A Bird's Eye View of the StoryBrand Principles

Anabeth McConnell Anabeth McConnell
January 8, 2024   |   15 min read time
Topics: branding, storybrand

Attracting and converting the right audience and trying to stand out in a saturated market is a challenge many businesses face. You know something needs to be fixed with your marketing efforts but have no idea what's missing that's failing to capture the attention and the revenue from your audience.

Standing out from the competition and connecting with your audience requires not just creativity but also a deep understanding of what truly drives customer engagement.

The three goals of marketing your business are building your brand awareness, establishing trust and credibility with your audience, and driving sales and growth.

Each goal relies on one crucial element - your brand's message.

Crafting a clear and compelling message that not only promotes what you sell but bridges that with what your ideal audience wants and needs is a common challenge.

The principles in the book, "Building a StoryBrand," by Donald Miller outline a story formula that helps you connect the dots between who you serve, how you serve, and why your ideal audience should choose you over your competitors.

The number one takeaway from the book is this: "Your customer should be the hero of the story, not your brand." This principle is the secret every successful business understands.

Communication is easier for the brain to digest when it is simple and more predictable. Story formulas put everything in order so the brain doesn't have to work to understand what's happening.

What is a Story Formula?

This is the most common story framework you'll find in nearly every book or movie 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.


Good stories and businesses both face the same enemy - noise. At no point should we be able to pause a movie or put down a book 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 they do (or do not) get what they want?

If these three questions are not answered within the first fifteen to twenty minutes, the story has already descended into noise and will almost certainly fail at the box office, or the book gathers dust on the shelf.

How do we relate this to our own business? Your customers should be able to answer these questions within five seconds of looking at your website or marketing collateral:

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

StoryBrand Principle One

The customer is the hero, not your business.

When you clearly define something your customer needs or wants, the customer is invited to join your story.

These statements are not about the company but invite customers into their story by connecting to a customer's desire, need, or want.

  • Financial Advisor: "A Plan for Your Retirement"
  • Restaurant: "A Meal Everybody Will Remember"         
  • Realtor: "The Home You've Dreamed About"
  • Bookstore: "A Story to Get Lost In"

Start with a "Story Gap" 

To capture attention, you must place a gap between your customer (the character) and what they want or desire. When you watch a movie or read a book, you subconsciously look for the story gap, trying to figure out if and how the gap will be closed.

For example, Jason Bourne is missing his memory. Missing memories is the opening of a story gap, and the return of the memories is its closing. You're reading the book or watching the movie because you want to know how the character regains the memories.

When you don't define something your customer wants, you fail to open a story gap. When you don't open a story gap in your customers' minds, they have no motivation to connect with you because there is no question that demands a resolution.

Once a brand defines what their customer wants, they are often guilty of making the second mistake—what they've described 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 your brand should be that every potential customer knows exactly where you want to take them: a hotel where they can get some rest, become the leader everybody loves, or save money and live better.


  • Brainstorm what potential desires, needs, or wants your customers might have that your services can fulfill.
  • Choose the one main thing your customer desires, needs, or wants.

StoryBrand Principle Two

Most companies focus on selling solutions to external problems, but customers want to buy solutions to their internal problems.

The problem is the "hook" of a story; if you don't identify your customers' problems, your story will fall flat. 

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

  • External Problems
  • Internal Problems
  • Philosophical Problems


Most companies are in the business of solving external problems. They provide insurance, clothes or soccer balls. If you own a restaurant, the external problem you solve is hunger. An external problem a plumber solves might be a leaky pipe, and a pest-control guy solves the external problem of mice in the attic.


Limiting your marketing messages to only external problems, you neglect a principle costing you thousands of dollars in revenue. That principle is this: Customers find solutions to external problems but buy solutions to their internal problems.

An external problem is the outward sign of an internal problem. Stories teach us that people's internal desire to resolve a frustration is a more significant motivator than their desire to solve an external problem.

For example, if you own a house-painting business, an external problem your customers may experience is an unsightly home. However, the internal problem may involve a sense of embarrassment about having the ugliest house on the street. Your marketing could address this internal problem by presenting a message that says, "Paint That Will Make Your Neighbors Jealous."

Starbucks delivers more value than just coffee; it provides a sense of sophistication and enthusiasm about life. They also offer a place that offers affiliation and belonging. Starbucks has changed American culture from hanging out in diners and bars to local coffee shops.


The philosophical problem in a story is about something even more significant than the story itself. It's about the question of why – why does the story matter in the overall epic of humanity?

A global consulting firm discusses how everybody deserves to work for a great manager. A pet store owner hangs a sign in her window that says, "Pets deserve to eat healthy food too." A fun-loving travel agent adopted the seasonal line "Because this summer should be remembered forever."

If you want your business to grow, you should position your offers as the solution to an external, internal, and philosophical problem by framing the "Buy Now" button as the action a customer must take to finally solve their problem, untimely creating a closure in their story.


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


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

A large problem many companies face is they want to include seven external problems, four internal problems, and so on. But stories are best when they are simple. You have to choose to create a more focused message.


  • Brainstorm the external problems your brand resolves. Is there one that connects to the services you offer?        
  • Brainstorm the internal problems your customers feel that connect with the products/services your brand offers. Is there one that stands out as a universal experience for your customers?
  • Brainstorm how your brand is part of a larger, more important story. What is the philosophical wrong your brand stands against?

StoryBrand Principle Three

Customers aren't looking for another hero; they're looking for someone to advise them.

The fatal mistake brands make is positioning themselves as the hero in the story instead of the guide. A brand that sets itself as the hero is destined to lose.

Empathy and Authority are two things a brand must communicate to position itself as a credible guide that customers can trust.

To show empathy, statements starting with words like, "We understand how it feels to . . ." or "Nobody should have to experience . . ." or "Like you, we are frustrated by . . ." helps customers know you understand their pain and challenge.

Once you've identified your customers' internal problems, you must let them know you understand and want to help them find a resolution. Scan your marketing material and ensure you've told your customers you care. Customers will know you care when you tell them.

Your competence is your authority – how well you can solve the problem. When customers are looking for a guide, they're looking for someone who knows what they're doing. They're looking for a guide who has experience helping other heroes win the day.

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

  • Testimonials
  • Statistics
  • Awards
  • Logos


  • Brainstorm statements that show empathy so your customers know you care about their internal problems.        
  • Brainstorm how you can demonstrate knowledge, skill set, and authority by exploring potential testimonials, statistics showing your competence, awards you've won, or logos from other businesses you've helped succeed.

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StoryBrand Principle Four

Customers trust a guide who has a plan.

Simplifying how you help customers solve their problems shows you have a reliable process. A process plan describes the steps a customer needs to take to buy your solution, the steps the customer needs to take to use it after buying 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, consider spelling out the steps 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.

You 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.

You may have 100 steps that you perform as part of your service, but the key is to simplify their journey. The whole point of creating a plan is designed to alleviate customers' confusion and reduce the brain effort it takes to say yes. 


  • Brainstorm what simple steps a customer would need to take to do work with you (either a pre- or post-purchase process plan or a combination of both).        

StoryBrand Principle Five

Customers only take action if challenged to take action.

Your customers receive hundreds of commercial messages per day. When you don't ask clearly for the sale, the customer sees your message as more informational.

A clear, straightforward call to action is specific and action-oriented.

There are two common calls to action: a direct call to action and a transitional call to action. Both of these work like two phases of a relationship.

Direct Calls to Action

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

This direct call to action should be prominent in all your marketing material. For example, there should be one prominent button to press on your website for the next action to begin working with you. This doesn't mean you only have one button on your site, but rather one that stands out. Make the direct call to action button a different color, bolder text, or whatever you need to do to make it known that this is where you click. Repeat that same button so people see it as they scroll down the page.

Transitional Calls to Action

Your customers may not be ready to do business with you the first time they interact with your brand. They may not be entirely convinced you are the answer to their problem, or they're not in the right buying stage to decide. Offering a transactional call to action helps to continue the relationship. You position yourself as the guide when you help your customers solve a problem, even for free.

Transitional calls to action provide a way to capture their contact details so you can continue to nurture them so that, down the road, they choose to work with you. 

Consider these ideas for transitional calls to action:

  • Educate customers about your field of expertise
    • eBooks
    • Guides
    • Whitepapers
    • Audio or video series
  • Provide DIY solutions
    • Worksheets
    • Templates
  • Let them try out
    • Samples
    • Free trials
    • Demos

Once customers decide to buy your solutions, how can you increase the perceived value of those solutions and deepen the positive experience they have with your brand?

To do this, you define the stakes. Help your customers understand what is at stake if they choose or do not choose to do business with us. You have yet to make the story interesting if you have yet to define the stakes.


  • Decide what direct call to action you want to make prominent on your marketing collateral.        
  • Brainstorm transitional calls to action you can create that will help nurture your customers, create a connection with your customers, and position your brand as a guide.

StoryBrand Principle Six

Every person tries to avoid feeling like a failure.

Not presenting what could happen if your customers don't purchase a solution fails to answer the "so what" question every customer secretly asks. People are motivated to avoid failure.

What will the customer lose, or how will their problems worsen if they don't buy our products/services?

Consider these examples:

  • Missed opportunities
  • Loss of revenue
  • Loss of time doing other more important things
  • Continue struggling to solve the problem
  • Loss of social or professional status
  • Spend too much money or time

What are the negative consequences your brand is helping customers avoid? Could customers lose money? Are there health risks if they don't select your services? What about opportunities are they missing out on? Will you help them make or save more money with you than with your competitors? If they decide not to purchase, would their quality of life decline? What's the cost of not doing business with you?


  • Brainstorm what consequences or failures your brand is helping your customers avoid.        

StoryBrand Principle Seven

Don't assume people understand how your brand can change their lives. Tell them.

Successful brands, like successful leaders, clarify what life will look like if somebody engages with their products or services. For example, Nike promises to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete. Starbucks offers to inspire and nurture its customers, one cup at a time. Men's Wearhouse promises, "You'll like the way you look. "

Storytellers end a story in three dominant ways – allowing the hero to        

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

Winning Power and Position (The Need for Status)

Your brand can offer status in several ways:

  • Offer access: Customers love using their Starbucks membership card because it gains them points, earning them status and the occasional free latte.
  • Create scarcity: Offering a limited number of specific items creates scarcity, and owning something that others cannot have or miss out on is seen as a symbol of status.
  • Offer a premium: Being seen as "elite" is a status many customers seek to obtain.
  • Offer identity association: Premium brands like Harley Davison and Mercedes sell status - what customers want to be seen as

A Partnership That Makes the Hero Whole (The Need for Something External to Create Completeness)

  • Reduced anxiety: For years, brands that sell essential items like dish soap or glass cleaners positioned their products to reduce anxiety in life (making their lives easier).
  • Reduced workload: Not having the right tools means customers must work harder because they are incomplete.
  • More time: Time seems to be seen as the enemy for many people. If your product or services can "expand time," you're offering to solve an external problem that is causing internal frustration.

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

  • Inspiration: If an element of your brand offers an inspirational achievement, your customers are jumping to join the journey. Consider how brands like Red Bull or Under Armour help people feel as though they can accomplish anything,
  • Acceptance: Guiding people to accept themselves as they are promotes not just a better society but creates a loyal connection with your brand.
  • Transcendence: Inviting customers to participate in a more significant movement offers the theme of a more extraordinary and impactful life. Tom's Shoes built a name for itself by selling stylish shoes and giving a pair to somebody in need with their "one for one" model.

Offering to close a story loop is simpler than you think. Even including smiley, happy people on your website is a solid way to provide the closing of a story loop. People want to be satisfied, and those images promise your product or service will deliver.


  • Brainstorm the successes you're helping your customers achieve. Consider what their lives will look like if they use your products and services.

StoryBrand Principle Eight


You are helping them become wiser, more equipped, physically fit, accepted, and more at peace – a better version of themselves. Your role as a guide is participating in your customers' transformation, precisely what they want you to do.

Think about who your customer wants to be. What type of person do they strive to become? What do they inspire to be?

A hero depends on a guide to step into their story to tell them they're different; they're better.

Here are some examples of aspirational identities:

    • From: Passive dog owner
    • To: Every dog's hero
    • From: Confused and ill-equipped
    • To: Competent and smart


  • Brainstorm the aspirations your customer desires. Who do they want to become? How do they want to be perceived by others?        
  • Start with the "from" - their current state. The "to" is simply the opposite of the aspirations you defined.

Effective marketing requires a blend of creativity and a profound understanding of your customer engagement drivers. Crafting a compelling brand message that resonates deeply with the audience's needs and desires positions your customers as the story's heroes. You are there by their side, helping them succeed and avoid failure.

The principles in Donald Miller's "Building a StoryBrand" help businesses simplify their communication and effectively bridge the gap between their offerings and customer aspirations.

By focusing on solving not just external problems but also internal and philosophical ones and positioning themselves as empathetic and authoritative guides, businesses can create a clear, actionable path for customers. This approach captures attention and fosters trust and loyalty, ultimately driving growth and success in a competitive landscape.

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