Legend has it that only two people in the world know the secret recipe for Coca-Cola, and that corporate policy bans them from flying in the same plane together, for fear of the formula being lost forever. The directions for Kentucky Fried Chicken’s “11 secret herbs and spices” are also closely guarded. One KFC supplier supposedly blends part of the recipe, while another spice company mixes the remainder, and a computer processing system standardises the final mix, so that neither organisation has the complete formula.
Google’s PageRank algorithm is a modern-day “secret sauce” equivalent. The heavily protected algorithm created by Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin is the “magical ingredient” at the heart of the world’s leading search engine.
Of course, a lot of the “secrecy” surrounding these three examples is pure promotional hype, but it serves to enhance the “specialness” of each product. In the case of Coke, the company built sufficient inherent value into its secret recipe that it was able to be used as security against a bank loan in the early years of the 20th century.
When it comes to retail, think of the “secret sauce” as the special ingredient that helps to set a retailer’s offer apart from competitors – making it unique in the minds of customers. It can be a signature product and the story behind it (Levis 501’s), a specific category focus (Toys R Us), a positioning territory (Woolworths “Fresh Food People”), a special style or level of service (Nespresso) or a highly distinctive retail environment (Abercrombie & Fitch). Here are three cases in point:
• The “FitPrint System” for sports footwear retailer “The Athlete’s Foot”. The patented system is centred on an electronic device which measures pressure points in a person’s gait. Together with foot measurements the system helps a “Fit Technician” recommend the best choice of shoe for a customer.
• A “no-questions-asked” returns policy for US department store Nordstrom. There is a great story surrounding the policy which enhances Nordstrom’s reputation for legendary service. In the mid-70’s a customer returned some car tyres to a Nordstrom location in Alaska. Without question, the customer got their money back on the spot, even though Nordstrom had never sold tyres. Why? Because that’s the policy and the employee was empowered to do so. (The back story here is that in 1975 Nordstrom acquired three stores in Alaska from the Northern Commercial Company, which did sell tyres. So when the customer – who had purchased the tyres from Northern Commercial – brought them back to Nordstrom, the return was accepted.)
• The ClubCard for UK supermarket giant Tesco. A forerunner of programs such as Woolworths Everyday Rewards, the Card has engendered an unusual amount of loyalty amongst Tesco customers, and allowed the company to gain incredible insight into shopper habits and purchasing patterns. Along the way, it helped lift Tesco to #1 in the UK.
So what’s your “secret sauce”? What is the special something that sets you apart as a retailer, making you magnetic to customers and distinctive from your competitors? And how can you give it legendary status?