StoryBrand Framework (SB7): What It Is and How to Apply It

Christina Frei

As a branding expert and self-proclaimed marketing nerd, I’ve been helping clients write their own stories for years. If you’ve spent any time watching movies, reading books, listening to podcasts, or binging on TV series, you know that humans are addicted to stories. As Donald Miller reminds us, “Story is atomic. It is perpetual energy that can power a city.  Story is the one thing that can hold a human being’s attention for hours.” 

And in marketing, stories help connect us to the right clients.  In fact, after I studied and created the 5 marketing archetypes, my clients were able to use just the right type of story to attract new clients in their own marketing

So of course, I’m a big fan of Donald Miller’s Building a StoryBrand In this book, he offers a clear framework to tell a better story, the kind you can’t stop reading.  His step-by-step process allows any business owner, brand manager, or fiction writer to bring a story to life.

I’m going to do 2 things. First I offer a brief recap of Donald Miller’s StoryBrand framework (so you don’t need to re-read the book!) with examples from service professionals I work with. Second, show how you can make it your own with your marketing archetype.

The StoryBrand Framework: A Recap

Donald Miller’s big reveal is, “Your business is not the hero of your brand story. Your customer is.”  In a world where everyone is spouting off their features and benefits, Miller recommends you start from your client’s point of view.

How to do this? With Donald Miller’s step-by-step StoryBrand Framework. Let’s look at it closely.

1. A Character Who Wants Something

Miller takes this bold stance: the customer is the hero, not your brand (or you).  Yeah, this is HUGE. 

When you talk about your work, the easiest thing to do is emphasize all the good things you offer, your programs, your resources, and your brilliant background.  But that keeps the focus on you, not on your customer.  It’s tricky, because sometimes listing benefits might seem like you’re meeting people’s needs. 

For example, if you’re a life coach, you’re happy to report, “Hey, I have a great life coaching program for middle-aged women experiencing an empty nest. It’s got community, great tools, and support. What could be better?” 

I get that, but it’s still all about you. And that’s not what your audience wants to hear.  Don’t worry, there’s a time to describe these details, and it’s after you establish rapport.  Miller offers 3 questions to help you address this.

  • What does the hero (the client) want?
  • Who or what is opposing the hero?
  • What will the hero’s life look like when she does (or does not) get what she wants?

Answer these and you’ll have your brand story from your client’s perspective.

Let’s see how this plays out for a financial advisor telling their story.

Financial Advisor as Hero:

I offer solid investment strategies based on your risk tolerance, a reasonable fee, quarterly meetings, financial planning, and I can be your CFO on any big financial decisions. (I’m awesome, really.)

The Client (Families) as Hero:

With a fluctuating economy, uncertainty of jobs, and ever-increasing expenses, you might wonder, how can I achieve peace of mind?  A little planning can help your family be in a much better place financially. What if you had the ability to enjoy life to the fullest, go on the vacations, and send your kids to school simply because you took the time to plan all this out? I work with you so that your whole family is in a much better position for the future. It’s easier than you think. You deserve peace around money, so let’s talk.

Now you’re speaking directly to their experience. No need to regale them with investment strategies.  They’ll learn those soon enough.

Who is your hero? What do they want?

2. The Hero has a Problem

We’ve established the hero: it’s your client. The next thing is identifying their actual problem. What is their challenge? What is keeping them up at night?

Not only that, but what types of problems – external, internal, and philosophical – do they have? Donald Miller identifies three categories.

Let’s look at a homebuyer’s challenges (for a real estate agent’s brand story).

  1. EXTERNAL PROBLEMS:  These are things you can point to.  In real estate, it’s the challenge of needing more space for a growing family, the desire to downsize in an empty nest, a new home when you get married, or another life change that calls for a different living situation. These are tangible.
  2. INTERNAL PROBLEMS:  These are the emotional challenges people have. When buying or selling a home, your client might be stressed out about change, doubting that they can get what they want, and worried about getting a good deal.
  3. PHILOSOPHICAL PROBLEMS:  Why does this story matter in the overall epic of humanity?  Your clients might see buying a home as the achievement of the American Dream and a human right. If it’s an investment, it’s their path to financial freedom.

It’s easy to sell solutions to external problems but Donald Miller points out that customers buy solutions to internal problems. And of course, philosophical problems can influence purchasing decisions too.  It’s compelling to address all these levels when you communicate about your offerings.

Example: A real estate agent speaking to all three levels:

Dear homebuyer – There is a beautiful home with your name on it.  It’s a smart investment and the place where your family will laugh, cry, and live their lives together. (external)  There’s no need to play small, settle for less, and live like everybody else. It’s time to go for it. (internal).  After all, you’ve worked hard for the American Dream (philosophical).  It’s time to reap the rewards.

What is getting in the way of your hero?

3.  The Hero Meets a Guide (That’s You!)

The hero (your client) is looking for a guide.  Metaphorically speaking, they are shivering by the side of the road in an ice storm.  It’s up to you to show them a path to a warm cottage, not to wow them with your superhero’s cape.

You’re the guide in this scenario

So let’s establish you as a guide. How?  By showing empathy and authority. 

  1. Empathy: Show that you know what they are going through.
  2. Authority: Show that you know what you’re doing.

For example, a life coach for middle-aged women in transition can say, “As an ICF-trained coach with fully grown kids who’s been through a divorce, I’ve been there. I understand how unsettling it can be to go through these life changes and how empty life can seem.  Every day you wonder, now what?”   To further establish her authority, she can feature testimonials, awards she’s won, and results she’s created on her website.

Empathy is honorable, but Miller also reveals the business case for it: “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 we will start growing again.” (p. 77)

How are you showing that you’re a great guide?

4. The Guide Gives the Hero a Plan

Your potential client is still shivering on the side of the road.  They trust you, but they’re still wondering what to do.  After all, it’s getting colder out here.  They need  a plan.  Give them the map, some trail mix, a bottle of water, and the name of the warm tavern where they can cozy-up to the fire.  They are overwhelmed and often just need some clear next steps.

In other words, a plan.  Donald Miller recommends using either a process plan or an agreement plan.  A Process Plan answers this question: “What do you want me to do now?” An Agreement Plan addresses concerns people have about working with you. What objections do your prospects typically have?

What is the plan you’re offering?

5. The Guide Invites the Hero to Action

You’ve rolled out the red carpet with your plan. Is that enough? Nope.  You still need to ask for the sale or for some other specific action.  Donald Miller says, “When we don’t ask clearly for the sale, the customer senses weakness. They sense we’re asking for charity rather than to change their lives.” (98)   Just like in any relationship, you need to ask for what you want – their business.

Whether you’re meeting face-to-face or writing an insightful email, you need to call people into action.  Otherwise, it’s just a blob of information and there’s already enough of that in the world.

There are two ways to do this.

1. Low Stakes “Transitional” Calls to Action

These are requests that don’t require prospect to make a huge time or financial commitment.  

This could mean:

  • Downloading a PDF
  • Trying a free sample
  • Reading testimonials
  • Taking a free webinar  

No, they haven’t signed on to work with you yet, but it’s still helping the process.  When they download your brilliant article, here’s what you’re doing:

  1. You establish your authority in your field.
  2. You create reciprocity. When you give something, it’s more likely they will want to give something back to you.
  3. You show yourself as a helpful guide. If your freebie presents you as a great teacher, people will want to hire you.

2. Direct Calls to Action (Ask for the Sale)

This is when you ask for the sale, straight up.  You are making it crystal clear what your prospect needs to do to solve their problem: engage with you. 

On your website, it’s the button requesting people to:

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

Remember – your hero wants to solve their problem. If you have the solution, don’t be afraid to present it.  

So many business owners present nice information and never ask people to move forward. A call to action needs to cut through the noise so that people know exactly what to do next.

I recently revamped my own website (what a labor of love that was!), and several colleagues recommended that I put a “Book a Discovery Call” on the top right corner of every page. So I did. And it’s been working.

How are you inciting your prospect to take action?

6. Helps the Hero Avoid Failure

This hero’s journey could go badly if our hero doesn’t work with you (or buy your product.) She won’t get the house she wants, the life she wants, the financial stability she wants, or the health she could have.  It won’t be pretty.

Do you need to address this? Yes.

Miller writes that each hero has two motivations: to escape something bad or to experience something good.  Both are compelling, so you might as well include both.

There’s no need to go on and on about the negative consequences of not hiring you. Miller considers fear  “the salt in the recipe. Just a pinch of salt … will do.”

For example, If you are a life coach helping middle-aged women, you might point out, “Society expects women to slow down and fizzle out as they age, to become invisible, irrelevant, boring, and bored.  Do you want that to happen to you?”  Now THAT stands out and gets someone into action.

Concerned about sounding too negative? Donald Miller assures us, “Fearmongering is not the problem 99.9% of business leaders struggle with. Most of us struggle with the opposite. We don’t bring up the negative stakes enough and so the story we’re telling falls flat.” (110)

Be sure to show the downside of not hiring you. You are not manipulating here – you simply don’t want to see someone miss out on their happy ending.

What could happen if they don’t work with you?

7. And Your Hero’s Story Ends in Success

There’s a happily-ever-after when people work with you.  What does that look like?

Show the before and after of working with you for the following areas:

  • How are they feeling (before / after)?
  • What do they have (before / after)?
  • What’s the average day like (before / after)?
  • What is their status (before / after)?

For example, 

  • Before, your client drinks seven cups of coffee just to get through the day, since their work is soul-sucking. But you’ll help them find purpose, meaning, and a solid plan for change (and possibly a happier stomach).
  • Before, your client experiences low-grade panic about money every day, but you will help them get clear on their goals and offer achievable steps to get there. 
  • Before, your client had given up on looking for a better home and was experiencing mild depression, but working with you will give them access to off-market properties.

Show the results you create for your clients. 

Speaking of happy endings, Donald Miller studied stories through the ages, and he discovered there are three common happy endings. It’s likely yours falls into one of these categories. 

1. Elevate their status (as expert, leader, all-around impressive human) 

In this story, working with you means someone becomes a more impressive human; instead of being pitied, they will be respected. 

This could mean:

  • Becoming part of a VIP club
  • Landing speaking engagements or a TED Talk
  • Being invited to a prestigious group or think tank

In this story’s ending, they have “arrived” in some way.

2. Finding the missing piece

You can offer something that fills a gaping hole in your clients’ lives.  

This might mean they:

  • Stop shedding cash and start saving.
  • Improve the way they interact with their spouse.
  • Regain a steady energy level.  

Your solution brings the Hero wholeness, and often comes in the form of more time, peace, personal capacity, or all three. 

3. Ultimate self-realization

In this classic story journey, the hero faces an obstacle and realizes he is much stronger than he thought.  It’s Frodo and Sam bringing the ring to Mordor (The Lord of the Rings), it’s Elle Woods winning her first case (Legally Blonde), and it’s Jane Eyre becoming a respected teacher and returning as Rochester’s equal (Jane Eyre).  In this ending, your client goes further than he thinks he can, like when Rich Roll’s started doing ultra-marathons in Hawaii (Finding Ultra). 

There’s a reason these stories are so popular – it’s the ultimate journey of the human experience.

If you are a relationship coach, perhaps this is when your client realizes she is worthy of love and acceptance, like in every teenie-bopper romance movie ever.  Or you teach martial arts, and your student reaches a totally other level of being, like when Luke Skywalker works with Yoda to master his light saber and life in general (Star Wars).

You are showing your client they can “Be all you can be.”  (U.S. Army) 

Whichever happy ending is yours, it’s the stuff that blows people’s hair back. This is why you do what you do.

What is the happy ending if people work with you?

That completes Donald Miller’s StoryBrand framework (SB7); you can use it for anything in your marketing, from an email to an entire 5-day curriculum. To recap the 7 steps:

The 7-Parts

  1. A character who wants something
  2. Encounters a problem
  3. And meets a guide
  4. Who gives them a plan
  5. And calls them to action
  6. And helps them avoid failure
  7. That ends in success

This work clarifies your mission and reveals how to communicate it in a way that resonates with your prospects. 

You’re doing people a favor, really.  If your prospects see themselves in your brand story, they will move towards a better life. Your brand story is the first step towards giving them the solution they’ve been looking for.

Part 2: Play to Your Strengths in Your StoryBrand.