Book Review-Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen

Every brand has a story, but does every brand tell a story? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Not every brand has a coherent enough message that it does tell a story. That’s what Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen is out to fix. The interesting thing about the work is that, when you’ve seen the root works it’s drawn from, there’s a sense of familiarity and clarity that makes you wonder what level of detail is right.

Hero’s Journey

Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey is a classic framework that’s been used for movies and stories. In A Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell explains that every civilization with stories have a commonality. These stories all follow a predictable 12-step pattern. I was first exposed to the idea by Nancy Dwarte in her book Resonate. Her explanation wasn’t perfect, but it was a great launching point. When asking my good friend Heather Newman for additional resources, she suggested that I look at StoryBrand as a possible source. While I don’t believe that Building a StoryBrand is the best framework for building a hero’s journey, it’s a simplified model that can make sense as a starting point.

It was in my review of Story Genius that I first wrote about the journey and the criticisms that it’s too formulaic. However, in the context of marketing like Building a StoryBrand talks about or, more broadly, for corporate communicators trying to encourage change, I think that the framework is helpful. Without a framework, it’s hard for someone who isn’t a professional to get started. The journey is sort of a paint-by-numbers deal: you know the basics of what goes where, and you use what little – or great – skill you have to paint those colors in.

Put Out the Fire

Who’s the Hero

It was in a darkened room at a comedy club when I first heard that you should never be the hero of your own story. Early on in our training, we were taught that the audience should see you as relatable and not better than them. That meant we had to be careful to tell stories in the third person if we were really a hero. (See I Am a Comedian for more about my comedy training.) Donald Miller makes a similar statement about your organization’s brand. The hero of the brand’s story isn’t the organization. The hero is the customer.

If your organization isn’t the hero, then what is the organization’s role? The organization’s role is that of the mentor. Your organization is the helper who enables the hero to be great.

Clear not Complete

Many organizations develop solutions that are complete and therefore complex. Their products have the greatest features – but those features aren’t what people buy. They buy clarity. They buy what they understand. They buy a solution they feel they can sink their teeth into. When designing a StoryBrand, the goal isn’t to check every box and enable every feature. The goal is to make your brand understandable, so that people will feel okay buying it.

Clarity can come through a clear message about who your customers are, what they’re facing, and what you do to help. It can come from speaking in a language that they understand.

The Internal External Split

Embedded into the hero’s journey is the split between the outside environment, circumstances, and behaviors when compared to the inner thinking world of the hero and those around him. There’s a natural tendency for organizations to sell their products and services on the features that will drive external rewards. However, the actual reason that people buy is to address their internal needs.

Campbell makes the point that each hero struggles with their being up to the task. Every hero doubts that they’re the right one to accomplish the mission. It’s the meeting with the mentor (one of Campbell’s 12 stages) where the hero realizes that they are the one. They are intended to accomplish this mission.

Discovering internal needs isn’t easy. Clayton Christensen in Competing Against Luck (and many of his other works) describes the process of figuring out how to optimize products as the process of figuring out what job consumers are “hiring” a product or service to do. The famous example is the milkshake being hired as a treat for children in the late afternoons and a treat for adults in the morning. During the morning commute, consumers want the milkshake to last. As a treat for children at night, the goal is the opposite – to make it possible for kids to eat it quicker so the parents can move on with their evenings. It’s one product with two different jobs to be done – or two different stories using the same actors.

Caring, The Challenge, and Getting Married

Graeme Newell and Stan Phelps in Red Goldfish speak about how consumers are changing their buying habits, and they’re looking for more responsible organizations. They make it clear that you need to communicate the good work you’re doing in a way that employees and customers can resonate with. Miller makes the point that you must tell people you care – or they won’t know. I’m not convinced this is the case, but it’s never a bad policy to share that you care about someone.

The problem is that even if you care about them, there’s no impetus to action. They need a trigger, a challenge, a push into the world of resolving their challenges. They need to have that moment of conviction when they decide they need to address the challenges.

However, the challenge has to be such that it seems more like asking the customer out on a date – a chance to get to know one another – rather than a marriage. Too often, the calls to action and requests an organization makes are too large too quickly. They tend to scare prospects off more than draw them in.

Being Scared is the Salt

Salt is an interesting ingredient. The right amount is imperceptible. Having too much salt in food will taste bad. However, a lack of any salt will feel off. Many recipes don’t work without a pinch of salt. The use of fear – or the prospect’s perception of fear – as a part of your pitch is important, but, just like salt, too much fear can create problems and prevent forward motion. The goal in your messaging is to explain what they’ll miss out on without your solution and what the risks are and prepare them to be able to say yes – without pushing so hard that they’re turned off.

Fear can be paralyzing, or it can be motivating. The big difference between the two is that paralyzing fear is generally too much fear.

Transforming or Being Transformed

StoryBrand proposes that everyone wants to transform. I’d argue this is incorrect. What’s correct is that everyone wishes they would transform or be in the process of transforming. I’d also argue that the true sentiment is they would like to see that they’ve been transformed and that it’s in the past. Learning you have done the transformation is more powerful than any recognition you might see.

Not all writers enjoy writing – but most enjoy having written. Being done with something offers the sense of completion – and accomplishment. Done well, the process of writing can be frustrating, difficult, and seemingly endless. Managing Transitions explains that we want to have the results of the change – but we don’t necessarily want the change process itself.

We want to have a clearer message that will resonate better with our audience, but we don’t necessarily enjoy the process. However, the process of Building a StoryBrand leads to having a clearer message, and that can be worth it.