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Marketing lessons from Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
Prasad Sangameshwaran
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January 02, 2007

Anyone who can persuade a corporate executive to ignore the insistent buzzing of his BlackBerry on a weekday has to be a great marketer. Multiply that 12,000 times, get the executives to sit cross-legged on the mud-packed ground and practise breathing exercises - and you are in the presence of a virtual marketing wizard.

But Sri Sri Ravishankar would not like to be considered that - he is a guru who teaches Sudarshan Kriya Pranayam and New Age spirituality to people across the world. About 2.4 million of those students turned up in August for the 25th anniversary of the Art of Living Foundation, the non-profit organisation Sri Sri began in 1981.

Event managers in Mumbai agree those are eye-popping numbers, especially considering the celebrations were held in a remote airfield outside Bangalore.

Art of Living's success is a recent phenomenon; it is only in the past six or seven years that the movement has spread across more than 144 countries and now has an estimated 20 million followers.

Still, can its success provide marketers insights on low-cost brand-building techniques? Tips on how to create a loyal band of followers who can be converted into a captive market for brand variants and extensions? The Strategist takes a look at the possible lessons.

Lead from the front

It is not as if the movement started off as a runaway success. "There was a lot of prejudice," agrees Sri Sri. "The fundamentalists did not like our approach. Nor did the communists and the traditionalists accept us. We were excommunicated by many."

One way out would have been to cater to Western audiences thirsting for Eastern thinking and spirituality. But there were already several entrenched players - while the serious truth-seekers turned to Jiddu Krishnamurti, and the Iskcon movement was still active in the early 1980s, Osho Rajneesh was at the peak of his popularity.

Or should it be notoriety? Both Hare Rama and Osho had as many detractors as devotees. Juxtaposed between the extremes of the Jiddu and Osho "brands", Sri Sri's Art of Living couldn't but be considered a lightweight.

But it couldn't back out. Making it in the US would mean instant global recognition. Not to mention, much better acceptance back in India. So how did Sri Sri pull it off? The Foundation took full advantage of its USP: a charismatic, eloquent and camera-friendly leader. The "face" of the Art of Living Foundation, at the peak, Sri Sri was flying to 175 cities a year, working 21 hours a day.

Equally important, the Foundation kept its product offering simple, if not exactly inexpensive. Essentially a crash course on breathing exercises and yogasanas, a basic course of six sessions could set you back around $250 in the US, and about Rs 1,500 in India. The idea was simple: urban consumers were looking out for a stressbuster that would enhance productivity and sustain energy levels.

Believe in the buzz

Enough word-of-mouth publicity for the Foundation was generated for it to enter 144 countries, including war-torn regions such as Kosovo and Iraq. In India, NRI cousins coming home from the US would talk about Art of Living, leading affluent families in the country to gain interest.

Celebrity endorsements did their bit to further the Foundation's cause. While Sri Sri is, naturally, Art of Living's biggest ambassador, over the years, seals of approval from public figures have also helped: businessmen Vijay Mallya and Venugopal Dhoot, and models Rhea Pillai and Lara Dutta have been associated with the Foundation. US Congressman Joseph Crowley has even nominated Sri Sri for the Nobel Peace Prize!

As followers increased, they unleashed a viral marketing campaign. For instance, Mumbai alone has an estimated 100,000 active Art of Living volunteers. They operate in their neighbourhood, acting as opinion leaders and encouraging others in the locality to enrol for the courses.

Of course, there's some formal advertising, too. Take any pre-event campaign and you will find Sri Sri's face on posters across town, in prominent places like flyovers, outside railway stations and so on.

Recently, a leading business news channel tied up with the Foundation for a series on how business and spirituality come together, further proof - if it was ever needed - that businessmen and corporate executives are demonstrating increasing interest in spirituality.

Interestingly, though, insiders say the publicity blitzkreig costs the Foundation virtually nothing - most of the ad material, like posters, vinyl prints for billboards, leaflets and flyers and so on are sponsored by followers.

Apply that to the context of everyday business. "Brands can get customers to create online communication, some of which become successful viral campaigns and form communities of loyalists," says a Mumbai-based marketing consultant.

He cites two examples - the Joga Bonito online site created by sportswear brand Nike on the eve of the soccer World Cup in summer 2006 and consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble's online initiative when it launched its new deodorant brand Secret. An example closer home is the Sunsilk gangofgirls community.

A consuming class

Having a substantial volunteer (loyalist) base isn't an asset only when in canvassing support. They also help the organisation keep operating costs really low.

For instance, the administrative costs, including wages for Art of Living employees, is estimated at just 3-4 per cent of income. "The only paid employees are the accountants," says a member of the Foundation. He adds that volunteers are also self-motivated and hence are far more committed.

Not just that, they also become a huge test market or even a captive consuming class when Foundation expands its scope of activities. For instance, in 2002, when the Foundation launched a range of Ayurvedic products - everything from medicines to personal care products, under the Sri Sri Ayurveda brandname - volunteers across the world formed an informal direct selling network.

In many cases, they acted as living advertisements for the products, by using them in front of prospective buyers. The products now account for less than 5 per cent of the Foundation's annual income. It is now in scaling up production to tap an even larger market. Clearly, correct breathing techniques is just one of the many lessons smart executives can pick up from the Foundation.

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