On a recent trip to Michigan, I stumbled upon an old letter in an antiques store. While I initially wanted the letter for the Alabama stamp on the envelope, when I opened it up to discover the contents inside, I was hooked.
In my hands, I had a 50-year-old sales letter. Dated August 2, 1969, the letter from W. Boyd Connor of Ayerst Laboratories to Albert E. Paley, D.O. in Sturtevant, Wisconsin, discusses Premarin to help female patients, of all things.
While everything about the letter itself is dated – from the obvious use of a typewriter to the language to the fact that two dudes are discussing gynecological concerns without a woman’s input – much about the way we actually engage in sales hasn’t really changed.
Throughout this letter, three strong principles we still see in today’s content marketing are prevalent: familiarity, empathy, and reciprocity.
The letter opens with a description of finding oneself at a loss for words.
“A few weeks ago, after a pleasant evening with friends, I recalled a provocative remark my host had made. Suddenly, the most marvelously witty response popped into my mind. But that’s just where it stayed, since I was then at home, reaching for my toothbrush.”
Dear Mr. O’Connor admitted to something we’ve all experienced – thinking of the perfect remark in a conversation hours after the actual conversation, when it’s no longer of any use to us. Here, he poses a situation that many people find themselves in to build familiarity and rapport with his prospect.
In the next paragraph, he continues, “A philosopher once called this widespread tardiness syndrome ‘staircase wit’ – the perfect rejoinder that occurs belatedly, just as one is descending the stairs, on his way out. So if you’re anything like me in this respect, at least we seem to be sharing the highly human condition of often being too late, and there’s little to be done for us.”
Our intrepid salesperson moved beyond familiarity to empathy when he introduced the idea that “if you’re anything like me” this has surely happened to you. Not only does he recognize the situation, he knows how it feels, and he wants to communicate that shared feeling with his audience.
For the author, it’s not just losing an opportunity for wit; it’s being too late to say or do what you wanted. And while we might not all want to be the funniest or smartest person at a cocktail party, no one wants to regret missed opportunities.
In the next two paragraphs, O’Connor introduces his product, and reminds Paley that it is never “too late” to help women by prescribing Premarin.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t admire the turns we took to get to the sales pitch.
O’Connor even closes the letter with a postscript about whether or not Paley wants to continue receiving the commemorative stamps he enclosed. We all know that people are more likely do to things for us when we do things for them, so introducing sales as reciprocity for a free gift is very familiar.
Even though this letter was written decades before the introduction of the StoryBrand framework for marketing, I can pinpoint so many elements we use today. The writer establishes empathy and authority in his letter through personal anecdotes. The stamps are like a lead-generating PDF, providing value to customers that haven’t quite committed to a sale yet. There is a clear picture of success that comes from helping women with this product, and a picture of failure if the product is not prescribed, and it’s “too late.”
And all along, W. Boyd O’Connor acts as the guide to make Albert E. Paley the hero when he treats his patients with Premarin.
Story is powerful, and I love helping clients use that power to grow their business – commemorative stamps or not.