Storytelling For Brand Strategy: A Framework From Donald Miller’s, 'Building A Story Brand'

I was recently on a post where we all gave our recommendations on the best branding books to read. One book popped up a lot: 'Building A Story Brand', by Donald Miller.

It promises to help you ‘clarify your message so customers will listen.

Since bringing clarity to brand strategy is a personal mission of mine, I gave it a read and found it really useful.  

Read on for the three big takeouts that can help you improve your brand strategy work.

How stories help brand strategy

Overall, the book is a great reminder to brand strategists and marketers of the core things that can make or break strategy and messaging.  

Miller’s point of view is that having a strategy, and then communicating this clearly, isn’t the cherry on the cake.  It’s just as important as having a great product or service in the first place.

“The reality is we aren’t just in a race to get our products to market; we’re also in a race to communicate why our customers need those products in their lives.  Even if we have the best product in the marketplace, we’ll lose to an inferior product if our competitor’s offer is communicated more clearly.”

He frames the creation of the strategy in the concept of storytelling, frequently using movies as examples, but the principles are ones every brand strategist should already know: 

  1. Your customer should be the hero of your story, not your brand.
  2. Go deep in defining the problems they face (and how you’re the answer).
  3. Root your brand purpose in how you help your customer survive and thrive.

1. Make the customer the hero of your brand strategy story

What does this mean? 

Steer your clients away from just talking about themselves.  From leading with messages about their products, or how efficient/smart/global/innovative and customer-centric they are. 

Start talking about how they help their customers. 

As Seth Godin says in This Is Marketing, “The answer to just about every question about work is really the question, who can you help?” 

The answer to how you should start talking to customers, is in how you can help them.

Donald Miller writes:

“If we haven’t identified what our customer wants, what problem we are helping them solve, and what life will look like after they engage with our products and services…we can forget about thriving in the marketplace.”

So how does this relate to storytelling?

Well, he claims that, if you pressed the pause button in any good movie, you’d always be able to answer three questions about the hero.

  1. What does the hero want? (Customer desires)
  2. Who or what is opposing the hero getting what she wants? (Customer problems)
  3. What will the hero’s life look like if she does (or does not) get what she wants?

This gives us a great segue into the work that we do for our clients and a very simple structure for the research we need to undertake to be able to answer these questions.

So where do you start? 

2. Go deep in defining the problems customers face (and how you’re the answer)

“Customers are attracted to us 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. ….The more we talk about the problems our customers experience, the more interest they will have in our brand.” 

This might go against some of the work you’ve done in the past.  You may have thought that you shouldn’t dwell too much on problems, but instead just paint a positive picture of the ‘after state’. 

But as Miller states,

“Fearmongering is not the problem 99.9% of business leaders struggle with. It’s the opposite. We don’t bring up the negative stakes enough and so the story we’re telling falls flat. Remember, if there are no stakes, there is no story.”

Focusing on customer problems is an integral part of their ‘hero’s journey’.  And Miller identifies 3 different ways to think about the problems customers face.

1. The external problem.

This means the rational, tangible, maybe physical problem, that our customers face.  Like hunger mid-morning. Or inefficient accounting systems. Or a leaky nappy/diaper. Or the need to find somewhere to stay in San Francisco in September.

(Or the ticking bomb on a runaway bus that Keanu Reeves faced in Speed).

Identifying these ‘external problems’ in customer research is typically the easy bit.

What’s harder, but incredibly valuable, is getting to, what he calls:

2. The internal problem

As Miller says,

“Companies tend to sell solutions to external problems, but people buy solutions to internal problems… The truth is, the external problems we solve are causing frustrations in their lives, and, just like in a story, it’s those frustrations that are motivating them to call you.”

The examples he gives are Apple identifying the sense of intimidation people felt about computers. CarMax, a chain of used cars dealerships, identifying the nervousness people feel when having to deal with a used-car salesman. Starbucks creating a place to meet where people can feel a sense of affiliation and belonging (even when plugged into their MacBooks with headphones on…).

These ‘internal problems’ are more typically talked about as the emotional problems customers face – confusion, frustration, worry, insecurity, overwhelm etc.  
(And they're just as present for B2B customers as they are elsewhere.  We are all people, after all!) 

3.  The philosophical problem

Now, the third area is what he calls the 'Philosophical Problem'.  This requires identifying a larger societal narrative that customers want to be part of.

“People want to be involved in a story that is larger than themselves. Brands that give customers a voice in a larger narrative add value to their products by giving their customers a deeper sense of meaning.”

Your head might jump here to dialogue around brand purpose and brands like Tesla, who’s mission is, to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable transport.

And Donald Miller uses Tesla as an example, breaking down the customer problems Tesla seeks to address in this way: 

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 save the environment.

But, in identifying a philosophical problem, you don’t always need to figure out how you are saving the world, and in some cases it’s very unwise to go this far (see ‘Perplexed by purpose? These 4 things are all you need to know’ for more on this). 

Think of it instead as Miller states:

“Can your products be positioned as tools your customers can use to fight back against something that ought not to be?”

So yes – you can be a Tesla, but consider his other example, Nespresso: 

External problem: I want better-tasting coffee at home

Internal problem: I want my coffee machine to make me feel sophisticated

Philosophical problem:  I shouldn’t have to be a barista to make a gourmet coffee at home.

Interestingly whilst what he writes here makes a lot of sense, Nespresso have actually gone much further with their identification of the ‘philosophical problem’, as you can see in their brand purpose here.

Perhaps the philosophical problem should read something like: I don’t want my personal pleasure of drinking coffee to be doing damage elsewhere... 

Some might find this too much of a stretch for a brand like Nespresso - others might commend it.  The secret in any brand strategy is for it to be authentic to the company and their actions.  That's the gauge for how far you should stretch.

So from the answers to the problems your brand helps to solve, you can ladder to the purpose your brand stands for - why you exist.

3. Root your brand purpose in how you help your customer survive and thrive 

The final piece of advice I've pulled from 'Building a Story Brand', that is highly relevant to anyone working on brand strategy, is to create a sense of resolution in the story – to answer customer problems, then define the positive outcome. 

Doing this requires identifying the ultimate value we bring to our customers, or in Donald Miller’s words, identifying how we help them survive and thrive. 

He goes deeper into this, talking about the three key ways in which storytellers generally resolve a story and then links this to, what he calls, “the three dominant psychological desires shared by most human beings”:

  1. Win some sort of power or position. (The need for status)

  2. Be unified with somebody or something that makes them whole. (The need for something external to create completeness)

  3. Experience some sort of self-realisation that also makes them whole. (The need to reach our potential).

These are fertile areas to explore when thinking about defining why you exist from your customer’s perspective (whether you call this brand purpose, or mission or promise or something else - it doesn't matter).  All of this is just about defining the positive impact your brand has.   

When defining this, Miller suggests you try and pare that statement down to just one single focus – one customer desire.  Everything else you do is a “subplot” of this.

And if you think about some of the clearest brand strategies out there – they are very simple and single-minded. 

Take SAP’s WHY: 'To help every customer become a best-run business'.

Or BMW’s promise of 'Sheer Driving Pleasure'.

Or Facebook’s: 'To give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together’.

We’ve all heard the idea that strategy is sacrifice –  so make sure you make that sacrifice when you’re defining any WHY/ brand purpose statement for your client.

And be sure to do the same thing when you start to communicate.

Miller brings this to life with the story of the incredible transformation of Apple’s brand when Steve Jobs returned after running one of the master-story tellers, Pixar. 

In 1983, prior to leaving Apple, Jobs had placed a 9 page ad in the New York Times, spelling out all the features and benefits of their new computer, Lisa.

“It was nine pages of geek talk nobody outside NASA was interested in.  The computer bombed.  

When Jobs returned to the company after running Pixar, Apple became customer-centric, compelling, and clear in their communication.  The first campaign he released went from nine pages in the New York Times to just two words on billboards all over America: Think Different.” 

So understand how you help customers thrive – and capture it simply.

To recap, there is a lot of great stuff in Donald Miller’s 'Building A Story Brand', particularly if you’re building a brand, and you don’t have the budget to take a proper course on brand strategy, or to hire a specialist to help.

These three principles he talks about are fantastic guide posts.

  1. Your customer should be the hero of your story, not your brand.
  2. Go deep in defining the problems they face (and how you’re the answer)
  3. Root your brand purpose in how you help your customer survive and thrive.

And if you’re already helping clients define their brand strategy, it’s a fun way to bring Stars Wars into conversation.

Who knew Luke Skywalker was solving an external problem, internal problem and philosophical problem when he bombed the Death Star?


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