Secret Brands Challenge Conventional Marketing Wisdom

A secret brand is a business built without a big investment in publicity or paid media. The focus is entirely on getting customers or users. These companies are headed by strong technologists, product people who really understand their users and problem their products solve.

With a secret brand, there is very little “spill” in the form of general media visibility. The result: few people outside of the most interested target audiences have any awareness. As companies achieve critical mass, secret brands “come out,” expanding their initial customer acquisition programs.

At this point, some see value in applying a traditional “integrated marketing strategy” to catapult the momentum through a wider array of market instruments like paid media channels.

But could this be a paradox?

The “secret brand” strategy exposes conventional wisdom for building general awareness, which is: 1) buy traditional media, 2) boost product awareness, 3) accept a (relatively) small conversion rate and (relatively) high cost per acquisition.

How do entrepreneurs building secret brands escape conventional wisdom? They focus their efforts on connecting expressly with the audiences most likely to benefit from their product. As a result, the general marketplace remains unaware of the offering.

Let's look at the logic here: what's the value in marketing beyond the best prospects? Resources are always constrained. No business has the luxury to over-market.

So, secret brands are really just smart.

This is in line with our own approach to content marketing and our focus on the audience tribes that are most likely to be interested and to engage in a product experience. But we’ve seen that this can be unnerving for traditional business managers who take confidence in a broad awareness marketing program. They point to that general visibility to show various stakeholders evidence that marketing is being executed.

When secret brands reach critical mass with momentum, customers, revenues and profit, the marketing should be scaled up. This is the time for disciplined and selective integrative marketing, which might incorporate paid media, but will most naturally be extensions of what has been tested and proven in the earlier user-acquisition program consisting of content, earned and social media.

Why do secret brands work so well? A few reasons we can see:

  • Conserve and focus resources
  • Create a sense of exclusivity, which elevates interest
  • Operate as super-niche plays
  • Avoid serving too many types of customers, which leads to too many products
  • Earned and social media are used as 2-way channels, which provide feedback to help improve the product and customer experience
  • Marketing becomes the business, tightly tying media and communication with product innovation and the customer experience

Can existing brands go secret? It’s never too late to start being smart about your marketing spend. Whether you are starting a business or already run a niche or midsized company, here are 8 things managers and entrepreneurs can do create secret brands.

  • Identify the highest potential segments and focus exclusively on them (remember the expression: you can only please some of the people some of time)
  • Clearly map out the messages for those select audiences
  • Don't advertise!
  • Build carefully focused search strategy
  • Develop a great content strategy. Take advantage of your expert knowledge, your unique perspective and even your product data to create worthwhile content for users of all types.
  • Set up solid metrics and reporting tools
  • Exploit “earned media” which includes reaching out to writers and influencers of all types who communicate with your segments
  • Exploit “social media,” including the user interactivity within online communities, twitter, Blogs and forums. B2B marketers (most of our dear readers work in B2B businesses)— don't confuse this with casual Facebook users!

Where does conventional wisdom come from anyway?

So many entrepreneurs write things into their businesses business plans that sound like: “...to become the leading provider of XYZ product and to become the market leader in the XYZ industry.” But in reality, becoming a market leader is extremely complex and demanding. Very few business managers have that capability, resources or luck.

The bulk of the economy is powered by well-run, specialized midmarket and small companies, which provide distinct, high-quality services to niche customers, generate solid profit, and employ real people.

Outside of corporations like Coca-Cola and Apple, why would anyone want to spend money building general awareness?

Most startups and midmarket businesses are “hyper-niche” providers. Celebrate it...and market that way!