Summary of Building a StoryBrand by Donald Miller

  • Post category:Summaries
  • Post last modified:September 18, 2023
Building a storybrand book cover

Summary: 9 min

Book reading time: 3h46

Score: 7/10

Book published in: 2017

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  • Most marketing doesn’t work because companies’ message isn’t conveyed in a clear or easy manner.
  • The clearest and best format to convey a message is a story.
  • Stories have seven elements: a hero (the customer); a problem; a guide that helps the hero; a plan for the hero; a call to action; failures the hero must avoid; a promise.
  • Your customers will only be receptive to your message if you convey it within a story.
  • The company should never be the hero in the story – it should always be the customer!
  • The reason why we are fascinated by stories with heroes is that those stories represent the adventure we want for ourselves. Through the hero, we live the adventure.
  • One of people’s most profound desires is transformation.

Table of Contents

What Building a StoryBrand Talks About

Building a StoryBrand is a book written by Donald Miller. It gives marketers a framework within which to embed their message so it is well-received by their audience. This framework is the story framework and it must contain seven elements: a hero, a problem (villain), a guide, a plan, a CTA, a possible failure, and a promise.

Most books should have been a blog post. This one is no exception.

I found it after typing into Google “best branding books” but…it’s not a branding book at all!

It’s a story/marketing book. And not even a good one.

First, it’s very basic marketing. Second, it should have been three or four times shorter. Third, the author insists that companies must be clear when they convey their message but fails to be clear himself in his writing.

Fourth, everything is stolen from Joseph Campbell’s Hero Journey, and he isn’t even referenced at least once in the book.

Fifth, the book was written to advertise the author’s agency services.

Sixth, the author uses overused examples, like Apple, Starbucks, Reagan, or (wait for it) Bill Clinton.

The book is average at best, boring at worst.

So, why give it a 7?

Because the two most important things I have learned are well worth that.

  1. The customer should be the hero in your story, NOT the company (good advice for life too.)
  2. The seven elements of the story.

Voila. Now that you know this, you can safely skip both the book and the summary, and go read something else.


Get the book here.

Summary of Building a StoryBrand Written by Donald Miller


The brain is only obsessed with what helps it get the needs of the person met. So when you talk about yourself, people don’t listen.

Don’t make yourself the hero of your marketing. Make your customers the heroes.

Section 1: Why Most Marketing Is a Money Pit

Chapter 1: The Key to Being Seen, Heard, and Understood

Most companies lose money on marketing because they don’t talk well about their product.

  • They don’t focus on how their product will help people survive and thrive.
  • Their message is too complicated/blurry/confusing.

Once they clarify their message, customers become receptive.

The clearest way to communicate a message is through a story.

Story (as a specific communication formula) is an ideal way to convey a message because it’s built for the brain to understand.

Chapter 2: The Secret Weapon That Will Grow Your Business

The value of a story is not in what it says, but in what it doesn’t say.

The purpose of the storyteller is to keep only what really matters to the story within the story.

The rest is noise and should be cut down.

A compelling story has seven elements which are arranged in the following way.

  1. A hero wants something but encounters a…
  2. Problem (villain) that prevents him from getting it. As he struggles a…
  3. Guide, or mentor, arrives and gives him a…
  4. Plan. Then he gives the hero a…
  5. Call to action. That call to action prevents…
  6. Failures so that our hero can experience…
  7. Success.

For clarity, the author should clarify as fast as possible within the story:

  1. What the hero wants
  2. What will the hero’s life look like when he succeeds
  3. What is the obstacle the hero must overcome

In marketing, this translates to:

  1. What do you offer?
  2. How will it make your customers’ lives better?
  3. What do they need to do to get it?

Answer these questions as fast as possible.

A good story is life with the dull parts taken.

Alfred Hitchcock

Chapter 3: The Simple SB7 Framework

Let’s talk about each element of the story framework.

1. Character: the customer is the hero, not your brand

Position yourself as Yoda and your audience as Luke Skywalker.

Nancy Duarte

2. Problem: address internal problems, not external problems

People don’t want a lawnmower. They want a nice lawn (and to make the neighbors jealous).

3. A Guide: heroes don’t look for other heroes, but for guides.

We’re all heroes of our own stories. Customers don’t want to meet other heroes, these are competitors in their story. They want to meet guides that will help them.

4. A Plan

No plan = no trust. Tell your customers exactly what will happen after they purchased your product.

5. CTA

Customers don’t take action when nobody calls them to. Characters never decide to change their lives suddenly in movies. They’re always compelled to do so by something else.

6. Averting Failure

Tell them (how) they will fail if they don’t buy your product.

7. Success

They need to know that they will solve their problems after buying our product.

Section 2: Building Your StoryBrand

Chapter 4: The Character: Make the Customer the Hero

A hero wants something he doesn’t have, and he isn’t a hero before we know what he wants.

Your first step is to identify your customer and what he wants.

Once you know, you can articulate your message around that.

A story moves forward with story gaps. A story gap is a mystery that you, as a reader, want to know the outcome of.

Eg: for a few weeks now, John had been talking to a girl he liked.

Story gap: will John get the girl?

You can use story gaps in your own marketing to compel customers to listen.

Choose one desire your customers have – choose the biggest one, and only include that one in the beginning.

These could be:

  • Saving money
  • Saving time
  • Gaining status
  • Making friends
  • Being generous
  • Finding meaning

Chapter 5: Problem

Identify, then talk about the problems they’re facing.

In stories, the sympathy for the hero is proportional to the strength of the villain.

building a storybrand
In stories, the sympathy for the hero is proportional to the strength of the villain.

It’s the same thing here: problems should be talked about as villains.

Eg: a time-tracking software has for villain distractions.

There are four characteristics that villains usually have.

  1. The villain is not a feeling. It creates it. Eg: the government is the villain, frustration isn’t.
  2. The villain should be identified quickly.
  3. There should only be one villain.
  4. The villain should be real.

All heroes go through three layers of problems, caused (or not) by the villain.

  1. External: a problem external to the hero. Eg: destroy the ring.
  2. Internal: a problem internal to the hero. Eg: avenging, finding peace, proving himself, etc.
  3. Philosophical: a problem bigger than the story: fairness, justice, purpose, meaning, etc.

A villain initiates an external problem that causes the character to experience an internal frustration that is, quite simply, philosophically wrong.

Companies often address external problems in their marketing, but buyers buy to solve internal problems.

If the villain creates external problems, screenwriters add a backstory to the hero so we understand what internal problem compels him to fix the external problem.

Eg: James Bond takes down terrorists not because he doesn’t want people to die, but because of the meaning his job has for him.

-> by fixing the external problem, heroes seek to fix their internal problem too.

People without internal problems will rarely bother fixing an external one.

Tesla’s story for the customer.

  • Villain: Gas car with inferior technology.
  • External: I need a car.
  • Internal: I want the best technology.
  • Philosophical: My choice of a car should help save the environment.

Chapter 6: A Guide

Luke Skywalker has Yoda, your customers have you. You should help them achieve their mission.

Under no circumstances should you be the hero in the story!

When Jay-Z launched Tidal, he made musicians the heroes of the company. But musicians weren’t the customers. So Tidal’s launch failed.

Guides have two core characteristics:

  • Empathy: customers look for brands they have something in common with.
  • Authority: it’s not about being a know-it-all, but about being competent.
    • Get testimonials
    • Write success rate statistics
    • Talk about awards you have won
    • Talk about which companies you’ve helped

Meeting a brand is like meeting someone. Your customers have two questions you absolutely need to answer from the get-go when they meet your brand.

  1. Can they trust your brand?
  2. Can they respect the brand?

Empathy and authority answer those two questions.

Chapter 7: Plan

The purpose of a plan is to alleviate confusion.

A plan should have three to six steps. No more, no less.

Customers trust you only if you have a plan.

The plan is telling customers how the product works and how they should use it.

You have three types of plans:

  • A process plan: what should customers do to purchase your product?
  • A post-purchase plan: how should they use your product?
  • An agreement plan: list of agreements you make with your customers to help them alleviate fears. Eg: refund, conditions, etc.

Best is to make a plan that encompasses them both.

Name your plan. Eg: “the easy installation plan”.

Chapter 8: Call to Action (CTA)

People only act if they are compelled to.

Eg: Liam Neeson doesn’t go after bad guys unless his daughter gets abducted.

Heroes need to be challenged by outside forces.

Get a big ” BUY NOW” button and repeat it again and again.

There are two types of CTAs.

  • Direct: “buy now”
  • Transitional: “call now”; “get this free PDF”, etc

Transitional CTAs are a part of longer sales funnels.

They help you by:

  • Establishing yourself as an expert (with content)
  • Using the reciprocity principle. Because you give customers free things, they feel the need to buy something from you.
  • Position yourself as the guide.

You can always offer:

  • Free information (PDF, etc)
  • Testimonials
  • Samples
  • Free trials

Chapter 9: Avoid Failure

The only thing that compels people to keep on listening to the story is to know whether the hero will succeed or fail.

The bigger the danger, the more excited we get.

Therefore, speak about what the customer could lose if they don’t buy your product.

Here’s how you do so:

  1. Tell your prospect they’re at risk: “30% of x have y problems.”
  2. Tell them they should take action: “Because y problems cause z, you should take care of y before it is too late.”
  3. Make your offer: “we offer a complete solution to y so you don’t have z.”
  4. CTA: “call us today, go to xxx.xx etc”

Don’t use too much fear, but don’t use not enough either.

Chapter 10: Success

People likely don’t know how your brand can change their lives. You have to tell them.

People want to be taken somewhere.

Where are you taking them?

That’s the promise of your product.

Use the following four questions to help craft your promise.

  • What do your customers have before they buy your product? And after?
  • What do your customers feel before they buy your product? And after?
  • What’s an average day in the life of your customers before they buy your product? And after?
  • What status do your customers have before they buy your product? And after?

Finally, provide your customers with a happy ending. The best endings are usually one of these.

  1. The hero wins some sort of power or position (status). Here’s how you create status:
    1. Offer perks with loyalty cards.
    2. Create scarcity by selling a limited number of items.
    3. Offer a premium on your classic goods/services.
    4. Associate your product to a certain image (Rolex with golf, for example).
  2. The hero is whole again after being united with someone or something. Here’s how you create wholeness:
    1. Reduce anxiety: cleaning products don’t clean, but reduce the anxiety of having a dirty place.
    2. Reduce the workload
    3. Save them time.
  3. The hero reaches his full potential (self-realization/acceptance) after going through his challenge.
    1. Help people accept themselves (Dove, McDonald’s)
    2. Offer people to be a part of a movement.

These endings are important because in the end, that’s what everyone hope will be theirs.

Chapter 11: People Want Your Brand to Participate in Their Transformation

Heroes transform through their journey.

This is exactly what people aspire to as well.

Your brand needs to help them achieve that.

The only question is: what do your customers want to transform in?

To answer this question, you need to ask how your customers would like their friends to talk about them.

Once you have an idea of how your customers want to be portrayed, insist on helping them becoming that.

Section 3: Implementation

Chapter 12: Building a Better Website

Your website should have five things.

  1. The promise: what does the website promise to give you?
  2. A CTA
  3. Images of success
  4. A breakdown of what you sell
  5. Few words: people no longer read.

Chapter 13: How Storybrand Can Transform A Large Organization

Lots of people work in big companies but don’t really know what they do. Building a story helps to get all of the employees aligned.

Building your story helps you build a mission statement, which gets everyone aligned.

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