In 2011, Coca-Cola moved the vault containing its legendary secret formula to a permanent position in The World of Coca Cola where visitors could experience the aura of its creation like never before. This intensely planned exercise to commemorate the 125th birthday of its creation was yet another initiative to iconise its secret sauce, popularly known as Formula 7X. In the food and beverages space largely, the strategic romancing of the origin has proved to be a significant point of difference and a valuable pillar of brand equity. If applied with precision and integrity, the secret sauce can actually become a major source of value for brands in every consumer category.
The idea of an inimitable advantage in origin was first exploited by the engineering industry as the industrial revolution spread its wings across the universe. In due time, the technology exponents learnt to apply this principle with Dupont popularly leading the pack with Kevlar, Lycra and Teflon, to be subsequently merchandised as licensed conduits for many categories. Nike sufficiently exploited the air technology derived from NASA knowhow to build an exceptional edge while others in the fray tried hard to build their own proprietorial source code. As mentioned earlier, the business of dining, be it QSR or fine, has done best justice to this idea with the entire gamut from Wasabi to KFC to Karim’s living up steadfastly to a historical legacy of the founder, in terms of unique product performance.
So, what are the governing principles of a successful secret sauce? For starters, it is quite clearly an advantage in process which leads to many unique products so at all times, the process must remain the hero to be felicitated. While we thoroughly enjoy the taste of KFC for its succulence and crispiness, the credit in terms of the legend is Colonel Sander’s Secret formula which rises above changes in product design due to customer preferences over geographies and time. Secondly, it must have a connection to the origin of the brand and thus linked to the genius of the founder or the specialness of the place of origin. The Perrier water is bottled from a single spring with exceptional virtues while the Tunday Kebab is the innovative acumen of a gifted creator. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it is a scalable skill certainly over time otherwise it perishes and ideally over multiple locations, thus giving it business ammunition. Its ability to become part of an assembly line is a very critical aspect of longevity; otherwise it becomes yet another grandmother’s recipe perishing with the grandmother.
Operating on the above criteria, it is definitely possible to create a secret sauce strategy for every to-be-launched consumer-facing brand and thus eke out an additional source of advantage while ensuring that it does not end up being a performance ‘claim’. This is defined by a technology or a feature that represents a point-in-time engineering advantage, truthful or fictitious, unconnected to origin or long-term sustainability. In certain ways, the culture of the ‘claim’, as exemplified most famously by the Godrej PUF and its many peers, is responsible for diluting the worth of the secret sauce, as from a consumer perception they may often overlap. What must also be excluded is the service or technology ‘feature’, like the Dominos ‘30 minutes or free’, which is a competitive advantage but not a virtue from the origin. In the following paragraphs, I will draw out a few possibilities of how suitable advantage can be gained by a secret sauce, by blending age-old wisdom with new-found consumer insight.
It is fairly easy to imagine the origin advantage in the fashion industry as recently exploited by designers Sabyasachi with his floral insignia and Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla with their trademark embroidery. Thus, a newly-minted luxury fashion brand can trace the lineage of its creations to the philosophy of the proprietor’s grandmother, a certain unique pattern that makes the outfits special. For a more mass-based or e-commerce-led brand one can imagine a proprietary formula called ‘EasyFit’, a case of tech-enabled tailoring, where every garment is designed to breathe as per adaptation to your shared body specifications. A similar application in the food services industry can actually be the spice modification technology where a simple online palate test can lead to your curries being delivered on a modular gradation of spicing. For a gourmet venture, as already explored in many instances, an interesting twist can be a computerised taste evaluator, modulated to that of Chef Escoffier or an appropriate fellow, and no dish reaches your table without this endorsement.
In the hotel industry, an appropriate secret sauce will be mood enhancement acumen, a combination of architecture, lighting and service that uniquely upgrades the feelings of every visitor, just like the sight of a Mona Lisa or the Taj Mahal. For an online tech-services site in the business of deliveries, a proprietary traffic assessment technology that leads to accuracy in forecasting delivery can be built into the system while an even more fundamental attribute can be an intuitive patented algorithm that connects optimises delivery routes for eco-friendly operations. For a new builder in the real estate industry a construction technology called ‘Permasafe’ can become a valuable feature based on a combination of international technology and knowledge of local soils.
A more fundamental nature of secret sauce can be amplified when the business design is the function of an intense and passionate observation of the founder and blended with the vision of the organisation. In the case of body shop, ‘trade not aid’ is an integrated point of advantage and just a sourcing philosophy which can become the inspiration for ventures across categories. In foods, a range of preservatives that must pass the civilisation test, by proof of its ability to have zero impact on the environment. A line of clothing with the ‘minimum fabric’ secret sauce designed to eliminate wastage as well as operate under the most efficient air-conditioning further reducing damage. A search engine that is designed to automatically filter scam, scandal and crime in its recommendations and thus truthfully provide the most ethical solutions. The range of children’s foods in a packaged format that has by origin a zero-preservative philosophy willingly not being part of potential blockbusters for its propensity to cause health problems.
From being a physical ingredient like in Coca-Cola and KFC or a technology springboard, the secret sauce of today’ brands can easily operate in a far-larger experiential plane uniting knowhow with customer engagement. An uncompromising attitude to integrity in compliance is necessary as is a commitment to consider it to be a value right from inception, not a retro-fitted opportunistic initiative. When the basics are in place the enormous possibilities for amplification can lead to a unique competitive advantage for the brand as it is connected to a belief that led to its very creation and not a reactive response to competition or category developments.
(Shivaji Dasgupta is the Founder of INEXGRO Brand Advisory and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)
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