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SXSW 2009: A Recap Of Marketing Secrets

Secrets in marketing work. We all know it intuitively, each time we see a mystery URL we can't help but click on, or hear about a secret VIP deal or special event that most people don't know about. There is a powerful human impulse that makes us want to be part of the exclusive group that knows a secret. So on Monday at SXSW 2009, Kaitlyn and I hosted a discussion all about using secrets for marketing (called Curiosity Marketing). In our packed room (we had about 100 people spread out across the chairs on the wall and sitting on the floor). In case you were one of the ones that made it (or one of the 20 or so I heard were stuck outside), please Rate The Session: (and whether you liked it or hated it, at least tell them we need a bigger room next year!)

Our conversation, though, was a great collection of thoughts from people in the room of secrets they have seen out there, ideas for using secrets, and some necessary conversation about the role of authenticity and potential for misleading people with this approach. It is tough to capture a session as interactive as that in a blog post, but we spent most of our time sharing a long list of examples we have all seen of secrets in marketing  So, without further ado, here is the list:

  • SecretSXSW: We talked about the story behind this secret site launched before the panel to demonstrate the idea of using secrets for marketing – it's a compilation of all the special offers, discounts and freebies from SXSW.
  • Konami Code: A secret code used in several video games to allow cheating or extra lives.
  • Google's Gmail Launch: Created exclusivity by limiting the number of invites that were available.  
  • Toy Makers: Manufacturered scarcity, like Tickle Me Elmo.  Doing this around the holiday will drive up sales for the rest of the year for birthday and special occasions.
  • Cadbury Cream Eggs: Are only offered around Easter, they tried making them available year round and net sales actually dropped.  
  • AmEx Black: Offered only to those who charge a certain amount each month, it's exclusive and was secret before the internet made knowledge of it more widely available.
  • Repressed Knowledge: Used commonly in broadcast, "What ____ doesn't want you to know, at 11:00pm"
  • Cracker Jack: There's a secret inside every box, and you know it – but you don't know WHAT it is.
  • Apple: Uses secrecy around new product launches that generates a frenzy.
  • Intel: Has included inside jokes just for IT managers in communications
  • Mini Roboticist: Web videos making robots out of Mini parts, wasn't clear "if this is real" lead to curiosity.
  • Rolling Rock: Has "33" under cap, no one really knows what it is.
  • Tootsie Pop: Star on your wrapper and you got a free lollipop.  
  • In and Out Burger: Order Animal Style…   
  • a traveling taco truck in LA that tweets its location
  • Cold Tea in Chinese Restaurants: Order "cold tea" after bars close and they will bring you beer in a tea pot
  • PTD = Please Don't Tell Restaurant: You enter through a phone booth in a hot dog restaurant to access a throw back speakeasy
  • BMW Easter Egg Campaign: TV ad contained secret information and you were in the know to find a reward
  • LOST Easter Eggs
  • How I Met Your Mother: Incorporates URLs into the show that actually exist like and that evolve and give die hard fans more content
  • HIdes a secret message in the 200 pack of business cards packaging – the secret is not "out" yet
  • Reverse Secrets: You don't know the brand up front, but it becomes clear over time – like Halo3 and Blair Witch Project promos
  • Failed Secret: Blackberry Storm – "Secret" online, but reveal was product of dubious reputation
  • Failed Secret: Dr. Pepper – Offering free coupons if Guns N Roses put out album in 2008
  • Failed/Or Not? Secret: Aqua Teen Hunger Force (Cartoon Network) – Placed lightboards in Boston that came under fire for sparking terrorism fears (but we had a great discussion on this and most people felt like it was not a failed secret)
  • Accidental Secrets: Secrets that get out via sites like FatWallet

If I missed anything from this post or you have another secret to share, please share it in a comment.

9 thoughts on “SXSW 2009: A Recap Of Marketing Secrets”

  1. Hi Rohit – please check out the video I am linking in this comment. It is from the TED conference, and is a presentation by J.J. Abrams, co-creator of Lost (and about a dozen other entertainment properties). The subject is “The Mystery Box” and it’s a fantastic speech… I believe it is right up your alley and relevant to your post.

    -Thom O.

  2. Rohit … if you continue to develop this “Marketing Secrets” idea, be sure to read the writings of STEPHEN BROWN. He’s a marketing professor in Ireland that loves to go against prevailing thought. His most approachable writing was an HBR piece from Oct. 2001 called, “Torment Your Customers.” Almost all of his marketing writings deal with teasing and tantalizing customers. I also recommend his MARKETING-The Retro Revolution book. It’s difficult to read but it is chock-full of provocative marketing thought.


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Rohit is the author of 9 books on trends, the future of business, building a more human brand with storytelling and how to create a more diverse and inclusive world.


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