Learning to create a Storybrand

Book summary: Building a StoryBrand

Min Chen
16 min readFeb 23, 2018

The essence of branding is to create simple, relevant messages we can repeat over and over so we “brand” ourselves into people’s consciousness.

How to come up with effective messages that let you seen, heard and understood by your customers? That’s how “Storybrand” framework can help you.

Storybrand is the 7-element framework that borrows techniques from how to tell a good story to help a brand come up better branding messages.

The message matters

In 1983, Steve Jobs before he was let go, released Lisa with a nine-page ad in the New York Times spelling out the computer’s technical features. Nine pages of geek talk nobody cares.

Jobs returned after running Pixar. Apple became customer-centric and clear in their communications. The first campaign he released was just two words: Think Different.

Keyword 1: Relevant

Think if your message matters to your client’s survival.

Human beings are constantly scanning the environment for information which can help meet their primitive need to survive. Our primitive needs are: eat, drink, find a mate, build a tribe, fend off foes, be safe, healthy, happy, and strong.

All great stories are about survival, either physical, emotional, relational or spiritual.

  1. Conserving financial resources: save money
  2. Conserving time: opportunity costs. Can your housecleaning service more time to work on other things or to spend with family? Then they might be interested.
  3. Building social networks: connected to a tribe in case the bad guys come; strong desire to nurture and be nurtured.
  4. Gaining status: status, in any tribe, is a survival mechanism. It projects a sense of abundance that attract powerful allies, repel potential foes. If your brand is selling an identity associated with power, prestige, and refinement
  5. Accumulating resources
  6. The innate desire to be generous: achieving an aspirational identity of being sacrificial will also help us survive (decrease outside criticism, earn trust in the tribe). We are also interested in the survival of others.
  7. The desire of meaning: we can invite customers to participate in something greater than themselves. A movement, a cause to champion, fight again villains.

Keyword 2: Simple

Think if your message is clear & easy enough to understand

Cut off the noise you are making. The biggest enemy our business faces is the same as good stories face: Noise.

If a recording of bird chirping, children laughing plays, you don’t remember those sounds the next day. But if it’s a Beatles song, you’d likely be humming it for a week. A well-choreographed piece of music definitely follow certain rules that allow our brain to engage on a different level.

Please ask yourself if you are making Music or Noise. So many brands are more easily create noise rather than music. Because they don’t realize they are creating noise. Thinking about what makes a good story is the greatest weapon for us to combat noise, because it organizes information in such a way that people are compelled to listen.

Like a good movie, it has gone through rounds of edits, omissions, revisions and deletions and sometimes entire characters end up on the cutting-room floor.

Mistake 1: too much info

Those storytellers have filters to cut out the noise. If a character or scene doesn’t serve the plot, it has to go. If storytellers bombard people with too much information, people are forced to burn calories organizing the data. They would lose interest.

Mistake 2: too slow

For a movie to answer within the first fifteen or twenty minutes, otherwise the story has already descended into noise.:

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

For a brand’s message to answer within five seconds of looking at the website or marketing material:

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

Mistake 3: no focus

A diverse brand is like many amateur screenwriters cluttering stories by diluting their heroʼs desire with too many ambitions. You need to pare down the customerʼs ambition to a single focus.

Mistake 4: too vague

For example, the tagline “Inhale knowledge, exhale success”. What does exhaling success even mean? It is already making the potential customers burn too many mental calories to figure out how the brand can help them survive and thrive. Simply say, “Helping you become everyone’s favorite leader.”

Correct way: give our brain the clear info

The narrative must be clear. Listeners have questions burning inside them, if those question can’t be answered, they will move to other stories/other brands.

The basic questions for a story are:

  • 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
  • what wonderful thing will happen if they do

In story terms, identifying a potential desire(what he wants) opens what’s called a story gap. People will pay special attention when there’s a story gap because naturally they wonder if and how that gap is going to be closed. When one gap is filled, another new gap opens. The cycle should go on and on, maintaining a taut grip on the audiences’s attention up until the finale.

The power of a story gap, because what compels a human brain toward a desire. Many classical sonatas can be broken into three sections: exposition, development, and recapitulation. The final section is simply an altered version of exposition that brings a sense of resolve. The opening and closing of a story gap is a magnetic force that drives much of human behavior.

When we fail to define something the customer wants, we fail to open the story gap and there is no motivation for audience to engage us because there is no question that demands resolution.

The basic questions for a brand are:

  • Am I the hero?
  • What I want?
  • How you can solve my problem?
  • What life will look like after I engage with your products and services.

Clear messages should straightforwardly answer these questions. Listeners don’t want to burn too much calories to think and figure out.

7-element Framework

Here is nearly every story 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.

Here are the 7 basic plot points as the StoryBrand Framework:

  3. GUIDE
  4. PLAN

These seven point are like chords of music to use for an infinite variety of narrative expressions. Just like playing the guitar to create any number of songs. Varying too far from these chords means you risk descending into noise.

Each of them are pillars in storytelling and critical for connecting with our brains.


The customers themselves must be the story hero.


Root of where all the conflicts come from: the villain.

Every story needs a villain. The villain gives conflict a clear focal point. “Readers want to fret”. It is true in story and true in branding.

  • It bears repeating. The more we talk about the problems the customers experience, the more interest they have in the brand.
  • The stronger, more evil, more dastardly the villain, the more sympathy we have for the hero and the more we want the hero to win. or the stronger of audience engagement.
  • The villain is not necessarily a person, but it should have personified characteristics. eg. Distraction, fuzzy hairballs, yellow globs between your teeth,

Four characteristics to make good villains:

  • a root source: Frustration is not a villain, is what a villain makes us feel.
  • be relatable: immediately recognize it as something to disdain
  • be singular: one villain is enough. otherwise, it will lack of clarity, the focus
  • be real

Have the brand found the internal problems?

Three levels of problems the hero my encounter:

  • External
  • Internal
  • Philosophical

External problem is often a physical, tangible problem the hero must overcome to save the day. Like a ticking time bomb or a runaway bus. The external problem works like a prized chess piece set between the hero and the villain, each is trying to control the piece to win the game.

But people buy solutions to internal problems. The purpose of an external problem is to manifest an internal problem.

The hero always struggles with the same question: Do I have what it takes? This kind of self-doubt question is the root to makes them feel frustrated, incompetent, and confused.

Steven Jobs understood the villain as people felt intimidated by computers and wanted a simpler interface with technology. Apple started selling more than computers; they sell a solution to the problem of customer intimidation.

When we find the right/internal problems, we can position ourselves much deeper into their narrative, bring tighter bonding with the customers.

External problem might be an unsightly home.

The internal problem may involve a sense of embarrassment about having the ugliest home on the street.

So, why not offer “Paint that will make your neighbors jealous”.

Starbucks explored by not just offering a cup of coffee but by giving them a comfortable, sophisticated environment to relax, to meet and experience affiliation and belonging. It fulfills people’s desire of a sense of sophistication and enthusiasm about life.

Even better if connecting with philosophical problems

A philosophical problem is talked with terms like “ought” and “should’t”. like Good versus evil, meaning to humanity.

“Bad people shouldn’t be allowed to win”

“People ought to be treated fairly”

Consulting firm: “how everybody deserves to work for a great manager”

Pet store: “Pets deserve to eat healthy food too”

Travel agent: “Because this summer should be remembered forever”

Record store: “No music, no life”

Think if your products can be positioned as tools to fight back against something that ought not be.

Perfect if three levels all solved. When Luke Skywalker presses the button and shoots through the little hole in the Death Star, he resolves:

  • The external problem: destroy the Death Star
  • The internal problem: his self doubt if he has what it took to be a Jedi
  • The philosophical problem: good versus evil

When all levels of problems are resolved in one shot, the audience experience such a pleasure and relief, which make them crazy love the story.

Example of Tesla:

Villain: inferior technology

External: I need a car

Internal: I want to be an early adopter of new technology

Philosophical: My choice of car ought to help save the environment.

Example of a financial planning firm:

Villain: Financial firms that don’t listen to the customers

External: I need investment help

Internal: I’m confused about how to do this

Philosophical: I deserve an advisor who will thoughtfully explain things in person.


The brand should just be guide, not another hero. Every human being wakes up each morning and sees the world through the lens of a protagonist. The world revolves around us.

“Oh, this is another hero, like me. I wish I had more time to hear their story, but right now I’m busy looking for a guide.”

Every human being is on a transformational journey. A person’s life is made up of many acts. It’s easy to recognize the chapters by the events being called “doorways of no return”. The hero needs guide at these events.

In stories, the hero is never the strongest, but often ill-equipped and filled with self-doubt. Most cases, they are reluctant, being thrown into the story. On the other side, the guide is the one with the most authority.

As a guide, the brand must communicate these two things:

  • Empathy
  • Authority

It is like Luke Skywalker meeting Yoda. Yoda, a Jedi himself, understands Luke’s dilemma and empathetically coaches him to use the Force.

Harvard Business professor Amy Cuddy studied how business leaders can make a positive first impressions. She found two questions subsconsicously ask:

- “Can I trust this person?” To express Empathy will help this first question.

- “Can I respect this person?” Demonstrating Competency answers the second question.


Oprah Winfrey once explained the three things every human being wants most are to be seen, heard, and understood. This is the essence of empathy.

When we empathize with the customers’ dilemma, we create a bond of trust. People trust those who understand them.

  • “We understand how it feels to..”
  • “Nobody should have to experience…”
  • “Like you, we are frustrated by…”

Authority: Competence

Add right amount of authority to the marketing, not bragging about yourself:

  • Testimonials
  • Statistics
  • Awards
  • Logos

#4: PLAN

Making a purchase is a huge step. A clear path laid out will take away any confusion.

To buy means to commit, to lose something (eg. money). It is not a casual relationship. It is like they stand on the edge of a rushing creek. How to ease the concern “What if it doesn’t work”, we need to place large stones in that creek. It is as though we’re saying, “Firs, step here. See, it’s easy. Then step here, then here, and then you’ll be on the other side, the problem is solved.”

The plan is the stones. Plan will alleviate confusion and create clarity for customers. It is like paving a sidewalk through a field. The sidewalk will make more people cross the field.

Two kinds of plan:

  • The process plan
  • The agreement plan


  • More than three, but less than six steps.
  • Give your plan a name, eg. “easy installation plan”, “world’s best night’s sleep plan”; “customer satisfaction agreement”, “our quality guarantee”

The process plan

Break down steps like:

  1. Schedule an appointment
  2. Allow us to create a customized plan
  3. Let’s execute the plan together


  1. Test-drive a car
  2. Purchase the car
  3. Enjoy free maintenance for life

The agreement plan

It works to clarify shared values between the customers and us, increase the perceived value of a service we promise to provide.


In true life, human beings donʼt make major life decisions unless something challenges them to do so.

Characters only take actions after they are challenged by an outside force, not on their own. We have to clearly invite customers to take a journey with us or they won’t. Until we call the customers to action, they simply watch us; but when we call them to action, they will engage.

Most people think they’re overselling when, in truth, their calls to action fall softer than a whisper. Believe in the power of “buy now” button.

When we sell passively, we communicate a lack of belief in our product.

Two kinds of CTA:

  • Direct CTA
  • Transitional CTA : contain less risk and usually offer something for free. eg. download a PDF (with information or testimonials), watch a webinar, free samples of your product or offer a limited-time free trial. We should do no-pressure sales, but also take the advantage to deepen the relationship even the customer not ready to buy yet, so that whenever they need what I sell, they will remember me.

The transitional CTA can do three powerful things:

  1. Stake a claim to your territory: Creating a PDF, a video series, or anything else that positions you as the leader/expert in this territory is a great way to establish authority and to help earn trust
  2. Create reciprocity: All relationships are give-and-take, and the more you give to your customers, the more likely they will be give something back in the future. Give freely. Be generous.
  3. Position yourself as the guide: When you help your customers solve a problem even for free, you position yourself as the guide. The next time they encounter a problem in that area, they will again look to you.

A good example in a clinic: instead of putting magazines on the table of waiting room, they have a transitional CTA called “The Healthy Body Checklist” allowing patients to self-assess their health.

The nurses will review the checklist and let patients know about possible solutions available at the clinic.

Then the customer’s data will be entered into the e-mail marketing system. If the customer seemed like they needed some vitamin B, they’d get a series of e-mails explaining the benefits of a monthly vitamin B shot, along with clear CTA to make another appointment.


Stories live and die on a single question: what’s at stake? Why should?

The only two motivations a hero has in a story are:

  • To escape something bad
  • To experience something good

Storytellers need to foreshadow a potential successful ending and a potential tragic ending.

A story without stakes is boring. No one is in danger, no one will care about the stories. “So what?” Like a loaf of bread, failure is like salt: use too much and you’ll ruin the flavor; leave it out and the recipe will taste bland. People are motivated by Loss Aversion.

Prospect Theory tells that people are more likely to be dissatisfied with a loss than they are satisfied with a gain. In other words, people hate losing $100 more than they like winning $100. Sometimes, people are two to three times more motivated to seek a resolution to avoid a loss than they are to achieve a gain.

In the book of “Building Communication Theory”, a four-step process called a “fear appeal” is proposed, which is a soft way of agitating a fear and then highlight a path to return peace and stability.

  1. Make a reader know they are vulnerable to a threat. eg. “Nearly 30% of all homes have evidence of termite infestation.”
  2. Let reader know they should take action to reduce the vulnerability. eg.” Since nobody wants termites, you should do something about it to protect your home.”
  3. Let them know about a specific call to action that protects them. eg. “We offer a complete home treatment that will insure…”
  4. Challenge people to take this specific action. eg. “Call us today and schedule…”

So, what will the customer lose if they don’t buy your products?

If you’re a financial advisor, you’re helping customers avoid:

  • Confusion about how your money is being invested
  • Not being ready for retirement
  • A lack of transparency from your financial advisor
  • Hidden fees

You may write the tragic scene like this “Don’t postpone your retirement. You’ve worked too hard for too long to not enjoy time with your grandchildren.”

If you’re a summer camp for kids:

  • A long, boring summer
  • A bunch of restless kids in your house
  • Regret about having wasted the summer

If you’re an audio and video product for the home:

  • living in a boring home
  • nobody will want to watch the game at your house


People want to be taken somewhere. Leaders who can define a “compelling image of an achievable future” can captivate the imaginations of their audiences.

Heroes are designed to transform. It’s the arc of almost every popular story. Because it’s our story. Feelings of self-doubt are universal, as is the desire to become somebody competent and courageous. The audience needs to be told very clearly how far the hero has come. Heroes don’t even realize how much they have changed.

To define the success, do a Before vs After exercise:

  • What do they have?
  • What are they feeling?
  • What’s an average day like?
  • What’s their status?

The three dominant ways storytellers end a story is by allowing the hero to:

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

How can our brand offer status?

  • Offer access: eg. Starbucks membership card
  • Create scarcity: limited number
  • Offer a premium: recognize the VIP clients and offer title such as “Preferred”, “Diamond Member” or “Emerald Club” member
  • Offer identity association: Premium brands like Mercedes sell status, by associating their brand and thus their customers, with success and refinement.

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

  • Reduced anxiety
  • Reduced workload
  • More time

3. Experience self-realization that also makes them whole (The need to reach our potential)

The soap company Dove created films that shows many women don’t realize how beautiful they are. The ad was an attempt to help women accept themselves and fine contentment in their intrinsic beauty. This shows how a brand offer a sense of ultimate self-realization or self-acceptance.

Helping people become better versions of themselves, wiser, more equipped, more physically fit, more accepted, and more at peace, is a beautiful thing. Don’t be fuzzy and muddled with the future and vision. Be direct to hit the clients’ inner desire.

  • Resort, “Find the luxury and rest you’ve been looking for”. luxury and rest are the two things the character looks for.
  • University, “a hassle-free MBA you can complete after work”.
  • Landscaping company, “a yard that looks better than your neighbor’s”
  • Financial advisor: “A plan for your retirement”
  • Fine-dining restaurant: “A meal everybody will remember”
  • Real estate agent: “The home you’ve dreamed about”
  • Bookstore: “A story to get lost in”
  • Breakfast bars: “A healthy start to your day”

Example 1:

The aspirational identity of a Gerber Knife customer is that they are tough, adventurous, fearless. The campaign is called “Hello Trouble”. Even I don’t use often, the knife still makes me feel more tough and adventurous.

Example 2:

Dave Ramsey, Radio show host, offers a narrative map his customers can enter into. “Welcome back to The Dave Ramsey Show, where debt is dumb, cash is king, and the paid-off home mortgage has taken the place of the BMW as the status symbol of choice.” Dave never misses an opportunity to embolden his listeners with an aspirational identity, encourage their improvements, and remind them that tackling their financial challenges is a step to personal strength and there are few of life’s problems that can’t be conquered with a little strategy and commitment.

He even offers a climactic scene in his customers’ story, a team surround the accomplished hero with applause as the hero shouts, “I’m debt free!” Dave lets the customers know they’ve changed, that they’re different now and there’s nothing they can’t accomplish if they apply themselves.

What to do now?

Building website

An clear offer above the fold

The customers need to know what’s in it for them right when they read the text. The text should be bold and the statement should be short. Make sure the images and text you use meet one of the following criteria:

  • They promise an aspirational identity: will they be different people after they’ve engaged us?
  • They promise to solve a problem
  • They state exactly what they do: at least just say what you do, eg. we sell clothes

Make sure it’s obvious what you can offer a customer

  1. Obvious call to action: buy now and transitional CTA( eg download PDF)
  2. Images of success: smiling happy people with a pleasurable experience
  3. Breakdown of revenue streams: find umbrella message, be clear; then break down divisions
  4. Very few words: people don’t read, they just scan

Suggested roadmap

  1. Create a one-liner: memorize this statement yourself and repeat it any time. Teach it to your staff and feature it on your website, in e-mail signatures…
  2. Create a lead generator and collect e-mail addresses: a PDF, e-course, video-series, webinar, live event or anything else to collect e-mail addresses.
  3. Create a automated e-mail drip campaign: Even open rate is low, but you are branding yourself into their universe, telling them you exist. Good pace will be three nurturing emails (provide valuable info: Talk about a problem; explain a plan to solve; describe how life can be once the problem is solved) and one sales email with call to action.



Min Chen

User experience designer @Ginetta, from Shanghai to Zurich