What Donald Miller’s StoryBrand Tells About Marketing

How does a Christian memoir writer change the way thousands of businesses do marketing?

He tells a story.

Meet Donald Miller, a New York Times best selling author, the founder of StoryBrand and, more recently, founder of Business Made Simple.

As a Certified StoryBrand Guide, I’ve spent many hours learning from Donald Miller, from his podcasts to his books to his live workshops to his guide training and to him regularly coaching the hundreds (and counting!) Certified Storybrand guides.

The following are some of the most powerful lessons from Donald Miller’s StoryBrand. 

If you’re serious about getting your messaging (marketing) right, do these 10 things. But before jumping in, it's helpful to know a little bit about the context of StoryBrand.

Did Donald Miller Invent the StoryBrand Framework?

Not exactly. Donald Miller credits the origin of the StoryBrand framework to Aristotle who, 2,500 years ago, wrote a book called Poetics in which Aristotle explained a story formula that he believed would cause people to pay attention.

Story of the StoryBrand Framework

EVERY memorable story is built on a simple framework: A hero has a problem, meets a guide who gives them a plan and calls them to action.  Failure would be devastating, but the guide navigates the hero to success!  Take any blockbuster move and you’ll see this framework applies.

In a nutshell, nearly every story you see or hear goes like this:  

  • A CHARACTER who wants something
  • Encounters a PROBLEM before they can get what they want
  • At the peak of their despair, a GUIDE steps into their lives
  • Gives them a PLAN
  • That action helps them avoid FAILURE and ends in a SUCCESS

Here’s a recap of the top 10 things that Donald Miller’s Storybrand tells us:

  1. When you confuse, you lose
  2. Your customer is the hero, you’re the guide
  3. People are much more motivated to solve their inner frustration
  4. Empathize with your customer’s frustrations and feelings better than your competitors
  5. Don’t hide your cashier
  6. Give your customers an easy plan to do business with you
  7. Help your customers imagine what success feels like 
  8. Agitate the problem
  9. People want to survive or thrive
  10. How to get the best testimonial responses from your customers 

Below, you'll find helpful examples that best represent the StoryBrand principles.

1. When you confuse, you lose

“People are drawn to clarity and away from confusion. Having clear calls to action means customers aren’t confused about the actions they need to take to do business with you.'' - Donald Miller, StoryBrand

The big idea: Within the first five seconds, a first-time visitor to your website needs to be able to answer the following three questions:

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

This is what Donald Miller likes to call the grunt-test "basically, could a caveman look at your website and immediately grunt what you offer? “You make cupcakes! Cupcakes yummy and fresh! Me call to order cupcakes!  

Key takeaways:
  • Don’t get poetic with what you do
  • Make sure the copy on your header clearly answers the three key questions

Donald Miller's StoryBrand teaches us that customers don’t always buy the best products; they buy the products that communicate the clearest.

Example: Usability Hub
  • In 5 seconds or less, you can easily tell that Usability Hub helps you make design decisions with confidence
  • It helps you take the guesswork by validating your designs with real users

2. Your customer is the hero, your business is the guide

You are not in the business of selling a product or a service. You are in the business of providing a solution to someone’s problem. You do this by serving your clients well and ensuring their best interest. 

“When we position our customer as the hero and ourselves as the guide, we will be recognized as a trusted resource to help them overcome their challenges. Positioning the customer as the hero in the story is more than just good manners; it’s also good business.''  - Donald Miller, StoryBrand

Big idea: Brands that fail to clearly understand what their customer wants, end up talking about themselves.

  • Basecamp makes leaders and managers the hero who need to successfully transition their team to remote work
  • The hero will successfully transition their team to work remote effectively

3. People are much more motivated to solve their inner frustration

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.

“Almost all companies try to sell solutions to external problems, but customers are much more motivated to resolve their inner frustrations.”  - Donald Miller, StoryBrand

Big idea: The only reason people buy your products or do business with you is that the external problem you solve is frustrating them in some way. 

It is your job as the guide (the business) to identify the frustration, put it into words, and offer to resolve it along with the original external problem. When you do this, something special happens.

Eagle library
Eagle Design Library
  • Eagle Design Library connects their value proposition by highlighting the internal frustrations creatives experience when organizing images and ideas
  • They highlight three unique inner frustrations: Nightmare to collect images, waste of time organizing images, and the difficulty of finding the images when you need them
Sketchbook School - Did you catch the empathy on Sketchbook example? Subtle but powerful. "Shut your inner critic".

4. Empathize with your customer’s frustrations and feelings better than your competitors 

Expressing empathy is as simple as stating that you understand your customer’s external and internal problems and are committed in helping them solve it.

Here's Donald Miller's StoryBrand process for establishing empathy:

“When we empathize with our customers’ dilemma, we create a bond of trust. People trust those who understand them, and they trust brands that understand them too.'' - Donald Miller, StoryBrand
Box.com example
Box does a great job empathizing with their customer's frustration
  • Box.com nails it by emphasizing the common frustration when it comes to seamless collaboration

5. Don’t hide your cashier

This one is obvious but still important to master. 

In addition to having one obvious and clear call to action, make sure your call to action copy is focused on your customer’s motivation:

  1. What is my prospect’s motivation for clicking this button?
  2. What is my prospect going to get when they click this button?

If you can answer those two questions clearly, you’ll have a strong CTA button.

“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.”  - Donald Miller, StoryBrand
Intercom - Call to action example
  • Intercom's your work email + get started is inviting and low friction
  • It's clear, and you know what is the next action you need to take
  • Entering your email is the first step to get started

6. Give your customers an easy plan to do business with you

Without a step-by-step plan for how to buy from you, there’s a higher chance of your customers failing to take the next action. 

It’s amazing how many landing pages and websites continue to miss out on this important piece of advice. 

“Everybody wants to be taken somewhere. If we don’t tell people where we’re taking them, they’ll engage another brand.''  - Donald Miller, StoryBrand
Evernote - example
Evernote - How it works
  • Evernote clearly communicates how you can get started in working with Evernote
  • Take note, the last step is the success you will experience by using Evernote

7. Help your customers imagine what success feels like 

“Never assume people understand how your brand can change their lives. Tell them ... Without knowing it, every potential customer we meet is asking us where we can take them.“   - Donald Miller, StoryBrand

Big idea: Storybrand teaches us that successful brands clearly communicate what life will be like after doing business with them. Most brands miss this opportunity.

Hireacoach.com - the business made simple coaching directory

8. Agitate the problem 

“Prospect Theory … espoused that people are more likely to be dissatisfied with a loss than they are satisfied with a gain … in certain situations, people are two to three times more motivated to make a change to avoid a loss than they are to achieve a gain.” - Donald Miller, Storybrand

The big idea: The customers you want to connect are highly motivated to avoid pain (the loss of something).

Storybrand continues to highlight this point that 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.'

Big idea: connect your customer’s external problem (tangible obstacle) to their internal problem (how that problem is making them feel).

Leads at Scale
  • Leads at Scale, a company that helps B2B generate high quality leads at scale, agitates the problems most business leaders face when it comes to generating large volume of quality leads
  • It agitates the problem by empathizing with leaders who find themselves in unique challenges

9. People are wired to survive and thrive

“Among the million things the brain is good at, the overriding function of the brain is to help an individual survive and thrive. Everything the human brain does, all day, involves helping that person, and the people that person cares about, get ahead in life.'' - Donald Miller, Storybrand

Though brands continue to break this natural rule by failing to focus on the aspect of their service or product to help their customers survive and thrive.

Instead, as brands, we make the second mistake of causing our customers’ brains to burn excessive calories just to understand our offer.

What makes the Storybrand framework so powerful is that it can help companies of all sizes create messaging that helps customers survive, and to do it all in a way that customers can understand without burning too many calories.

Big Idea: Brands commonly make these messaging mistakes:

  1. They talk about themselves instead of opening a story loop that is about their customers need to thrive or survive
  2. They communicate too many competing ideas at once, which causes confusion as to what is it you do
Creativeo - StoryBrand Certified Guide
  • Using my own website, my aim is to communicate to visitors familiar with Storybrand know clearly that I'm a certified Guide
  • A StoryBrand Consultant with the experience and track record to help clarify your marketing through the StoryBrand Marketing Framework

10. How to get the best testimonial responses from your customers 

According to Donald Miller, here are five questions most likely to generate the best response for a customer testimonial:       

  1. What was the problem you were having before you discovered our product?
  2. What did the frustration feel like as you tried to solve that problem?
  3. What was different about our product? 
  4. Take us to the moment when you realized our product was actually working to solve your problem. 
  5. Tell us what life looks like now that your problem is solved or being solved.

Word of mouth is the primary factor behind 20 to 50 percent of all purchasing decisions.

And according to eConsultancy, when a site has customer reviews, 63% of visitors are more likely to make a purchase, and reviews produce an average 18% uplift in sales.

We know that testimonials are important, but to make them work, Donald Miller’s Storybrand tells us that you have to ask the right questions that will help future customers overcome some friction.

Testimonial Example
Multimedia Makeup Academy

The 10 things Donald Miller’s Storybrand would have you do:

1. Clarify your message, so customers listen.

Check your copy on your hero, in 5 seconds, does it clearly communicate:

  • What do you offer?
  • How will it make my life better?
  • What do I need to do to buy it?

2. Is your customer the hero, or are you making yourself the hero of your story? 

  • Identify what your customer wants
  • What’s getting in the way of what your customer wants
  • What will your customer’s life look like if they get what they want

3. What inner frustration are you solving for your clients? 

Remember, your competitors tend to sell solutions to your customer’s external problems, but people buy solutions to internal problems. 

What internal frustration does your business solve for your customers?

4.  Empathize with your customer’s frustrations and feelings better than your competitors

The key to positioning yourself as a guide is to express empathy and authority. 

Review your website copy, are you expressing empathy to your customer and clearly shown that you understand what they’re going through?

5. Is your main call to action clear & strong?

Review your website, is it clear to your customers how they can do business with you? 

Is your call to action passive or drives visitors to action? 

6. Give your customers an easy plan to do business with you.

Make sure on your website and landing pages, you have a clear plan of how your customer can do business with you. 

7. Help your customers imagine what success feels like. 

Check your home page or landing page(s). Do you have a clear, concise copy that helps your client visualize what success will look like after they do business with you?

Do you have case studies that show before and after? Are there testimonials (video) of clients that speak into the pain they were going through before doing business with you?

8. Agitate the problem. 

Look over your website, do you clearly communicate the problem you’re helping your customers overcome? 

Make sure you're communicating what can be won or lost if your customer fails to take action. 

9. Is your business positioned to help your clients to survive and thrive?

If you haven’t yet taken this step, pick up a copy of StoryBrand or Marketing Made Simple, or visit Mystorybrand.com, and go through the Storybrand 7 part framework with your team. 

Creating and implementing your StoryBrand Framework will give you the clarity to help your clients to survive and thrive. 

10. Get the best testimonial responses from your customers. 

Email your top clients and ask them for a testimonial based on these five questions:

  1. What was the problem you were having before you discovered our product? 
  2. What did the frustration feel like as you tried to solve that problem?
  3. What was different about our product? 
  4. Take us to the moment when you realized our product was actually working to solve your problem.
  5. Tell us what life looks like now that your problem is solved or being solved.”

Then use these testimonials at various touch points across your marketing that will help new clients overcome an objection for doing business with you.

More StoryBrand Insights.