To Build a Brand | A look into Donald Miller's Storybrand Framework
XPress Access | January/February 2023 Edition
Sometimes, decisions in our lives can be symbolized as crossing a river, the difficulty of which varies based on the choices at hand. Decisions can be represented as a calm stream on a sunny day or the impassable rapids of a raging storm. Regardless, to cross the river and arrive at our destination, we must decide to do so.
Decisions are easier when guides are present, those who have crossed before and have placed stepping stones down into the river so that you may cross without as much effort. These guides help us make decisions and get us to where we want to go quicker.
The guides, in this case, are known as “brands”. The power of a brand is nigh impossible to gauge in simple numerical representations. Still, it’s an important aspect of a company or individual when building trust with a potential client. There’s value in crafting a story around your business, one that can be a crucial hook for potential readers or, if done poorly, an unintended barrier repelling others away.
This month, I’d like to summarize some key takeaways from Donald Miller’s book “Building a Storybrand.” Even if you don’t own your own company, I still highly recommend this book for independent writers trying to establish a clear vision for their work. Separately, here’s a clip from a longer speech by Simon Sinek on the secret to success.
The Storyletter has been running a series called “To Build,” emphasizing basic tenets surrounding writing online and the creator economy. If you’d like to read the topics we’ve covered, here’s the list so far:
I’ll be moving the XPress Access posts to the beginning of the month instead of the end. It makes more sense that way in my brain. Thanks for being a free subscriber! If you upgrade to a paid subscription, you’ll be supporting other independent creators in the process.
I want to begin by stating that I don't view myself as the guide. Not yet, at least. I'm nowhere near the level of Yoda guiding Luke toward the path of the hero. If you want to establish your brand, we’re walking the path together.
This information is useful, not just from a business standpoint, but because Substack is more than just a place to share stories. It's about building an interconnected future where writers engage with other writers and readers and vice versa. To maximize that engagement, branding can undoubtedly be the key to many people's success.
I’ll refrain from going through the entire book. It has a ton of great information, most of which I hadn't expected when I picked it up from my work's tiny library shelf. Honestly, I thought "Building a Storybrand" was going to be another one of those self-aggrandizing narrative pieces where the author talks about all of the millions his "method" got him and "you can too if you just sign up for this 10-step course". Granted, there is some of that, but he jumps immediately into the framework afterward.
I like this book so much because the author uses notable fiction stories to help put the aspects of business into context. I find this relatable, like talking with someone you’d like to hang out with rather than a crusty business mogul who is out of touch with regular society.
Clarity is Key
Right off the bat, Donald claims that a brand is about telling a compelling story to your customers and building enough trust for them to cross the river, no matter the condition the river is in (a metaphor in the book).
The first major takeaway that Donald Miller presents us with is 'clarity is key':
The narrative coming out of a company (and for that matter inside a company) must be clear. In a story, audiences must always know who the hero is, what the hero wants, who the hero has to defeat to get what they want, what tragic thing will happen if the hero doesn't win, and what wonderful thing will happen if they do. If an audience can't answer these basic questions, they'll likely check out and the movie will lose millions at the box office.
The same is true for the brand you represent.
I realize this is one of my biggest flaws. Many subscribers have emailed me, especially during that first year, asking what my paid subscription provided. In the book, Donald states that if a customer has even to consider what the brand is, you've likely lost that customer. Everywhere I look, I see super simple branding on packaging I hadn't noticed before. A good one I saw recently was Band-Aid's "Heals the Hurt Faster.” Even better, the name "Band-Aid" has become synonymous with the product itself.
The Story Gap
Donald Miller presents something else seemingly profound in the book, something I subconsciously knew but didn't quite understand until he laid it out for me. The human mind craves stories. It's how we understand and relate to the world around us. Not only do we inherently love stories, but we admire their structure. That sense of closure is brought on when closing a book for the last time to feel satisfied (hopefully).
He explains that this sensation is resolved satisfaction, and its subsequent delay is a "story gap." A story gap drives much of humanity's continued progress hidden from view. For example, we’re sitting in a restaurant and ordering our favorite meal. This creates anticipation until the meal finally arrives to close the story gap we opened, and now we feel satisfied. The opening stanza of a poem creates a story gap by stoking our desire to hear what words will rhyme with the previous ones. Music, sexual arousal, and even the passage of time (day, month, year) generate story gaps generally fulfilled by their conclusion.
When considering your brand, what story gap are you creating to entice your followers, subscribers, and readers to engage with your products? Again, this loops back to clarity being a key component in marketing the material being distributed. For fiction, this has been a crucial aspect of generating a more compelling story for my characters since knowing what they want creates a story gap, forcing the reader to ask, "Will they achieve it?"
The Hero and the Guide
I think there is a pervasive narrative corrupting storytelling in Hollywood. It involves the age-old dynamic of the hero versus the villain. However, some directors and studios miss the mark with modern audiences by not knowing who the hero is. The hero isn't the main character of the film. The hero is the viewer. And when they demean the viewer, they attack the story's hero and lose their trust. Brand recognition begins to work against them instead of for them.
According to Donald Miller, a brand can never position itself as the story's hero if it wants to stick around. Granted, there will be exceptions where companies grow "too big to fail," but for this point, I'm focusing on start-ups and individuals.
A brand should be viewed as a guide in the hero's journey. Someone similar to the hero but who has navigated the river previously can now assist the hero. Donald states that two characteristics of the guide are crucial to gaining the trust of the hero:
Empathy - expressed when we understand the customer's internal desires and show that we care about them. Customers won't know you care until you show them that you do.
Authority - the guide isn’t claiming to know everything but has proven to be a reliable source in accomplishing the goal. Testimonials, awards, and statistics can demonstrate this without the brand needing to say anything.
These two characteristics establish a brand as a potential powerhouse in their respective market. I see this happen often with social media, where the mere fact that someone has more subscribers or followers somehow lends that profile a sense of authority without ever interacting with the person behind the veil. This caused a slight uproar here on Substack not too long ago when Substack decided to add badges, thus shifting the dynamic of who would be perceived as “authoritative” in this space. Thankfully, I haven’t noticed any effect on my willingness to subscribe to a particular Substack.
The Bridge to the Resolution
Even after you've secured every facet mentioned in this article, it doesn't mean a customer is willing to purchase. A customer realizes that there is an inherent risk in choosing a brand. That's why the initial leap of faith is so crucial. The guide must address the hero's concerns up front.
Since I keep bringing up the river analogy, let's view an excerpt from Donald regarding a customer's concern:
In order to ease our customers' concerns, we need to place large stones in that creek. When we identify the stones our customers can step on to get across the creek, we remove much of the risk and increase their comfort level about doing business with us. It's as though we're saying, "first, step here. See, it's easy. Then step here, then here, and then you'll be on the other side, and your problem will be resolved."
In doing this, it creates a plan, and the plan is a bridge the hero can cross to achieve their goal. The plan creates a story gap for the hero, one they will want to resolve and one that fulfills their sense of closure.
Those were some of my takeaways from reading "Building a Storybrand." I left a lot out and didn't include the full SB7 Framework for fear that it might be copyrighted material. He breaks down 7 main plot points for a novel or the hero’s journey and uses those plot points to frame a business engaging with its customers. I highly recommend picking it up from The Storyletter Bookshop (wink, wink).
Let me know what you think of this method of storytelling and branding. I hope this was insightful. It's more on the "indie hacker" side of things, but starting a Substack seems very business-y, so I tend to lean into that thinking. Thanks for reading! ~ WM