The Power of Mystery in Branding

by Donna Sturgess

The Power of Brand MysteryIf you are taking the time read this article, it is evidence of the power delivered by the juxtaposition of mystery and branding. Its power comes from the intrigue that mystery offers, as it sets up an expectation of something more interesting to consider than the typical brand fare. It also has an impact on the customer; they lean in, they engage and they participate.

Brands typically work on the principle of more is better. The next innovation is loaded with claims and a list of features and benefits in an attempt stack the deck with everything they’ve got to drive sales. With so many advantages why wouldn’t they buy it? Perhaps it is because all of those claims may just be boring to the customer.

Mystery is an intangible that adds value to a product through its sense of excitement and the promise of an experience. Mystery has the power to pique curiosity and focus the consumer’s attention. When presented in the right way, it invites people to fill in unknown information or follow the journey of an unfolding story. Fewer facts and more intrigue will create a compelling mystery that challenges one’s ingenuity to discover a solution. The greater the excitement, the more social energy it will attract.

The Power of Brand Mystery

A good example of leveraging mystery comes from the promotion of Jay-Z’s book, Decoded. It is a book about culture and music lyrics and features on the cover an image of Andy Warhol’s “Rorschach”. Sales for the book were driven by a highly unusual interactive promotion involving a global scavenger hunt. Fans had the opportunity to put the book together online before its launch (for free).

Through an interactive web site a clue was given to where each page would be released in a physical location each day– in sites like store windows, pool tables and even the bottom of the Delano Hotel pool in Miami. Followers of this extraordinary campaign could then physically gather at the location of a new page.

The Power of Brand Mystery

It is important to note this campaign was for a simple book, not a multi-million dollar new product that took three years or more to develop. By inviting consumers to be a part of the experience they created a sense of belonging, and along the way turned some fans into evangelists for the book and the Jay-Z brand.

Mystery is most effective for brands when it provokes interaction, rather than acceptance of a fact, such as the secret formula for Coca-Cola. The high penetration of smart phones and people’s inclination to use them during the shopping, makes customer engagement through puzzles, challenges and adventures an easy way to drive participation. Don’t think of this as yet another vehicle to offer price promotions and coupons. Mystery is a brand lever to drive excitement through stories and content to make brands relevant. The thrill of discovery gets people talking and wondering together.

Here are some initial ideas:

1. QR Codes on packages and media can deliver clues and challenges. (Clues can contain information you want the customer to know)

2. Cross-brand promotions can create bigger engagements around mystery and increase shopping time

3. Retail, online and outdoor can interact like a three dimensional tic-tac-toe game

4. Physical clues that require a return to the store can increase foot traffic

5. Mystery involves surprise and there are many ways to deliver the “pop” of delight when something is revealed or a secret is figured out

Jay-Z understood the importance of culture to his followers, particularly their desire to be in the know, in the moment. The problem for most brands is they don’t know enough about what is relevant to their customers to engage them through mystery. Teams build “brand worlds” as a way to push beyond just product thinking, but those constructs rarely reveal underlying motivations like mystery. Mystery and its qualities can also be quantitatively measured which means it is a driver that can be managed for market advantage.

Before you start to think mystery is only a possibility in certain categories, take some time to consider how you might leverage it to inject excitement into your brand or category. It means you will have to leave something to be desired and imagined by the customer as an invitation to participate.

image credit: hands and shades image from bigstock, juice & oneclub

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Donna Sturgess is the President and Co-founder of Buyology Inc and former Global Head of Innovation for GlaxoSmithKline. Her latest book is Eyeballs Out: How To Step Into Another World, Discover New Ideas, and Make Your Business Thrive. Follow on Twitter: @donnasturgess


  1. Great article Donna. Audience engagement, participation and feedback is the new paradigm in an increasingly online world. The element of mystery in branding is powerful and should give a competitive advantage to those who know how to use it effectively.

    • Hi Joan

      Agree with your comments. Mystery is potent if brand stewards spend time thinking about how to dial up interest and engagement. If you measure mystery at a non-conscious level the impact on the brand is quite revealing


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