The 7 Elements of Great Brand Storytelling

New York Times' best-selling author Donald Miller explains how the narrative of the hero's journey can create a brand story your customers will actually hear — and respond to.
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Know the formula for creating a brand message for your small business that is customer-focused, relevant and effective. (Photo: jannoon028/Shutterstock)

“Story is the universal language each of our customers secretly speak.”

That’s according to Donald Miller who, as New York Times’ best-selling author, should know a thing or two about the power of storytelling. His company StoryBrand helps business leaders clarify their brand message and create compelling reasons for consumers to buy their products and services.

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“The customer is the hero in the story, not you. Stop telling your story and start inserting yourself into their story.” (Photo: Donald Miller)

In his latest book “Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen,” Miller explores common brand messaging mistakes and how to create a story prospective customers will actually hear.

“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,” he said.

Using this formula, you can create a brand message for your small business that is customer-focused, relevant and effective.

A character …

The biggest mistake businesses make when writing their brand story is putting their business at the center, rather than the customer, said Miller.

“The customer is the hero in the story, not you. Stop telling your story and start inserting yourself into their story,” he wrote. “Nobody cares whether your grandfather started the company or that you won some sort of award last year. They only care about where you can take their story.”

Each person is the protagonist in his or her own life; this is the human experience. By reframing your narrative with the consumer as the hero, you’re putting his or her needs front and center, so the message is more relevant and impactful.

“Positioning the customer as the hero in the story is more than just good manners; it’s also good business,” he quipped.

Has a problem …

“All stories start with a character that wants something. Then that character faces a challenge or a problem that doesn’t let them get what they want,” Miller explained. “Customers are attracted to [brands] for the same reason heroes are pulled into stories: they want to solve a problem that has, in big or small ways, disrupted their peaceful life.”

What problems does your business solve for consumers? If you run a lawn care business, for instance, you’re not selling a service — you’re solving the customer’s frustration with not having time or energy to do yard work or their embarrassment of having an unkempt lawn.

“Customers have a little rolodex in their brain, and they file your business card not under the name of your company, but under the problem you can help them solve.” -Donald Miller

“Customers have a little rolodex in their brain, and they file your business card not under the name of your company, but under the problem you can help them solve,” he wrote. “So if you haven’t clearly communicated what problem you solve, they throw your business card in the trash because you aren’t relevant to their life.”

Related: How to Execute a Customer-Centric Marketing Strategy

And meets a guide …

Luke Skywalker had Yoda, Harry Potter had Hagrid, Rocky had Apollo and your customers have you guide them as they overcome these challenges.

“If we aren’t playing the guide in our customers’ story, we’re losing an incredible opportunity to solve a customer’s problem and make money in the process,” said Miller. “If you play the guide, you become the very person they’ve been looking for.”

Presenting your company as the hero turns the customer into a helpless damsel in distress, but when your brand serves as a guide, the customer feels empowered to make their own choice — based on your advice and expertise, of course.

“It’s a small but powerful shift that honors the journey of the audience and positions us as a leader providing wisdom, products and services our audience needs in order to thrive.”

Who has a plan …

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As a guide, it is your job to offer the customer a foolproof plan to overcome their challenge. (Photo: Nuamfolio/Shutterstock)

As a guide, your role is to provide the tools and encouragement your customer needs to overcome the challenge he or she is facing.

“In almost every story, the guide gives the hero a plan, or a bit of information, or a few steps they can use to get the job done,” Miller wrote. “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.”

Related: How to Create a Customer Journey Map

And calls the character to action …

The second role of the guide is challenging the hero to take the actions needed to get the result he or she wants.

“You would be surprised how many companies don’t create obvious calls to action for their customers. 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,” he said.

Returning to the lawn service example, you’ve explained how hiring a landscaper will solve their problem, but if they are unclear about how to sign up, they will take your great advice and take it to a competitor who gives a more clear call to action.

That ends in either failure …

Your customers must feel there is some cost to not doing business with you. If nothing is at stake, why should they buy your product? What will they miss out on if they pass on the purchase? What problems will arise or be left unresolved if they don’t take action?

“Stories live and die on a single question: What’s at stake? If nothing can be gained or lost, nobody cares,” said Miller.

Related: The Benefits of Failure and How to Learn From It

Or success

Over and above the cost of failure, a business must offer customers a vision of a happy ending to their story.

“Successful brands, like successful leaders, make it clear what life will look like if someone engages in their products or services,” he wrote. “Everybody wants to be taken somewhere. If we don’t tell people where we’re taking them, they’ll engage in another brand.”

“Successful brands, like successful leaders, make it clear what life will look like if someone engages in their products or services.” -Donald Miller

Miller’s approach to brand storytelling better positions business owners to reach consumers where they are — in their moment of need — creating a more powerful connection than an eye-catching logo or cute tagline. It shows you really care about their needs, said Miller.

“When you understand your customers’ story and place yourself into that story, you become relevant to them and they become more than customers — they become fans.”

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