Can You Keep a Secret?
Stealth mode is a business strategy in which your product, service, or entire brand is intentionally hidden from the market until a predefined date. It is the fine art of keeping a secret, especially in highly competitive markets. And in many ways, it goes against every piece of advice entrepreneurs normally give. Educating your users, generating feedback, building product love, cultivating a community – these are all best practices that require some element of exposure. How can people fall in love with your brand if they can’t see it?
But under the right conditions, every rule is meant to be broken. A good argument for operating in stealth mode is the basic human hunger for curiosity and intrigue. As J.J. Abrams lays out in his great TED talk, “Mystery is the catalyst for imagination. There are times when mystery is more important than knowledge.”
In addition, if you’re working on something innovative that would give you an abnormal first-mover advantage, stealth mode gives you the opportunity to set a precedent and establish serious market domination. Especially if what you’re working on can be easily replicated.
Stealth Mode is an Active State
The key is understanding that stealth mode does not mean static invisibility. When done right, it’s an incredibly dynamic state for business – one that requires teasing out just the right amount of information to spark interest without showing your hand. It’s also the time to make sure your branding is bullet-proof because the brutal thing about first impressions is you only get one. If you hype up your audience, you better be ready to meet that hype. Have you ever been intrigued by an amazing set-up only to be let down by an awful punchline? That’s what we’re looking to avoid here.
Vijay Chattha, who runs the public relations firm VSC, says he believes more than half of all stealth modes are embarked upon for the sake of marketing and branding. Chattha says his companies have advised roughly 70 percent of the firms’ 200 clients at one time to use a stealth mode tactic before a big, splashy launch. “If I say, ‘I have a secret, I’d like to tell you,’ you’re likely to respond,” he says. “So much in life is about curiosity, and unearthing the unknown.”
So, how do you inspire intrigue but not confusion? Curiosity without alienation? Invest in the power of your emerging brand. You may not be able to throw a huge launch party or share an explanatory demo video. But as writer Misha Abasov says, “The basis of startup marketing – which is content – is still at your disposal.”
Yes, content is still king. And it can rule over whatever degree of secrecy you’re comfortable with sharing. You can produce materials about the industry you’re about to disrupt, the customer pain you’re addressing, insider information, behind-the-scenes action, or even conjure curiosity by developing creative that simply says, “Something is coming.” Apple employed a similar strategy with the buildup to its now-unveiled streaming service.
All of this content is driving toward one thing: building a mailing list of curious people. The science on likes, follows, and retweets is spurious at best. But email – glorious, unsexy email – is still the most valuable link to your customers over time. That’s why you must create a landing page that lets you collect emails and a blog that inspires subscribers.
While you’re building this base, the real work on your brand can take place. Invest in brand positioning. Lock down your brand narrative. Calculate your product-market fit. And, as always, lead with shimmering design and trenchant copy that cuts through the vat of sameness like a hot knife.
Harnessing the Power of Stealth
For a deeper look into successfully emerging out of stealth mode, look to our work with Harness. We were able to create a unique visual identity that captured their vision of continuous delivery. Through the use of symbolic illustrations showing people overcoming impossible tasks, we could address customer pain without giving up the whole secret. Quickly synthesizing strategy, product, and category, we were able to create a future-state for the brand without having a past to reference. All of this work allowed them to get out the gate running.
In an interview with Greg Howard, VP of Growth Marketing at Harness, he reiterated the importance of crystallizing your brand in stealth mode. “Not only do I believe that the ‘product sells itself’ is dead,” he says, “but I don’t believe it ever really existed in the first place. Buyers are constantly inundated with messages, so getting your messaging and brand identity is absolutely key. There’s simply too much noise out there. If you don’t do it right, you’ll never get through.”
Stealth mode isn’t for everyone, but there’s a lesson here that applies to all business. When it comes to solidifying your brand, there’s no such thing as too early.
Emotive Brand is a brand strategy and design agency in Oakland, California.