If you offer a product or a service, one of the key questions you’re likely always striving to answer is, “How can I best attract, engage, and retain customers?” The answer may lie in something more timeless than the latest social media platform or marketing trend. It may lie in the transformative power of story.

What is it that draws people in? It isn’t hard facts; it’s identifying with others, seeing their battles, being keenly aware of the stakes involved, and cheering them to the desired outcome.

Think of what captivates us in real life, in movies, and in song. Remember the Chilean mine collapse of 2010 and how invested we all were in the outcome? Humans worldwide could easily place themselves in the position of these 33 men, buried underground for what ended up being 69 days. The stakes were clear: survival if a way of saving them could be engineered, and death if it couldn’t be done. We followed each twist and and turn of events. We cared about the outcome, and we celebrated with them and their loved ones when in the course of a single day, each of the 33 men was brought safely to the surface. “Chi-chi-chi-lé-lé-lé!” we shouted along with them.

Or, think of your favorite movies or series. You relate to the main character and empathize with their predicament. You see the threats to the desired outcome and fret as you see that it could go either way. You cry with them if they lose or don’t overcome and celebrate with them if they achieve what they’ve been striving for. You’re in it with them.

Or what about songs you love? It’s likely that you identify with the story of each song. You’ve been there, or you can imagine being in that situation. You feel all the feels as it’s said, and you favorite it. You listen to it on repeat. You probably love it for life.

So how can you engender this kind of loyalty and love for your brand? The simple answer is this: place your desired client or customer–your target audience–in a narrative of which they are the hero. Potential customers insert themselves into a narrative you create for them, investing in the outcome, and they believe that the product or service your brand offers is the solution they’re seeking.

One of the leading authorities on the use of story to attract, engage, and retain customers is Donald Miller who wrote the New York Times bestseller, Building a Story Brand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen. In this book, he delineates a seven-element framework of all great stories that companies can harness to grow their business. These seven elements have been part of all story narratives since stories started being told (forever ago) and speak to our most essential human nature.

We’ll start with an overview followed by a description of each element.

A CHARACTER who wants something
and meets a GUIDE
who gives them a PLAN
and calls them to ACTION
that helps them avoid FAILURE
and ends in SUCCESS

1.) A Hero

Marketing a brand is like writing a story. We start with a hero. In branding, our client is the hero. Potential customers need to be able to see themselves in your branding. As readers (or in this case as potential clients or customers), we want to know pretty early on in our reading (or brand interaction) three things. Without them, Miller says the story has failed:

What the hero wants (that relates to your brand)
Who or what is opposing the hero (a problem that needs to be solved)
What the hero’s life will look like if he/she doesn’t get what he/she wants

Here, Donald Miller states that “In every line of copy we write, we’re either serving our customer’s story or descending into confusion; we’re either making music or making noise.” (24)
If a story doesn’t achieve these three elements, the reader (and alas, the customer) puts the book down, stops the movie, and moves on.

2.) The Problem

In “the problem” part of our story we present something that has disrupted our potential customer’s peaceful life. We describe the problem in detail, which deepens the customer’s interest in what we offer. We make it resonate with them so that they see themselves in our description and feel afresh the pain that this problem causes in their life or the life of their business. The problem should have three levels–it’s caused by an external threat that causes internal unrest that is philosophically wrong and undeserved. It’s essential that this problem is something that our potential customers experience and resonate with.

3.) The Guide (Hey, that’s You!)

If this isn’t clear already, take this in: your brand is not the hero; your customer is. Rather, your brand is the guide who steps in with the needed product or solution to save the hero (your customer) from these undeserved problems. We must show the customer how we will help them solve their problem and save the day. To do so, we must communicate both empathy and authority. Empathy is communicating warmth and authority is demonstrating competence. We show the customer that we not only understand and feel their pain, but we have the experience and ability to help them so that they both trust and respect our brand.

4.) A Plan

Any legitimate guide in any story enters the scene with a clear plan in mind to free the hero from the problem that’s keeping them from what they want, and it’s no different with you and your brand. Like stones placed one by one in the rushing waters of a stream that needs to be crossed, our brand must make it clear step-by-step both how to do business with us and provide assurance that doing so is less risky than doing nothing (or being guided by some other company!).

In the book, Miller describes something he calls “the grunt test” which our brand must achieve within five seconds of a potential consumer’s look at our website. Those three things are:

-what you offer
-how it will make their life better
-what I need to do to get it

A clear plan is essential to brand clarity.

5.) A Call to Action

What kind of guide would offer a solution without encouraging the hero in a direction and assisting them in taking that first step away from the problem toward relief and freedom? (Not a very good one). Just as characters in books and movies need encouragement from outside forces to challenge them onward, customers need clear calls to action.

On websites (or whatever means you’re using to promote your product or service), these calls to action need to be clear and repeated again and again throughout your site. Calls to action come in two varieties, which Miller explains in detail in the book. Direct calls to action are your basic “buy now” button. Transitional calls to action are like an onramp to full commitment and come in the form of PDF downloads or free webinars. With transitional calls to action, you want to have a means to obtain contact information from potential customers so you can circle back and reach out to them again to remind them of their initial interest in your brand.

6.) An avoidance of Failure

We keep watching movies or reading books in which we actually care whether the hero will succeed or fail and in which the stakes are clear. In a really well-written or well-told tale, we’re either literally or figuratively on the edge of our seats as we see and even feel the peril the hero is facing. We hope with all we have that the failure outcome doesn’t manifest.

Miller says a story lives or dies on this very question: “Will the hero succeed or fail?” So, as brands, if we fail to warn our customers what could happen if they don’t engage with us or use our products, then we’ve failed to answer the “so what” question every potential customer is asking themselves, and our story dies. Ouch. It turns out, according to a theory called Prospect Theory about why people make the buying decisions they do that “loss aversion is a greater motivator of buying decisions than potential gains,” (111). So, we’ve got to emphasize the stakes in order for our brand to resonate and be successful.

7.) A happy ending–a story that ends in Success

We can see from all of the above that humans want to go on a journey, to be taken somewhere, and to be guided along the way in order to avoid catastrophe. As shown by the Chilean miners rescue story, we yearn for that happy ending. So, of course, it makes sense that we all want that for ourselves too. But, potential customers aren’t likely to just intuit how our brand will solve a key problem they experience or make their lives generally better, so we must tell them.

We must make the happy, successful ending specific and clear throughout the journey so that our potential customers know what to hope for. Specificity is key. We can even go back to the three levels of a problem by showing how using our brand will make their life look externally, how the resolution we offer will make them feel internally, and how philosophically, the resolution we offer makes the world a better and more just place in which to live.

In the end, all good stories show how a hero encounters a problem, receives help from a competent guide who cares about them so that they avoid failure, and ultimately, how that hero achieves the success they seek. The hero is transformed by the story they have lived through just as we want our heroes to be transformed by interacting with our brand.

Don’t you want to commit to your customer’s journey in such a transformational way? Captivate their hearts by beginning with them at the center of a story and change their lives for the better with story branding.

Your customers’ loyalty just might become as enduring as story itself.

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