Co.Design

In Our Information Age, Secrecy Is Sexy. How Can Brands Create An Aura Of Mystery?

Four steps toward adding a mysterious allure to branding efforts.
Knowledge was once power, but these days knowledge is expected. We live in a culture of oversharing. We broadcast our every thought, opinion, and move as Facebook updates or tweets. There's tremendous pride in being the first of your friends to post a good link or to start a popular thread. This information has value; it's become a new form of currency traded over sites like YouTube, Yelp, and on countless blogs. When someone is the first to share a new restaurant, pop-up store, video or blog, they build "social wealth." For those lacking in real currency, the Internet offers rich rewards--anyone can achieve a new type of influential status as being "in the know."

If information is currency, secrets are gold.

We're constantly showing all of our cards--we've even come to accept the all-seeing eye of Google. For a country that's practically founded on the right to privacy, we've become startlingly comfortable with letting it all hang out. If information is currency, secrets are gold. Secrets become more luxurious every day, particularly as they become harder to keep. WikiLeaks proved that in today's interconnected world, it's difficult for even the most powerful of agencies and individuals to hide information. Other countries are beginning to crack down on privacy. Germany, for example, has been reviewing both Google and Facebook standards to ensure they are in accordance with the country's strict privacy laws. It's the only country to date where Google offers an opt-out option for Street View images. Facebook, too, has agreed to bump up privacy settings, letting German users shield their email contacts from unwanted solicitations. Privacy and security have always been deeply valued by Americans, but today's technology has the power to put everyone in the spotlight. Privacy is becoming a new luxury, and the price to keep our information "secret" may soon come at a premium. So, what does this era of secrecy mean for business? Designing for the "secrets industry" is all about understanding one concept: When everything is known, the unknown becomes intriguing. Many businesses are thriving on being completely transparent with their customers. But for organizations willing to offer the most premium of services and striving to create deep engagement with key customers--incorporating secrecy into the luxury experience is a powerful way to strengthen relationships. That's what secrets do. How can organizations add secrecy to their marketing mix? Keep The Mystery

While creating AmEx's top-tier membership product, we intentionally kept all details confidential.

When you can find out about something, what you can't find becomes interesting. People are intrigued by the power of secrets, and it keeps them coming back for more. Think about the TV show Lost--seven years of speculation about the black mist, whether or not the island represented purgatory, and what the heck that number combination meant. People had to invest themselves in order to watch. The writers of Lost wove symbolism and meaning throughout the show and kept viewers hanging on until the end. The result was a cult-like following that lasted year after year. When designing the most exclusive membership product for American Express, we intentionally keep the details of membership confidential. The elusiveness of membership and the experiences the product delivers makes the product that much more desirable. Private, confidential membership is a valuable asset. Let The Customer Discover Rather than aggressively marketing yourself via traditional venues like advertising, let the customer discover your product or experience. Create events and hurdles that keep them engaged every step of the way, touching the customer in a variety of offline and online channels. Take the Nine Inch Nails "Year Zero" album, for example. This was their concept album criticizing the United States government's policies. An alternate reality game emerged in conjunction with the album, expanding its storyline. Clues hidden on tour merchandise led fans to a network of fictitious, in-game websites.

Before the release of "Year Zero," unreleased songs from the album were found on USB drives hidden at NIN concert venues in Lisbon and Barcelona as part of the alternate reality game. Fan participation in the game caught the attention of media outlets like USA Today and Billboard.

Tell The Right People

Hurdles keep people engaged every step of the way.

Think "Oprah's Favorite Things," but the secret version. If you get endorsements from the right gatekeeper, you're as good as gold.


Dinner House M
is an interesting example of this. It's a Los Angeles area jazz club and restaurant that closes at 2 a.m. But if you know that certain someone, you can get a bracelet and stay for the after-hours portion of the evening (or technically, morning). This kind of word of mouth technique is great for building buzz about a product, service, or experience.

Don't Make It Easy In many cases, if you make customers work for something, they'll want it all the more. Many people won't care about engaging at this level, but the folks that do are the folks that you want involved. They will be the ones who truly love your product or service and will be brand advocates for you. Even Google uses an invitation-only approach when beta-testing new products. Remember when you had to be invited to Gmail? While the secrecy approach definitely isn't for everybody, it's a fascinating concept to consider if you want to appeal to today's digital consumer. While Gen Y's wallets may be slim, their appetite for mystery is huge. The only down side? If this approach takes off, your product, service or experience won't stay secret for long.

Sean Brennan is a senior strategist at Continuum. [Top image, of an illustration from 1906, via Cat Nip Studio]

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