Secret Sauce: What it is, and How to Apply for best PR Results

It can go by various names.  IP (short for intellectual property). Or proprietary tech. Or keys to the kingdom.  

I like “secret sauce”.   Most who work in IT understand that this refers to the magical ingredient that sets a technology or solution apart.

If “communications” or “PR” are in your job description, you may wonder what to do with “secret sauce.”  How do you message it, build it into your storytelling and news campaigns, yes, how to spin the sauce or slather it on for best results?

Secret Sauce Origin Story

One of the secrets to building buzz, is, well, through secrets. Stealth can create a mystique that leaves people guessing and wanting to no more.

So, adding the words “secret sauce” to your solution news should make it a natural media magnet, right?

Ah, were it so easy.  The phrase by itself won’t do much for you – it has become a cliche’, one of those industry tropes right up there with killer app, origin story and the more recent unicorn.

This Quora Q&A says the term became popular during the burger wars, in the 70s.  I am old enough to remember McDonald’s 1974 commercial that hawked “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun.”  The big question that drove people nuts at the time was, what was that damned special sauce (the schoolyard rumor was “bull semen”, yeah, sorry, gross, I know)?

If you plug “secret sauce” into the Google Ngram viewer, which charts word usage in books dating back to 1900, you will see the first mentions in the early 1970s (confirming the Burger Wars theory), with rapid growth occurring around 2000 (perhaps, not coincidentally, during the dot com boom).

But there was secret sauce even before it was called secret sauce.  E.g., I remember ads for Certs breath mints from my childhood that hyped a mysterious ingredient called Retsyn.  The Canadian news site CBC explains, in a great piece on Words Invented by Marketers:

When I was growing up, Certs breath mints had a long-running series of TV commercials with a “Two mints in one” theme. But along with two mints in one, Certs hung its hat on one word: Retsyn. But what is Retsyn?

It was an interesting marketing strategy from parent company American Chicle – whose other product was Chiclets. [They] launched Certs in 1956, and used the word Retsyn in all its advertising for years.

Retsyn sounded vaguely scientific, and Certs framed it as a proprietary ingredient, saying that a golden drop of Retsyn was a “miracle breath purifier.” In reality, Retsyn was homogenized vegetable oil.

Going back even earlier, Coca Cola famously guarded its secret formula, as described in Wikipedia:

The Coca-Cola Company‘s formula for Coca-Cola syrup…, is a closely guarded trade secret. Company founder Asa Candler initiated the veil of secrecy that surrounds the formula in 1891 as a publicitymarketing, and intellectual property protection strategy. While several recipes, each purporting to be the authentic formula, have been published, the company maintains that the actual formula remains a secret, known only to a very few select (and anonymous) employees.

The entry further explains that the drink included coca leaves and hence cocaine. 

Secret Sauce in IT

When was “secret sauce” first used to describe information technology? It is a great question, if I must say so myself – and one I asked on Quora – only to hear crickets.  Please help if you know!!!

I did some digging to try to find out. A Google search surfaced the term in a 1993 BYTE magazine article about CD-ROMs (boy was that a great publication, back when magazines were real, glossy and thick as an encyclopedia).  There was a 1988 BusinessWeek article that mentioned “secret sauce”, also when describing CD-ROM tech.  

Those are some of the earliest mentions in media that I found; perhaps it is telling that both were about CD-ROMs.

Examples in more modern day tech are all around us, but might not jump out. Think of Google PageRank, the web indexing algorithm that helped make the company the unrivaled search leader and giant it is today; or Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm, or Amazon’s one-click online shopping and recommendation engine. Years earlier, Cisco became a giant and established the web router category via its packet routing algorithms. The TV series Halt and Catch Fire chronicled a rival team’s efforts to reverse engineer IBM’s original PC BIOS (basic input output system), the operating system underpinnings and keys to the PC clone market.

Fusion PR represents a wide range of tech startups that are bringing exciting breakthroughs to market, built from secret sauce in cybersecurity, ad tech, cloud, mobile, fintech, AI, and other spaces.

Sans Sauce

Not all technology products have a secret sauce.  E.g., some are built from open-source components.  Or, perhaps, they utilize public domain algorithms, like deep or machine learning models often do.

Does that mean such offerings have no differentiators, or advantages and hence no appeal?

Not necessarily. Your company can innovate in pricing and delivery models.  They can build a better interface or “wrapper” and brand on processes and customer service.  Just ask Zappos. 

What it Means for Tech PR (IP, therefore I am)

Assuming your solution does have this proprietary IP, what can PR do to weave it into the larger product and company stories?

As I implied above, sometimes saying less can draw more interest.  Being cryptic can work for a while, especially for startups, which need to play every buzz-building card they can.

However, this kind of strategy makes it hard to build credibility.  The media like to dig in and understand. They want to know about the tech, if it really works or is just hype (like Retsyn).  No one completely trusts black boxes. 

You can try to distract by shifting attention to results, features and benefits vs. the secret sauce that helped.  But stories about customer successes can get tiresome too; perhaps they could sway a buyer rather than a reporter.  

Revealing too much too soon comes with its own risks, e.g., clueing in the competition.

So, what does one do, if you are lucky enough to have that secret sauce that really sets your solution apart? How do you talk about it and promote it without giving away the keys to the kingdom?

I’ll explain more in my next post.

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