Poole College Research Takes Aim at Unlocking Mystery to Better Brand Secrets 

A secret is tantalizing, a secret attracts interest that leads to an unyielding drive for discovery. Brands have taken advantage of that and are utilizing secrets to create and expand customer loyalty.

NC State University Poole College of Management’s Heather Dretsch, assistant professor of marketing in the business management department, and colleague Colbey Reid, professor and department of fashion studies chairperson at Columbia College, Chicago, have recently conducted research into brand secrets and the ways brands can most effectively design them.

“We find that brand secrets can add nuance to the consumer-brand relationship and have many positive effects for the company,” Dretsch wrote.

In December, Drestch, Ph.D., and Reid, Ph.D., presented their research at the Journal of Consumer Research‘s Future of Brands Conference, hosted by Columbia Business School, in New York City; and, submission of the paper is forthcoming.

We reached professors Dretsch and Reid by email, and they gave us insights into their research and the importance of brand secrets.

Here’s our Q&A with Heather Dretsch and Colbey Reid:

What’s the definition of a brand secret and what are some examples of brand secrets?

Brand secrets are options, promotions and locations that a brand doesn’t market but rather lets customers discover. [Some] examples include Starbucks’ secret menu and secret Android settings; secret sales by Aerie, Lilly Pulitzer and others; Disney’s secret sweepstakes to stay in a hidden room in its Cinderella Suite; Nike’s secret website, Sofar Sounds’ secret concerts, Secret Cinema’s secret movie screenings and speakeasies like Please Don’t Tell’s secret location in Manhattan.

Heather Dretsch, assistant professor of marketing

What are the industry impacts of brand secrets?

They are a way for brand managers to communicate with skeptical consumers who don’t want to be marketed to but expect a lot from brands even after they have established their loyalty to them. Lots of brand managers are using secrets, but not everyone is designing them right. For example, secrets, mysteries, surprises and exclusive promotions are often interchanged. Our research allows us to help strategists optimize the design of a secret.

Why did you choose to research brand secrets?

First off, they are everywhere … if you know where to find them! And according to [psychological] research, they shouldn’t work. People should find a brand with a secret untrustworthy, and there should be all kinds of negative long-term consequences for the brand. Secondly, we live in an information-saturated world and secrets seem to be cutting through the noise. We wanted to understand why.

The future requires brands to navigate complex terrain in a digital sharing economy, yet they are challenged to provide ever-authentic experiences online and offline. In the future, brands will need to figure out how to communicate with skeptical consumers who have a lot of options and keep expecting more and more from their favorite brands. Our research helps brand managers understand how to communicate in a way that gives consumers a little more power — even though that sounds paradoxical given our topic. We also show those managers how to connect with their most loyal and committed customers. And maybe most importantly, we show brands how to optimize the design of a marketplace secret.

In the future, brands will need to figure out how to communicate with skeptical consumers who have a lot of options and keep expecting more and more.

How was your work received at the Future of Brands Conference and how did it align with the focus of the conference?

The Future of Brands Conference, held at the Center for Global Brand Leadership at Columbia University, was an incredible source of very forward-looking practical insight and research. The paper generated a lot of excitement: we had great questions, and people tell us that our work is “so cool and interesting” a lot. One of the challenges, of course, is to demonstrate an effect that isn’t just a cool and interesting phenomenon in the marketplace but also contributes to existing academic conceptual models. 

In which journal can we expect the paper to be published, and what is the intended impact of the research?

We’re targeting journals with a strong preference for academic research that has a clear theoretical contribution and pathway toward managerial impact — we’re all about the Think and Do principle, and this research is very design oriented to help strategists use it to optimize effectiveness. Of course, most strategists don’t read academic journals, so we’re also planning to pitch the idea to more popular media outlets once the article is accepted by a peer-reviewed journal.

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