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Quiet May


The May Oil Burner Company made an oil burner they called Quiet May during a time when just about everyone in America who had central heating was burning coal. To overcome this obstacle they didn’t just sell an oil burner. They sold intangible things such as better health, a cleaner home, more free time, more family togetherness, peace of mind, convenience, and more living space. 


Episode Transcript

I have many old books in my office, and one of my favorites is a presentation booklet that The May Oil Burner Company put together in 1934. It was a Depression-era version of what today would be a spectacular website because it gave the salespeople a way to show the benefits of their products. And I do mean benefits.

They printed this booklet on high-quality paper (it still looks good after all these years). It contains 30 pages, measures 10-1/2 inches wide, and stands tall at 15-1/2 inches. Its title is, The Home of Heart's Desire, which, at first, may seem to have little to do with an oil burner, but wait; there's more.

I came across this treasure in an old book store in Portsmouth, New Hampshire years ago, and I take it down from the shelf every few months to remind myself of how important it is to talk about benefits more than features when presenting just about anything in life. We all want to know what's in it for us, right? Well, in the heating business, The May Oil Burner Company did that better than anyone, and I'm talking about both back then, and since.

They made an oil burner they called Quiet May during a time when just about everyone in America who had central heating was burning coal. Oil was new in those days and the company had to make a good impression because people were so used to the routines of burning coal. Most thought all that coal dust and hard work of shoveling coal and carrying ash was normal. They needed some good reasons to spend money on a newfangled oil burner in the midst of the Great Depression. The May Oil Burner Company realized this, so instead of focusing on the features of their oil burner, they sold its benefits; and in a few years, hardly anyone was still burning coal. There's a wonderful lesson in the way the company did this. They focused on who their customers were, and they thought about what problems those customers were having. Then they presented their case in a way that addressed the customer's self-interest. They didn't sell an oil burner. They sold intangible things such as better health, a cleaner home, more free time for mother, more family togetherness, peace of mind, convenience, and more living space.

That's what the Quiet May did. It's not what it was. And if you can understand that difference, you can do the same for your products or services, even when times are tough.

During the winter of 1918, the Spanish Influenza pandemic took the lives of 50 million people, many of them children. In 1934, when The May Burner Company printed their booklet about Quiet May, the flu was still on everyone's mind, so they alluded to it on the very first page. Below a photo of a mother, father and child, they wrote:

“The effect of fluctuating temperature on family health and happiness is very marked. Colds and attendant respiratory troubles, due largely to varying house temperatures, are said to be responsible for at least one-third of a family's doctor bills. The cost in terms of reduced personal efficiency is incalculable. Children, who do most of their playing on the floor, where temperature fluctuations are greatest, pay especially heavy penalties, very often with serious results.

“Rarely is the heat from a coal-fired furnace just right. Except, for short periods, when the temperature is on its way upward or downward, it is either too cold or too warm. Quiet May's automatic controls maintain an even temperature at all times. They never take a day off. They never forget.”

Notice how the writer uses the words "fluctuating" and "fluctuations." Both contain the word "flu.” It’s subtle, but it’s there. Quiet May never forgets, and neither did anyone who lived though the Spanish Influenza.

With that said, the next thing they do is address the cost - right up front where it belongs. Listen:

“A Quiet May owner writes, ‘There are only two reasons why anyone would be without a Quiet May. Either they don't know its advantages, or else they are deluded with the idea that they can't afford it. It is our experience that the thrifty homeowner can't afford not to own it. Our budget book shows that Quiet May heat costs us very much less than coal heat. A friend of ours, who formerly heated with gas, now has a Quiet May and has cut his fuel bill in half without sacrificing a single thing that gas heat afforded.’”

It's not just coal they were after, but also gas. And they let their customer speak in their favor through this short testimonial. When a potential customer asks how much they will save on fuel with the equipment you're proposing, it's always best to let your customers speak for you. That reflects the real world, and what was true then, is still true now.

You can't afford not to own this piece of equipment because it's going to save you fuel. You're going to pay one way or the other, but the choice is yours. You can either pay the fuel company month after month for fuel you don't really need to burn, or you can buy the Quiet May (or what you have to offer) and just pay for it once. When a customer realizes that (and it's always true), they'll agree with the Quiet May customer. You're mistaken if you think you can't afford it. You're already paying for it by sending the money that should be in your pocket to the fuel company. Get it?

From there, they show a picture of a woman who looks just like Miss Crabtree in the Little Rascals films. They speak to her directly because she was in charge of keeping the home fires burning back then.

They say, “It isn't very pleasant, is it, to have everything spick and span, then have to run down the cellar to give "old-man furnace" a much-needed poke, only to return with coal-besmudged hands and a trail of cellar-soiled footprints.

“In "The Home of Heart's Desire," there's nothing like that to contend with! No coal or ash dust to seep up through the house. No coal dirt to ruin clothes, rugs, or drapes. No besmeared walls. No fire to build. No ashes to put out.

“Quiet May homes don't have to be repainted so often. Quiet May homes don't have to be redecorated so often. Quiet May heat is clean heat. Quiet May cellars are clean cellars. Quiet May homes are clean homes.

“You'll have plenty of time to relax, do a bit of shopping, read a book, and romp with the kiddies. Getting up early in the morning to fire-up is now but reminiscent of other days. Up and down cellar steps throughout the day and dashing down the last thing at night to throw on the final quota is no longer in the scheme of things. Hours of unnecessary toil, together with the coal-consuming, ash-belching cellar demon, pass out the door when Quiet May comes in.”

See what I mean? It's all about her. It’s not about the oil burner.

The next page shows a picture of Miss Crabtree holding a two-year old boy. The kid is touching the thermostat. Imagine how appealing that must have been in those days. This burner is so simple, even a child can operate it. And notice how we have come full circle to the now-healthy child. You can't put a price on that, can you?

This was marketing at its best and this is what made our industry great. Quiet May shouts at us from over the decades and asks why we don't make our case on benefits, rather than features, as they once did. That's what people want to hear about: The benefits. What's in it for them?

At some point, we stopped telling customer-focused stories in favor of babbling technical mumbo jumbo, and talking about price, and all because we've come to believe that today’s human beings today are somehow different than they were then. And yet, The May Oil Burner Company was able to sell the benefit of their burner during the depths of the Great Depression.

We need to think better.

I opened my Newsday this morning and saw a full-page ad from a major oil company here on Long Island. They show me a photo of an oil burner and they tell me that they have the Guaranteed Lowest Prices! That’s all they say. Just that.

Have we lost our way? What do you think?

I hope that story made you think. And if you did, please share it with your friends. And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to this podcast. I have many more Dead Men Tales to share with you, and I appreciate your taking the time to listen. It means a lot. Thanks.

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