Brands and the power of secrets

Brands and the power of secrets

Ten years ago, Don Tapscott and David Ticoll’s book “The Naked Corporation” foresaw a time of transparency in which businesses would find themselves more visible and subject to greater scrutiny. They were on the money. But in an age where everyone is more inclined to talk a lot louder and a lot more frequently, have brands reached a point of “too much information”? Do brands risk being so familiar that people feel they know them too well? Will over-familiarisation work against the marques of tomorrow?

Perhaps we need to bring back a little secrecy … but only to make brands more inviting and exciting. Perhaps more brands should be looking for ways to be intriguing and to offer something that rewards curiosity. That’s not easy in a world where Tapscott and Ticoll’s forecast has proven remarkably accurate. Yet some brands have used secrets to successfully preserve an air of mystery.

Three types of “secrets”

Secret formulae – there’s something fascinating about a brand that has something to share with everyone, the basis of which nobody knows. From the Google algorithm to the secret recipes of Coke and KFC, these secrets juxtapose in view/out of view in ways that make the formula even more interesting. Deciphering the decisions of the Google search-gods continues to keep a lot of people in work. Curiously, only brands that have built high trust and high participation are likely to get away with such secrets in these days of food safety and privacy concerns. But secrets work in this context because they add to the mythology of the brand.

Secrets in progress – in an age where “seeding” of products can now start literally years in advance of release day, there’s something to be said for keeping things closer to one’s chest. The ultimate exponent of this approach of course is Apple which has perfected the art of getting everyone to speculate, thus maintaining interest, without revealing what exactly is in development. Again, the Mac rumour mill keeps a lot of people very busy. This approach works when you have in demand brand with huge intrigue factor. While everyone else jostles for space and priority, Cupertino has gone out of its way to be circumspect.

Secret brands – at the other end of the scale game, some cult brands are masters of ‘in the know’ marketing. These are the undergrounds brands that don’t publicise; that you only learn about because someone tells you – and that hold their credibility because they are perceived as authentic, unorthodox and outspoken. They can be so elusive that I sometimes refer to this as “speakeasy” branding. If you don’t knock, you may never know they’re there. It can be a very successful approach if you want to target a specific community or lifestyle because the brand becomes something shared between the few – just like the perfect secret. Think hip hop clothing brands … A word of caution though. These are very hard brands to scale, because the challenge with expanding a secret into a range is that hardcore fans will inevitably accuse you of selling out.

The future of secrets?

Perhaps one avenue lies in the development of secret stories. As storytelling evolves to long story formats, it’s inevitable in my view that brands will segment their storylines to reward loyal consumers with more immersive experiences and greater “access” to intriguing aspects of their narrative. Like the backstage pass, stories will stratify. There will be the public story that everyone hears and gets to know the brand through; and then deeper and more specific aspects of the story that reveal more precious details, rewarding loyal customers with insights that add to their appreciation of the brand’s value and history.

What other opportunities might brands have to cultivate fascination in an open world?

Treasure hunts are another option. Secrets work because of our very human wish to get closer; to know more and have different and more personal experiences than others do. Starbucks Secret Menu is a word-of-mouth initiative intended to add exclusivity through knowledge. As its name suggests, the items are not immediately on offer. Customers must specifically ask for them, and to do that they need to “find” the name of the secret drink.

How to build a brand secrets strategy

Before you take your brand secret, there’s some things you need to have very clear:

  1. If you’re a brand that the whole world, or at least the world that matters to you, already knows, what can you tell/share with/offer some of your customers that no-one else knows … yet?
  2. Who will you tell/share with/offer? Why would they want to know? (Why don’t they know already?)
  3. Who will they tell – and how will that help your brand?
  4. How long can the secret last? What’s its “go public” date? Who will tell the world then?
  5. What can you not share – ever? How can you make that intriguing (and reassuring?)
  6. What does your secret say about you? (that you do want everyone to talk about)
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