How to Apply “Story Brand” to Your Design Business


This is one of those books that gets recommended to business owners all the time, and for good reason. Donald Miller convinces us of the power of a great story in marketing and how to use it to attract better clients and sell them on the value of our services. This can be directly applied and implemented in your interior design business to attract and more easily sell your services to those who will really value them.

The main idea is that in order to stand out in a world filled with noise, we have to capture and hold onto our audience’s attention through story. A good story can keep someone engaged page after page, or, in the case of a movie, hours at a time.

However, without an engaging story, your potential client will move on within seconds. I loved the picture that Miller paints at the beginning of the book, “Imagine every time we talk about products to potential customers, they have to start running on a treadmill. Literally, they have to jog the whole time we’re talking. How long do you think they’re going to pay attention? Not long.”

So much of what you do, as an expert in your field, is innate. You understand and believe in the value of what you provide. You know your process. You can see the end from the beginning. Unfortunately, your client cannot. One of my favorite quotes from the book is:

“Never assume people understand how your brand can change their life. Tell them.”

Perfecting your messaging is imperative to securing the right project for the right client at the right price. Without the right messaging, you might get the job, but your client could be confused, not as trusting as they could be, or reluctant to pay without questioning every little thing. Another thing that Miller says is, “What we think we are saying to our customers and what our customers actually hear are two different things. And customers make buying decisions not based on what we say, but on what they hear.”

After Steve Jobs returned to Apple from working at Pixar, the first campaign he created wasn’t all about the technical features of their new computer, it was a customer-centered, clear, and compelling two word admonition, “Think Different.” That’s it.

So how do you craft your story? What’s your customer-centered, clear, and compelling refrain?

Every Story has Seven Main Parts:

  1. A Character (Hero)
  2. A Problem
  3. A Guide
  4. A Plan
  5. A Call to Action
  6. A Consequence, Villain, or Potential Failure
  7. Successful Ending

Your client is always the Hero and you are always the Guide. Anyone who interacts with a story should be able to answer three main questions:

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

Translating the general story questions to your story brand looks a little something like this:

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

It should be that simple for your client. However, sharpening everything about you and your brand down to a one or two sentence description is often NOT easy. Distilling down to the essence of your brand requires clarity, vision, and self-awareness about what makes you different. This is where having a brand strategy pulls everything into focus so that you can message yourself correctly and tell your brand story.

Alfred Hitchcock once defined a good story as “life with the dull parts taken out.” Good brand messaging is the same, we remove all the stuff that bores our clients and highlight the parts they need. Miller points out, “Thousands of companies shut their doors every year, not because they don’t have a great product, but because potential customers can’t figure out how that product will make their lives better.”

1. Character

The first order of business is to define something your client wants. This will keep them engaged long enough to determine whether your product or service can help them get that thing. Here are some examples from the book:

  • Clients for a high-end resort want a luxurious, restful experience.
  • Clients for a University want a hassle-free MBA they can complete after work.
  • Clients for a landscaping company want a yard that looks better than their neighbor’s.

Once we know what the client wants, we need to identify the story gap. A story gap is the gap between your character and what they want. Miller tells us that, “the opening and closing of the story gap is a magnetic force that drives much of human behavior.” In other words, it’s important!

If you think about a movie, we usually don’t see the main character trying to do too many things at once. They are laser-focused on just one objective. Indiana Jones’s sole objective was to find the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Similarly, we need to identify one sharp, clear objective for our clients. Miller says, “At the highest level, the most important challenge for business leaders is to define something simple and relevant their customers want and become known for delivering on that promise. Everything else is a subplot that, after having delivered on the customer’s basic desire, will only serve to delight and surprise them all the more.”

2. Has a Problem

Identifying and talking about the problems that your clients have builds trust and keeps them engaged in what you have to offer. It shows that you understand them and the problems that they are facing. It’s imperative at this stage that you understand your customer and know your ideal client.

This is where the villain comes into the story. Every story needs a villain! Your services should clearly show your hero they will help them defeat the villain. Your villain should be:

  1. The root source (so not frustration, but maybe high taxes)
  2. Relatable
  3. Singular (one is enough)
  4. Real

There are three levels of problems that our hero faces; external, internal, and philosophical. Most companies sell solutions to external problems, but customers tend to buy solutions to internal problems. Your product or service should solve an external problem, but your messaging needs to address the frustration posed by the internal problem.


Villain: Regret. Spending a bunch of money to still not have the house that you want.

External: I need finishes and furniture for my house

Internal: I want it to look good

Philosophical: My home should be a gathering place for friends and family

Your service might fix the problem of needing fixtures and furniture, but your messaging should speak to the frustration of feeling inadequate to pull it all together themselves. And as far as the philosophical problem our hero (client) faces, that’s all about the deeper meaning–the why. So maybe the client who needs your help pulling everything together feels that they should have a home in which friends and family love to gather. You could say, “You deserve a home that everyone wants to visit.” The resolution of these three problems is key to feeling satisfied with the story.

3. Be the Guide

You are the guide for your hero client. I loved the explanation given by Miller, “If a hero solves her own problem in a story the audience will tune out. Why? Because we intuitively know that if she could solve her own problem, she wouldn’t have gotten into trouble in the first place. The guide is an integral part of the story. This shift in perspective needs to be evident in your messaging, but also in your mindset. The author tell us that the day we start focusing, not on our own business success, but on the success of our clients is the day that our business grows.

In order to be a guide, you need to be an authority and be empathetic. You want to be the Yoda to their Luke.

4. Present a Plan

At this point, you’ve created goodwill with your prospective client, but you need to make things easy for them. The book describes this as placing step stones across the river that your customer needs to cross in order to commit and make a purchase. Most of what will be in your plan will feel very obvious, but the steps need to be identified in order to eliminate confusion. There are two types of the plan–a Process Plan and an Agreement Plan.

Your Process Plan is literally outlining the steps in the process for buying or using your product or service, whichever needs the most clarity.

An Agreement Plan builds trust by speaking to your customer’s fears. This is where you can talk about your values as a company so that they feel safe that you’re the right person for them to invest in.

5. Calls to Action

This is one of the most necessary and underutilized pieces of the puzzle. Miller talks about how most people are scared of being a high-pressure salesperson, but he has yet to work with anyone that he felt like fit that bill. Customers need to have clear direction on what to do next and how to get what you’ve convinced them they need. There are two types of CTAs: Direct and Transitional.

A Direct call to action would be a “Buy Now” button, whereas a Transitional call to action would be a freebie. The Transitional call to action is what strengthens your relationship with your customer and solidifies your role as a knowledgeable guide. It makes your customer comfortable so that in the future when they need a service you provide, you’re the first name that pops in their head.

6. Help Avoid Failure

We have to illustrate what could befall our hero should they not succeed. Your client needs to know what will happen if they don’t work with you! This is another area to build trust and show your experience in the industry. You can help them avoid failure because you’ve seen it and helped other heroes vanquish the same foe. Featuring the potential pitfalls of NOT doing business with you can create the urgency necessary to complete the sale and improve the customer experience. Your customer will be so grateful that they avoided the pitfalls that you identified that they will be even happier in the end. Miller describes this step as being like salt in a recipe–a little goes a long way.

7. Ends in Success

What does success look like? Without a vision, brands perish. You have to paint the vision in the beginning and then the satisfaction of the destination is obvious and sweet! Be specific. Your hero needs to be so excited about attaining this ending that they are willing to go on this journey you’ve outlined for them. Miller’s example illustrated this clearly, “Kennedy would have bored the world had he cast a vision for a ‘highly competitive and productive space program.’ Instead, he defined the ambition specifically and as such inspired a nation: ‘We’re going to put a man on the moon.'”

What will your client’s life look like after they buy what you’re selling? Paint the picture for them!

The 3 most common endings to a story are:

  1. Win power
  2. Become unified with someone or something
  3. Experience self-realization

In short, show your customer how you can make their life better.

Time to Write Your Own Story

You now have all the pieces to message your brand in a way that speaks directly to your client. In order to create your brand story, you need a brand strategy, which includes all the pieces that Donald Miller discusses in his book–a vision, a well-defined service or product, an understanding of your client, a process, values, and a differentiator. At Tandem, we give you the tools you are missing in order to create your brand narrative. Once you have your brand story, you can include that in your marketing and messaging, which includes your social media, website, emails, sales pitches, and more.

Call us to get your custom brand strategy so that you can engage clients that pick you out of the crowd. They want you to design their home. You and only you because they believe you when you say that you can guide them to a better life.

Get your copy of Building a Story Brand by Donald Miller


Brand Guide & Checklist

Your branding, coupled with your portfolio, are the main factors in building trust and excitement with prospective clients and potential partners.   Check it out and see if it's time to level up your brand!



Pricing Guide & Audit

Equal parts workbook and instruction manual, our free Pricing Guide will give you specific pricing info to determine how to accurately price your design fees for premium interior design projects.