What do Apple, Trader Joe’s, Woody Allen, and the NSA all have in common? I could tell you, but then I’d have to shoot you.
Of course, they’re famously secretive. In each case, that strategy has been a huge factor in the remarkable success of their products and operations. In business, entertainment, politics, and defense – now more than ever – controlling information is a powerful tool.
In an age where the public demands transparency and privacy has never been more elusive, secrecy represents an enormous competitive advantage. That is, if you can somehow manage to pull it off, a feat that’s never been harder to accomplish.
What’s particularly perplexing is that our culture seems to be obsessed with both privacy and transparency: Privacy for ourselves and transparency for everyone else. The contradictory double standard is so obvious you’ve got to marvel at how transparent it is. Not to mention ironic.
This bizarre dichotomy is perhaps most evident when it comes to our security. We want to be safe in an increasingly dangerous world but we also want to know everything those in charge of our defense and security are doing. Never mind that our enemies will know everything too, which of course makes us less safe.
It’s okay for people to post every intimate detail of their lives and their anatomy on Facebook and Twitter. It’s okay for Google and our Internet service providers to know every website we search and email we send. It’s okay for AT&T and Verizon to know every phone call we make. But God forbid if the NSA uses some of that information to keep terrorists from blowing us up. Horrors.
And don’t even get me started on performance enhancing drugs in professional sports. We demonize Lance Armstrong and A-Rod when they get caught, but with all that money on the line, is their anyone out there who really doesn’t know how widespread doping is? Really? It’s like that old line from Casablanca, “I’m shocked, shocked to learn that gambling’s going on here.”
Likewise, sustainability activists and environmental watchdogs have long criticized Trader Joe’s for being secretive, even demanded that it be more transparent about its ingredients and food sources for natural and organic products. Never mind that that very secretiveness is how it manages to deliver healthy products at affordable prices. It’s protecting its suppliers that cut TJs a better deal than its competitors.
Then there’s the company that has been so successful at turning secrecy into an art form that it can create a worldwide buzz and lines around the block for its products simply by keeping everyone quiet. Considering the sheer number of employees and vendors involved; the pressure from the news media that would give anything for a line of code, a feature, or even a picture of a component of an upcoming product; it’s truly astounding how virtually nothing leaks until Apple is ready to spill it.
What people don’t realize is that Steve Jobs was without a doubt the greatest marketer of all time. By controlling every aspect of communications, design, development, sales, and service, he created the most anticipated and groundbreaking products, the most successful customer experience, and the most iconic brand in the world today.
Make no mistake: Secrecy has been a powerful strategy in both Trader Joe’s and Apple’s competitive arsenal. And that aspect of their cultures has played a big role in their cult-like following.
Perhaps the creative way we get around our schizophrenic obsession with secrecy is by employing some new form of utopian logic. Maybe we now believe we can have all things at once, even if they are mutually exclusive. Like children, we behave as if the simple act of wanting, of feeling entitled to know something, somehow overrides logic and physics and makes it magically come true.
One thing’s for sure. The more secrets we crave about everyone and everything – whether it’s Rhianna, the Real Housewives, a company’s products, the NSA, a serial killer, or our next-door neighbor – the more powerful and marketable that information becomes. And, like it or not, the less security and privacy we have. I don’t care what form of logic you use. There’s simply no way around that.
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.