Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Exclusivity through Secrecy

I was interviewed once for an ad of sorts for a "secret film festival" that would be running in Seattle as part of the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF). I don't know if I made the cut of the ad, as I never actually attended said secret film festival - I was just picked randomly for the interview out of people at a very cool Seattle coffee shop. During the interview, I was asked why I might like to attend the secret film festival. My response was something along the lines of, "If there's something secret, something other people don't know about, I want to know about it first."

This is a common sentiment. When I said that in the interview, I was thinking of one of Will Smith's lines in Men in Black: "All right, I'm in. 'Cause there's some next level shit going on and I'm OK with that."

The theme comes up in pop culture frequently. The movie Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (which I heartily recommend, it's a very entertaining film) centers around an indie band called "Where's Fluffy?" whose appearances are kept secret until the day of the show, when clues are left around the city pointing the fans to where they will be playing that night. The book I'm reading right now, Zero History by William Gibson (my favorite author), includes an exclusive members-only hotel that doesn't look like a hotel from the outside (called simply Cabinet), and a clothing line (called Gabriel Hounds) that is only sold secretly at random places and never in a store.

When it comes to selling things, many factors create demand. Marketing, name recognition, quality, and price all have their place. One factor in creating demand is exclusivity - that nebulous factor that makes something a "status symbol". Rolls Royce, Gucci, Prada, and many other brands built a foundation on quality, but maintain their demand through exclusivity. Generally the factors to manipulate to obtain exclusivity are rarity and price.

"Where's Fluffy?" and Gabriel Hounds, while fictional, show another way to obtain the exclusivity factor: secrecy.

We all want to be "in on it," whatever it is. We want to be in the know, in the club, on the inside. This is where phrases like "Knowledge is power" and "Information is currency" come from.

Technology has lent itself to this kind of marketing. Viral marketing is part of it. "Social media" like Twitter and Facebook are ideal for this sort of thing. Yet they also limit the length of the secrecy, and thereby the lifespan of the exclusivity and demand. Any brand that uses secrecy to generate exclusivity is going to have an expiration date. Contrary to normal marketing, when your "secret brand" gets name recognition, it will be dead. If you're going to start along those lines, while you're building your secret brand you better be starting the idea for your next one, so you can kill off the first one when it loses its cache, and just move along to the next thing. Marketing as evolution.

I'm not creating any new ideas here, just pointing out the trends and ideas I see. The real marketing wogs on the cutting edge have already thought of this, are already ahead of the curve. If they hadn't, it wouldn't be appearing in books and movies.

And it wouldn't have been published in Business Week 5 years ago. That article doesn't deal with a "secret brand" in the same sense as Gabriel Hounds, but it is in the same ballpark. Perhaps the brands in that article are the progenitors of the "secret brand" as it is coming to exist today...5 years is a long time for evolution in the online world.

But for now, it works and it's still relatively new. The question is: who is creative enough to take advantage of it? And how?