The drive back from Kandy to Colombo was supposed to be quiet and peaceful. The three luxury coaches carrying 100 plus Indian Institute of Technology-Madras (IIT-M) alumni and family were all well settled for a long ride although we had been warned of a short break at a spice garden. Little did we know we will be subjected to a class on herbal medicine.

As we entered the spice garden we were accosted by a rather aggressive doctor who told us to quickly gulp the concoction that some young women were serving us and join him on a short walk around the garden (for me the mini pineapple was a serendipitous discovery). After the quick tour we thought we were to get back into the bus. Instead we were all asked to assemble in an open-style class room. The worthy doctor distributed a leaflet that enumerated 25-odd types of herbal medicine. He made sure each of us got our leaflet. Then he asked if we had carried our pens to take notes. Some smiled weakly, some were rather perplexed (even in IIT they rarely took notes in class). But the good doctor would have none of that. Soon came a set of pens for each of the group members. The lecture started. He took us through medicine numbers 1 to 25. He took our permission to speak about a special magic potion, No.20, (since he noticed there were many women in the group and some teenagers too). Much giggling happened. The Doctor asked the women to stop giggling as there were another 25 bus loads waiting to stop by.

The talk ended with a promise that each of the magic ingredients will work and if not the government of Sri Lanka would refund the amount paid. I was sceptical if any of these hardened technologists would fall for the doctor’s spiel. But there was almost a stampede to the store that sold the magical ingredients. A whole variety of products got bought (the doctor had explained he cannot sell more than a few bottles per person). I wonder if anyone bought the magic No. 20 though. If he did, he kept it a secret.

As the bus started moving, I was left wondering how the doctor managed to evoke such a response from the group. What made his sales pitch work so well? Why did these 60+ folks, many from the US, shell out serious money to buy the potions he was pushing?

I was reminded of an article titled ‘Love the Ad. Buy the Product’ written by Alex Biel in 1990. Interestingly the article continues to be quoted, as I discovered while looking for more recent literature. In the Journal of Advertising Research (March 2006) article ‘What Do Consumers Do Emotionally With Advertising’ by Wendy Gordon, Alex Biel’s article gets mentioned many times. Biel’s article was based on his own long-term quantitative work with prime-time television advertising. The research revealed that if consumers ‘liked’ an ad, their propensity to buy the product significantly improves. The big revelation was that ‘likeability’ was not unidimensional. It was a complex concept made up of five main factors: ingenuity—clever, imaginative, original, silly, not dull; meaningful—worth remembering, effective, not pointless, not easy to forget, true to life, convincing, informative, and believable; energy—lively, fast moving, appealing, and well done; warmth—gentle, warm, and sensitive; and does not rub the wrong way—not worn out, not phony, not irritating.

As I went through this list I realized that the doctor had hit many of the likeability buttons. His was a hard pitch, full of tall claims, and big promises. But he was speaking of highly relevant issues. How many of you snore while sleeping? How many of you have diabetes? How many of you have blood pressure? I see many of you are bald, and many of you are balding. Do you want to stop that? The questions made his pitch very meaningful. And he did not proceed if he did not get a response. It was an energetic pitch. The pace was relentless and the group was spell-bound. I dare say, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, that his delivery was comparable to some of the best lectures at IIT-M. By insisting that the group took notes, he got 100% attention of the gathering.

If I were to look back at the four fun-filled days the 100-plus of us spent in Sri Lanka, the good doctor’s lecture would feature at the top. A not-to-be missed stop between Kandy and Colombo. And if you are 60-plus don’t be too shy to pick up a bottle or two of No.20.

Ambi M.G. Parameswaran is an independent brand strategist, author and founder of Brand-Building.com, a brand advisory. He can be reached at ambimgp@brand-building.com

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