The carefully evasive proposal included intriguing tidbits: Jeff Bezos laughed when Mr. Kamen assembled an It for him [. . .] The proposal also included proclamations from tech-world celebrities like Steve Jobs, Apple’s founder, that the device might change urban life and could be as significant as the development of the personal computer.The New York Times, January 2001
Dean Kamen’s code name for the project was “Ginger.” That was all most people knew. But few could wait to learn more. Deprived of source material, journalists wrote articles about articles. Finally, in December 2001, came the big reveal: Ginger was the Segway.
The rest of the story is familiar. The buzz turned out to be mostly that—buzz. A similar disappointment has plagued many mysterious campaigns of decades past (like those billowing sheets that teased new cars—a bold choice given 1990s designs).
Secrets deliberately withhold information—briefly or indefinitely—for company benefit at consumer expense. Misused, they are P. T. Barnum–style gimmicks.
Deployed well, they capture attention, stoke curiosity, and dig an economic moat—real or imagined—in consumer minds. “Torment your customers,” Stephen Brown advocates, tongue only partially in cheek. “They’ll love it.”
Why secrets are powerful
Brown’s argument challenges conventional wisdom about consumers:
They do not want us to prostrate ourselves in front of them and promise to love them, till death us do part. They’d much rather be teased, tantalized, and tormented by deliciously insatiable desire.
Brown punched up his argument, no doubt, for attention. But psychology supports his take, especially when it comes to secrets.
The “secrecy heuristic”
Does a “CLASSIFIED” stamp make information more persuasive? Mark Travers, Leaf Van Boven, and Charles Judd argue it does. In a series of studies, they identified the “secrecy heuristic”:
This ‘secrecy heuristic’ can increase the perceived value and decision weight of information that happens to be secret, independent of any genuine differences in informational quality.
The authors assessed three ways that secrecy might impact perception. In every instance, information that was believed to be secret carried more weight:
- Experiment 1. “People weighed secret information more heavily than public information when making recommendations about foreign political candidates.”
- Experiment 2. “People judged information presented in documents ostensibly produced by the Department of State and the National Security Council as being of relatively higher quality when those documents were secret rather than public.”
- Experiment 3. “People judged a National Security Council document as being of higher quality when presented as a secret document rather than a public document and evaluated others’ decisions more favorably when those decisions were based on secret information.”
Why do we assume that secret information has more value? Throughout our lives, we learn that withheld information is often vital information: insider trading is lucrative; knowing someone’s limit in a negotiation is advantageous; we deem the information we keep secret to be important.
That primes us, write the authors, to associate secrecy with value:
people who believe information is secret may interpret that information differently—with greater credulity, for example—than do people who believe information is public. Second, secrecy may serve as an independent cue to quality.
The effect is especially powerful, they continue, when the “target attribute” of an object is difficult to assess, like the challenging foreign policy questions they posed to participants.
Complex products and decisions—rife in the B2B world—encourage us to default to our heuristic judgment. It’s why a “clients only” Magic Quadrant report from Gartner—not the public G2 Crowd reviews—may carry more weight when picking a martech tool.
When we hear secrets, we also pay more attention. Julie D. Lane and Daniel M. Wegner investigated the “cognitive consequences of secrecy” and found that information that we perceive to be secret is more readily recalled.
Compared to freely available information, then, secrets are persuasive and sticky. Their exclusivity also feeds our desire to be “in the know.”
Scarcity and reactance theory
Withholding information makes it scarce. As Cialdini argues,
This often adaptive mental shortcut is one that naturally develops, since we learn early on in our lives that things existing in limited quantities are hard to get, and that things that are hard to get are typically better than those that are easy to get.
In some cases, like Monet paintings, scarcity is real. In others, like diamonds, it’s been manufactured. Secrecy can manufacture scarcity: timed or limited releases for physical products, exclusivity for services.
Limited access enhances our interest. The idea is called reactance theory:
Whenever free choice—for example, of goods or services—is limited or restricted, the need to retain freedoms makes humans desire them significantly more than previously, especially if marketers can convince people that those freedoms are important.
As Brown writes, it’s a strategy that “makes ’em work for it, by limiting availability, by delaying gratification, by heightening expectations, by fostering an enigmatic air of unattainability. It doesn’t serve demand; it creates it.”
And yet secrets, it turns out, do make friends.
The bond of a shared secret
Secrets form bonds. Studies show that secrecy strengthens bonds in families, among junior high students, and in volunteer organizations. The social cohesion that results isn’t just between people:
Once the consumers are finally permitted to have access to their desires, the secrecy involved with that offering might increase consumers’ attachments to what they have just purchased, to the firm that sold it to them, and even to the other consumers buying it.
That bond divides people into three categories: Insiders, Aspirants, and Outsiders.
Insiders, Aspirants, and Outsiders
The moment a secret exists, it creates Insiders. Insiders have the power to keep or divulge a secret. Insiders may include only those within the company (e.g., Apple employees before a product launch) or a subset of consumers (e.g., the first to purchase a new iPhone).
As Adam J. Mills explains, “the value of the secret to the Insider consumer is in terms of both exclusivity and empowerment.” Compare that to the lowly existence of an Aspirant:
Aspirant consumers do not know exactly what Apple has in store, but they anticipate, hypothesize, and desire to be in the loop. The value of the secret to Aspirant consumers lies in its scarcity, and this reinforces the value of the exclusivity to the Insider.
Outsiders, on the other hand, aren’t even aware that there is a secret. And the power of a secret requires that consumers know it exists. For marketers, then, the goal is to distribute that secret, in full or part, for maximum impact:
- To create real value for Insiders.
- To amplify perceived value to woo Aspirants.
- To spread awareness to convert Outsiders into Aspirants.
Not every secret is a ticking-clock campaign. In fact, the secrets that have helped differentiate brands are far more enduring.
The enduring secrets that build brands
David Hannah, Michael Parent, and Leyland Pitt catalog secrets by marketing value. In their quadrant structure, the most valuable secrets have marketing and strategic value; the least valuable have neither.
Marketers can increase the value of a secret in two ways:
- Romancing the secret via marketing campaigns that increase perceived value.
- Educating the secret with business-wide efforts to increase real strategic value.
“The marketing of secrecy,” they contend, “is about deciding what to tell and how to tell it, as well as what not to tell and how not to tell it.” Here’s what companies have been doing—with varying success—across the secrecy grid.
1. Appealing secrets have strategic value and marketing value.
Each July the Bintliff crew heads a boat out to the ‘ole mud hole’ and scoops up hundreds of pounds of the ‘Magic Mud’, enough for one season. Then the precious product rest in barrels until the next spring when it’s packed and shipped to each of the major league teams, minor league teams, most independent leagues and many colleges in time for opening day.
Baseball Rubbing Mud is used widely in professional baseball. The company has a unique process for their product (i.e. strategic value). But the narrative digs the economic moat.
Their process can be learned and copied. Their fairy-tale origin story—one compelling enough to earn a feature on CNN—can’t be.
Take “Merchandise 7X,” the most guarded component of Coca-Cola’s secret recipe. Or so it would be, if the recipe were actually secret. The radio show This American Life unearthed the recipe, which had been published in 1979—down to the dram—in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
They made sample batches for the show, and less-frequent soda drinkers couldn’t tell which was the “real” Coca-Cola. (Habitual Coke drinkers fared slightly better.) When they brought the recipe to Coca-Cola’s archivist, Phil Mooney, he hedged on whether it was the “real” recipe.
Whether it is or isn’t doesn’t matter. Nuances in the production process of Coca-Cola mean that minute differences persist—detectable only by the Big Gulp demographic. But the secret isn’t the recipe.
The real value is the existence of a secret recipe, not the strategic advantage it affords, which is why Coke will never confirm nor deny the authenticity of any recipe. They lose little by the exposure of the recipe; they lose everything if they admit it.
What if you don’t have a nineteenth-century formula? The order of operations may surprise you. Often, powerful secrets don’t create the brand; the brand, after gaining prominence, creates the secret. So it is with KFC.
Here are—almost certainly—the oh-so-secret 11 herbs and spices (something KFC, of course, denies):
The recipe comes from a family album of Colonel Sanders’ nephew. The “secret” recipe didn’t start that way:
In the 1940’s, Colonel Sanders developed the original recipe chicken to be sold at his gas station diner. At the time, the recipe was written above the door so anyone could have read it.
Once publicly visible, it’s now treated as the Holy Bucket of trade secrets:
- The original handwritten recipe is (supposedly) housed in a 770-pound safe encased in two feet of concrete and guarded by video cameras and motion detectors.
- In 2008, KFC used a Brinks armored truck and briefcase marked “Top Secret” to transport the recipe while upgrading the vault.
- Two different suppliers prepare the 11 herbs and spices so that neither knows the full recipe.
KFC, in particular, exemplifies how older brands can repackage their historical processes. Every company has proprietary information, but, with a bit of marketing alchemy, you can turn “proprietary” into “secret” to powerful effect.
That’s what Bush’s Baked Beans did with their recipe. “Why is it kept secret?” asks Nick Greene. “Try to think of another company’s baked beans ad, and therein lies your answer.”
The value of a secret isn’t static. McDonald’s outed their own recipe for “secret sauce,” even promoting an instructional YouTube video from one of their chefs. Why?
The once-secret sauce—a simple blend of mayonnaise, sweet relish, mustard, white wine vinegar, garlic powder, onion powder, and paprika—clashed with modern interest in food transparency. McDonald’s, by divulging the sauce’s simplicity, portrayed their meals as akin to home cooking.
Secrets can go wrong in other ways. Dannon paid $45 million to settle a lawsuit after running a campaign that touted how its recipe for Activia yogurt had been “clinically” proven to aid digestion. (It wasn’t.)
Appealing secrets don’t have to be brand-defining to have value. Take any SaaS product. Every limitation consumers encounter—on a freemium version, via gated access to content—is a chance to hint at how much value is on the other side.
Companies tease this well with design, allowing freemium users a glimpse behind the curtain to stoke curiosity.
Cook’s Illustrated could fully gate everything, but who would know what they’re missing? How else could you turn Outsiders into Aspirants and motivate Aspirants to become Insiders?
Even when there’s scant real value to hide, there’s opportunity.
2. Mythical secrets have marketing value but no strategic value.
“As practitioners of high finance,” writes Ron Chernow in The House of Morgan, the Morgans:
cultivate a discreet style. They avoid branches, seldom hang out signposts, and (until recently) wouldn’t advertise. Their strategy was to make clients feel accepted into a private club, as if a Morgan account were a membership card to the aristocracy.
Mythical secrets are powerful creators of exclusivity: We crave membership, even if the primary member benefit is status.
This has fueled the growth of companies like Gilt and A Touch of Modern. For Gilt, members initially needed referrals (á la early Gmail) to join.
Now, they disguise an email opt-in as “membership,” a framing that pads their email list and generates an incredible flow of data—every on-site action comes from logged-in users.
For Gilt, the angle makes sense: Exclusivity aligns with high-end fashion.
A Touch of Modern has followed the same path, requiring an immediate “membership” opt-in before users can browse products. The veneer of exclusivity persists despite the company’s regular TV spots and 14 million users.
The concept works at lower ends, too: Memberships at Sam’s or Costco prime our brains to expect good deals, even when they often aren’t that good. If it weren’t a good deal, we reason, why would it be available only to members?
A similar approach can aid beta launches, transforming a “please sign up” into an exclusive “invite only” or “early access” affair. A copy tweak—affecting as little as the call to action—creates value.
Mythical secrets can also rescue commodities. Because commodities lack appealing secrets, a farcical backstory—masquerading as a differentiator—fills the void.
The back of Old Spice deodorant details a faux secret that builds brand affinity. We know it’s nonsense. But they’ve exhausted any marketing value from their actual process, proprietary or not. Might as well dream up one that amuses the target audience.
CD Baby famously took a similar tactic with their confirmation emails:
It’s whimsical. It playfully suggests differentiation via extraordinary customer service—while creating real differentiation by entertaining its recipients.
For these companies, secrecy isn’t the linchpin of the marketing strategy, but if it’s enough to capture attention, it may do its job. There’s an opposite class of secrets, too—those with strategic value but no marketing potential.
3. Plain secrets have strategic value but no marketing value.
Plain secrets are competitive advantages your consumers don’t care about (yet, or possibly ever).
Google’s results are (usually) better, but how much do you really care about their algorithm? Would it make a difference if they advertised the number of ranking factors they consider? Or the comparative reliability of their servers? Or the speed of their crawlers?
Compare that to Pandora, a company that touts its trademarked algorithm as a way to increase your enjoyment of music:
Frequently, plain secrets “cannot really be used as an incentive for higher prices—it is more likely to be a cost reduction mechanism—and cannot typically be used to entice customers.” Walmart is an obvious example—we care about low prices, not the logistical networks that achieve them.
Plenty of patents fall into this category, which may get marketed meekly as a “patented process,” but the details of that process do little to influence purchasing decisions.
4. Weak secrets have no real value.
Weak secrets may act as short-term differentiators, but the benefits don’t last. These are “innovations” like stripes or sparkles on toothpaste—easy to copy and of limited influence.
All four categories of secrets have a common trait: The secrets are fixed, either withheld entirely (Coca-Cola, KFC), divulged after a conversion (Cook’s Illustrated, Gilt), or promoted in broad daylight (Old Spice).
Other secrets are on a countdown, with marketers trying to make the most of each moment leading up to a big reveal.
Leaks and short-term secrets that guide marketing campaigns
The best part of an NFL (or Game of Thrones) season, you could argue, is the off-season: The dissection of trade rumors and cryptic trailers, the conspiracy theories and predictions that fuel endless debate.
After the games are played and the episodes released, reality constrains conversation. The breadth of a hypothetical discussion is greater than a review of past action. And therein lies the marketing appeal of temporal secrets.
Apple has thrived on intentional leaks (and the prevention of unintentional leaks). An unreleased iPhone 4 was once left “accidentally” at a bar. Bits of information about new products show up on sites like MacRumors in the weeks before a launch.
Apple has even been accused of leaking a $1,000 price point for the first iPad to gauge consumer and investor sentiment.
There’s an entire taxonomy of intentional leaks, which hinges on whether a leak is factual and if a company admits to being the source of the information:
Leaks don’t require physical products. In an interview with Ross Hudgens, Wil Reynolds of Seer Interactive framed their agency’s knowledge-sharing about Power BI as a deliberate leak:
I just want to help people be smarter marketers and make better decisions for their clients [. . .] so we’ll have some stuff coming out that’ll make it easy, but you know what, don’t use it!
Because what I’m giving you is six months ago shit that you didn’t know yet, so we give away shit like that, and it’s “Wow, look at all that shit Seer gives away,” but now I’m bringing in census data, so go take my old shit because now I’m working on this, and I’ll release that in six months.
Most companies run drip campaigns for content: Regular blog posts, video series, etc., that gradually make internal knowledge public. Reynolds concentrates his knowledge-sharing into a “big reveal,” while also positioning himself as an Insider—one with the power, and generosity, to care for Aspirants.
Distilled uses a similar tactic at their SearchLove conferences. All speakers go on stage to reveal one “secret”—something so valuable that it cannot be tweeted; it’s meant only for attendees. At no other time do people pay so much attention. Every attendee also becomes an Insider, empowered to keep or share that knowledge.
Your company processes are secret, even if the reason they’re unknown is because you haven’t yet had the time yet to write up your strategies. The wider world doesn’t know that your withholding is unintentional—remissness still primes the pump.
Of course, you don’t have to give away any information to exploit a secret.
Denial marketing and Harry Potter
“We coined the phrase ‘denial marketing,’” Minna Fry, a former marketing director at Bloomsbury told The New Yorker. “We were extremely tantalizing—releasing little nuggets. If you were really lucky, you’d get the title!” Her denial campaign even withheld the page count.
Bloomsbury also teased a potential shortage of copies (a lie that would only increase the satisfaction of buyers “lucky enough” to get one) and “accidentally” released a few copies at a West Virginia Walmart. The children who discovered them, of course, made international headlines.
Surprises can work the same way. Rather than a traditional round of pre-release promotion, Beyoncé released a full album on iTunes in 2013 with no advance promotion. The sudden revelation spiked emotions—and sales. The album was the fastest-selling in iTunes history and the most successful launch of Beyoncé’s career.
There’s a common thread for denial marketing campaigns: They exploit existing public interest. The promotion strategy for Harry Potter and Beyoncé wouldn’t have worked for the first book or album. In contrast, one secret has universal appeal: the future.
The appeal of predictions
The future is a secret. All are Aspirants; none are Insiders. That’s why we love predictions. Which would you read first?
- “The 5 Trends that Affected Marketers Most in 2019”;
- “The 5 Trends that Will Affect Marketers Most in 2020.”
I’d argue that you’d make more money by reading the former—these are proven tactics that have influenced day-to-day operations, and most of us lag behind in one area or another. But the latter almost certainly would generate more shares and commentary.
Predictions don’t require a product or company with a devoted following. Expertise helps—my predictions on Olympic rowing would rightly go ignored—but if you don’t have it, you need only a handful of interviews or survey responses to incorporate it.
Secrets limit access to information. Good marketers create value by regulating that access.
Every business wishes for a secret that’s a total differentiator—an economic moat to create an impregnable castle. But marketers have succeeded with far less.
That is, in part, because the difference between “proprietary information” and a brand-defining “secret” is more framing than substance. Many powerful secrets are revisionist histories—mythical origin stories that protect a market position won through less romantic means.
In simpler forms, secrets tease value without giving it away—blurring all but the introduction to an article or displaying 10 of 2,000 results from a SaaS tool.
Bring Tantalus to your fruit tree. Fill the pool of water at his feet. Then, for an email address or a credit card number, offer him a drink.