Writing a Brand Narrative: Let Your Guide Lead the Way

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Building a Storybrand" by Donald Miller. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is a brand narrative? How does having a brand narrative lead to better marketing strategies?

A brand narrative is the story that your brand follows. You can create a brand narrative that confuses customers on the unique elements of your brand, or give your brand a character or a background.

Read more about how you create a brand narrative.

Brand Narrative: Your Guide Leads the Way

The third of the seven story elements is the guide. In a brand narrative, the guide is a character who helps the hero solve her problem. (Shortform example: In The Karate Kid, the guide is Mr. Miyagi, a karate master who teaches hero Daniel how to fight.)  Your guide is essential in having a good brand narrative.

In branding, the guide is your brand, which will help the customer solve her problems and get what she wants. (Shortform example: if you sell hand soap, your brand offers customers the tools to get their hands clean.)

First, we’ll discuss the dynamic between the hero and guide. Then, we’ll discuss the two characteristics you should demonstrate as a guide, and how to write evidence of these characteristics into your brandscript.

Heroes vs. Guides

You might be wondering why the brand is the guide rather than the hero—after all, heroes get things done and the story revolves around them. However, in stories, the hero is never the most capable character—heroes are self-doubting, reluctant, and inexperienced. Additionally, heroes are never capable of solving their own problems. If they could fix their own problems, there wouldn’t be a story. (Shortform example: At the beginning of the Disney movie Hercules, Hercules can’t do anything right—he has super strength, but all he manages to do with it is accidentally destroy things.)

The guide, on the other hand, is the most authoritative, qualified character. The guide has already done whatever the hero needs to do and can help her achieve it herself. Therefore, if you position your brand as a guide rather than a hero, you’ll demonstrate an air of authority and competence which will appeal to customers.

Tidal, a music streaming service, is an example of a brand that failed because it miscast itself as the hero. Tidal was owned by musicians and aimed to solve musicians’ problems (whoever’s problems are being solved is the hero). 

Tidal was supposed to both: 1) do away with middlemen who take a huge cut from the artists, and 2) discourage people from illegally downloading music. However, Tidal’s customers were listeners (artists weren’t going to buy each other’s music). Tidal not only completely left the customers out of the story, it villainized them for paying the middlemen instead of the artist and downloading music illegally. Few people subscribed and the company went under.

Characteristics of a Guide

Brands acting as guides need to be both:

  • Empathetic. Guides must understand a customer’s problem and then communicate to the customer that they care and want to help. Customers prefer brands they have things in common with, whether that’s values or taste, and if they share these with brands, they’ll start to trust them.
    • For example, in Kung Fu Panda, Master Shifu (eventually) comes to understand that Po, who’s just started learning kung fu, finds the training frustrating and difficult.
  • Competent. Guides must be capable of helping customers solve their problems and demonstrate their authority.
    • Master Shifu has successfully trained several high-level martial artists and runs the Jade Palace.

Demonstrating these two characteristics is how a brand makes a good first impression. According to Amy Cuddy, a Harvard Business professor, when people first meet someone, they subconsciously try to find out if they can: 1) trust them and 2) respect them. Empathy wins trust and competence wins respect. This will allow you to build a strong brand narrative.

Demonstrating Competence

There’s a fine line between demonstrating competence and bragging. Some marketing experts say that brands shouldn’t express any authority at all because it could be misconstrued as bragging. However, this would be like going to a personal trainer, asking them for advice on bench-pressing, and having them respond, “I’m still figuring it out too,” which doesn’t inspire confidence.

You can hit the balance between bragging and appearing incompetent by sparingly and subtly displaying evidence of your competence on your marketing material. Here are four suggestions:

  1. Post testimonials on your website. Testimonials show that your brand has a proven track record helping people. Post only a few (the author recommends three) and choose ones that are brief, rather than long, rambling, overpraising ones. (For more information on soliciting good testimonials, see Chapter 11.)
  2. Use statistics. Statistics also show that your brand has a proven track record. Statistics can be stated simply and sparingly (14,000 copies sold!) and appeal to people who like facts and numbers.
  3. Mention awards. Put award seals at the bottom of your webpage, not front and center. Even if a customer doesn’t know what an award is, having an outside organization vouch for your brand gives you authority.
  4. Display logos. If your brand works with other companies, put their logos in your marketing materials to show that other well-known companies have worked with you.

Writing Your Brandscript

To write your brandscript:

  1. Return to your StoryBrand BrandScript or sheet of paper. 
  2. Brainstorm statements you could make to demonstrate empathy. For example, you might say something like, “Everyone deserves…” or “Like you, we believe that…”
  3. Collect or brainstorm testimonials, stats, award seals, or logos to demonstrate authority.
  4. On your script or piece of paper, write down the ideas from steps 2 and 3 that you think will be the most effective for your brand.
Writing a Brand Narrative: Let Your Guide Lead the Way

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  • How storytelling enhances brand marketing
  • Why you should make the consumer the hero of your brand's story
  • The 7 elements that make marketing work

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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