key is clarity (if you confuse you lose).
  • Identify: What customers want, what problem we help solve, what life will look like after using product/service.
  • Noise is the enemy of a business. Clutter that is generated by the business itself. 
  • It was as though he was answering a hundred questions his customers had never asked.
  • What we think we’re saying to our customers, and what our customers actually hear are two different things. Customers make decisions based on the latter.
  • The key good writing is what you don’t say.

Chapter 2: The Secret Weapon That Will Grow Your Business

  • A story is your way to combat/break through the noise.
  • Example: Music and noise are very similar, but the structure of music makes it memorable.
  • 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.
  • Example: Lisa computer from Apple, 9 pages (boooring) technical. Later, 2 words (think different). It’s about you.
  • People buy the products they can understand the fastest.
  • Story in a nutshell:
    • 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 actions helps them avoid failure and ens in a success.
  • Examples: stories of Hunger Games, Star Wars
  • Truly creative and brilliant marketers and screenwriters know how to use the formula while still avoiding cliché.
  • The three crucial questions (movie):
    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 doesn’t) get what she wants?
  • Anything that doesn’t serve the plot has to go.
  • The three crucial questions (brand/website/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?
  • Could a caveman look at your website and immediately grunt/get what you offer?
  • Example: online camera course, removed jargon and fluff (90% of text), focus on questions above (x5 revenue).
  • A good filter removes all the stuff that bores our customers and will bear down on the aspects of the brand that will help them survive and thrive.

Chapter 3: The Simple SB7 Framework

  • Principles:
    1. The customer is the hero, not your brand
      • you are the guide (Yoda)
      • hero wants something
    2. Companies sell solutions to external problems, but customers buy solutions to internal problems
      • they want to solve a problem that has disrupted their peaceful life
      • Queal: Time has disappeared? or not eating right anymore, (can’t find the time for it)
      • Example: lawn not tidy, pension not fixed
      • problems are, external, internal (best response), philosophical
    3. Customers aren’t looking for another hero; customers are looking for a guide
      • brands that position themselves as a hero, unknowingly compete with their potential customers
    4. Customers trust a guide who has a plan
      • remove confusion about how to do business/take next step
      • agreement and process plan
    5. Customers do not take action unless they are challenged to take action
      • Seth Godin: create tension (and/or step 6 too)
      • there needs to be a reason
      • characters only take action after they are challenged by an outside force
      • A call to action involves communicating a clear and direct step our customers can take to overcome their challenge and return to a peaceful life.
      • direct or transitional
    6. Every human being is trying to avoid a tragic ending
      • what’s at stake/what happens if you don’t take action
      • show the cost of not doing business
      • brands that help customers avoid some kind of negativity in life, engage customers (they define what’s at stake)
      • use this strategically (like salt, so not too much or none at all)
    7. Never assume people understand how your brand can change their lives. Tell them
      • if we don’t tell people where we’re taking them, they will choose another brand
      • offer a vision
  • (use tool to fill in)

Chapter 4: A Character

  • The customer is the hero, not the brand.
  • Define the character’s ambition / define what your customer wants.
  • Can this brand really help me get what I want?
  • Example: luxury resort changed from pictures about themselves, to focus on luxury for customers.
  • Example: a hassle-free MBA you can complete after work.
  • Identify what customer wants, gives definition and direction.
  • Identify a potential desire, this opens a story gap.
  • Example: Jason Bourne has amnesia (Wie ben ik godverdomme…)
  • Finding out what customers want, opens the story gap.
  • Pair that desire down to a single focus.
  • Don’t clutter the story by giving the hero (customer) too many ambitions.
    • Only after the general story, you might want to define subplots
  • What you define should be related to the customer’s sense of survival.
  • Survival: primitive desire to be safe, healthy, happy, strong.
    • Conserving financial resources (Walmart)
    • Conserving time (Queal, cleaning service)
    • Building social networks (working at Coolblue? Facebook)
    • Gaining status (Rolex)
    • Accumulating resources (Vanguard, many B2B offers)
    • The innate desire to be generous (EA, vrijwilligers organisaties)
    • The desire for meaning (ditto, Tony?)
    • You can tap into multiple motivations of course
  • The goal for branding should be that every potential customer knows exactly where we want to take them.

Chapter 5: Has a Problem

  • Companies sell solutions to an external problem, customers buy solutions to internal problems.
  • The problem is the hook of a story.
  • The more we talk about the problems our customers experience, the more interest they will have in our brand.
  • You need a villain, and it doesn’t have to be a person, but needs personified characteristics.
  • Example: Time management software, villain is distractions.
  • Villain characteristics:
    1. Root source (time-monster?)
    2. Relate-able 
    3. Singular
    4. Real
  • Three levels of problems.
    1. External problems
      • real-life/physical barrier between hero and desire for stability
      • Example: ticking time-bomb, restaurant solves external hunger problem
    2. Internal problems
      • The purpose of an external problem is to manifest an internal problem.
      • Movies: Do I have what it takes? (emotions, internal frustration to solve)
      • Example: Apple, internal frustration of intimidated by technology
      • Queal: can’t eat right within time/life constraints?
      • Example: car rental company, frustration of talking to people, automatic check-in
      • Example: second-hand car sales, not focus on external (need new cheapish car), focus on internal (don’t want to be hussled) (no commissions, clear terms)
      • Example: Starbucks, deeper sense of feeling well/sophisticated/cool, etc. (ohh and they have ok/good coffee)
    3. Philosophical problems
      • Why does this matter? (in the grand scheme of things)
      • What ought or shouldn’t happen?
      • Example: King’s Speech, external (speech), internal (self-doubt), phil. (good vs evil)
      • Give customers a deeper sense of meaning
  • Frame the ‘buy now’ button as the action a customer must take to create closure in their story.
  • Example: Tesla
    • Villain: Gas guzzling, inferior tech
    • External: I need (want) a car
    • Internal: I want to be an early adopter of new tech
    • Philosophical: My choice of car ought to help save the environment

Chapter 6: And Meets a Guide

  • Customers aren’t looking for another hero; customers are looking for a guide.
  • If a hero solves her own problem in a story, the audience will tune out.
  • A brand that positions itself as a hero is destined to lose.
  • The day we stop losing sleep over the success of our business and start losing sleep over the success of our customers is the day our business will start growing again.
  • In stories, the hero is never the strongest character.
    • The guide has been there, done that.
    • The guide is the one with the most authority.
    • The guide is not the centre, he simply plays a role.
  • Those who realise the epic story of life is not about them but actually about the people around them somehow win in the end.
  • Empathy
    • “I feel your pain”
    • Understanding the struggle the customer has.
    • Make sure that you tell customers you care!
    • Show that you have something in common with the customer.
  • Authority / Competence
    • Customer wants to check off box in back of mind, give confidence in your ability that you can help them.
    • Do it (indirectly) via:
      • Testimonials: Let others do the talking for you. (3 testimonials)
      • Statistics: left-brain, emotional-number (link to benefit)
      • Awards: awards your company has won
      • Logos: B2B, other businesses you’ve worked with, B2C news-outlets
  • “Can I trust this person?” (empathy) / “Can I respect this person?” (competence)

Chapter 7: Who Gives Them a Plan

  • Customers trust a guide who has a plan.
  • Commitment (buying) is risky for customer, he can lose something.
  • What if it doesn’t work? What if I’m a fool for buying this?
  • Remove much of the risk, increase their comfort level.
  • This is the plan.
    1. Create clarity
    2. Remove sense of risk
  • The plan tightens the focus of the movie and gives the hero a ‘path of hope’ she can walk that might lead to the resolution of her troubles.
  • What do you want me (the customer) to do now?
  • The fact that we want them to place an order is not enough information to motivate them.
  • process plan describes the steps a customer needs to take to a) buy our products, and/or b) use the product after they have bought it.
    • A plan alleviates confusion for our customers.
    • The amount of steps in a plan should be at least 3 – max 6.
  • agreement plan is about alleviating fears.
    • When you do business with us, we agree to ABC.
    • This clarifies shared values between customers and us.
    • Agreement plan usually works in the background.
  • Give your plan a name.
    • “easy installation plan”
    • “your morning plan”, “you good mornings plan/meals”
    • Titling your plan will frame it in the customer’s mind and increases the perceived value of all that your brand offers.

Chapter 8: And Calls Them to Action

  • Customers don’t take action unless they are challenged to take action.
  • Ask them to place an order.
  • Heroes/customers need to be challenged by outside forces (to take action).
  • One of the biggest hindrances to business success is that we think customers can read our minds.
  • Repeat the ‘buy now’ button throughout the website (make it very obvious how to take action).
    • E.g. Storybrand website has a ‘register now’ button
  • Off all customers they worked with, none had too many calls to action (overselling is not an issue)
  • When we try to sell passively, we communicate a lack of belief in our product.
  • The guide must be direct with the hero about what they want them to do.
  1. Direct call to action (buy now, make appointment)
  2. Transitional call to action (download pdf, webinar, usually free)
    1. Stake a claim to your territory (show that you’re the leader in the industry)
    2. Create reciprocity (give away free info)
    3. Position yourself as the guide
    • Examples: Free information, Testimonials, Samples, Free trail
  • Those who ask again and again (I guess without being a pain in the butt), shall finally receive
  • Again: There should be one obvious button to press on your website, and it should be a direct call to action.
  • Queal: Order Now in menu?!

Chapter 9: That Helps Them Avoid Failure

  • Every human being is trying to avoid a tragic ending.
  • Answer the ‘so what’ question, what fails if they don’t buy the products.
  • Example: Allstate, foreshadow potential failure for customers, sell insurance to prevent it, opening and closing story loop.
  • What will the customer lose if they don’t buy our products?
    • This is not fear-mongering, this is introducing a stake.
  • People are motivated by loss aversion.
    • See Thinking, Fast and Slow (Kahneman)
  • From another book (quoted)
    1. Show that reader is vulnerable to a threat (30% of homes have termites)
    2. Take action to reduce vulnerability (nobody wants that, do something to protect your home)
    3. Specific call to action to protect them (we offer home treatment to insure you don’t have termites anymore)
    4. Challenge people to take the action (call us today and schedule home treatment)
  • Use fear like salt, just a pinch
  • What negative consequences are you helping your customer avoid?

Chapter 10: And Ends in a Success

  • Never assume people understand how your brand can change their lives. Tell them!
  • “People want to be taken somewhere”
  • “A compelling image of an achievable future”
  • Without a vision, your brand will perish.
  • The resolution must be clearly defined, so the audience/customer knows exactly what to hope for.
  • Whatever you sell, show us people happily engaging with the product.
  • Describe the future of the customer in terms of internal (feelings), external (physical), philosophical (moral/reasons).
  1. Winning power and position (need for status)
    • Offer access (e.g. Starbucks membership)
    • Create scarcity (e.g. limited number of an item)
    • Offer a premium (e.g. Emerald club of car rental company)
    • Offer identity association (e.g. Mercedes, Rolex)
  2. Union that makes the hero whole (need for something external to create completeness)
    • story: resolve a deficiency (e.g. marriage, learn new skill)
    • reduce anxiety (e.g. cleaning stuff, closure of clean home)
    • reduce workload (e.g. software, fishing rod, thing to make you superhuman)
    • more time (fit it all in
  3. Ultimate self-realisation/acceptance (need to reach our potential)
    • the desire for self-acceptance
    • inspiration (e.g. red bull, HBR, under armour)
    • acceptance (e.g. Dove)
    • transcendence (e.g. Tom’s Shoes)
  • Closing the loop can be as simple as showing happy people.
    • E.g. rug shop, just show the rug in a nice living room
    • E.g. camping gear, an adventure to remember

Chapter 11: People Want Your Brand to Participate in Their Transformation

  • Everybody wants to transform.
  • Brands that participate in the identity transformation of their customers create passionate brand evangelists.
  • Heroes are designed to transform.
  • Smart brands define an aspirational identity.
    • and associate the brand with that identity.
    • E.g. knife company, tough and adventurous person (hello trouble)
  • How does your customer want to be described by others?
  • Great brands obsess about the transformation of their customers
    • How do we do that at Queal?
    • Could we learn from pindakaas or other ‘boring’ products?
  • Example: Financial adviser, from: confused and ill-equipped, to: competent and smart
  • Example: Shampoo brand, from: anxious and glum, to: carefree and radiant
  • Do more than help your customers win, let’s help them transform.

Chapter 12: Building a Better Website

  • A great digital presence starts with a clear and effective website.
  • When a customer gets to your website, their “hopes need to be confirmed”, and they need to be convinced we have a solution to their problem.
  • Keep it simple. Like an elevator pitch.
  • A website full of noise can kill potential sales.
  • The 5 basics you need/must have:
    1. An offer above the fold. (e.g. we will make you a pro in the kitchen)
      • customers need to know what’s in it for them right when they read the text
      • E.g. We help you make beautiful websites (Sqaurespace)
      • Promise an aspirational identity
      • Promise to solve a problem
      • State exactly what you do
      • Queal: We take the hassle out of getting a good meal. We make complete meals.!!!
    2. Obvious call to action
      • Order Now (duh)
      • Placement tips: top right! (Highlight shop more!!! and/or put it in button-style, to the right?), and center (instead of left).
      • Eyes move in Z pattern
      • Buttons should look exactly the same!!!
      • If you have a transitional CTA, show it but less prominent
    3. Images of success
      • Smiling, happy people, emotional destination.
    4. A bite-sized breakdown of your revenue streams
      • find an overall umbrella message that unifies your various streams
      • once you have the umbrella, the different product-pages (with their own BrandScripts) can shine there
    5. Very few words
      • People don’t read websites anymore, they scan them.
      • Write in morse-code (brief, punchy, relevant to customers)
      • The fewer words you use, the more likely it is that people will read them
  • Stay on script, everything should be a logical conclusion from the BrandScript