The Undercover Effect

By Ivy Cohen | President and CEO, Ivy Cohen Corporate Communications

Three characteristics that make undercover brands sought-after

  1. Exclusivity – A brand that’s available only to a select group can become more desirable or more elite. Sometimes it may be expensive, though much of the time it’s the fact that only a small niche group is targeted, which can make a brand more sought after. The alignment of a small clique with a brand can create a buzz with the general public.
  2. Limited Access – Some companies create allure by offering a limited edition, restricting availability to market, or leaking small bits of information. Case in point: a rare first edition Princess Bear Beanie Baby created for The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund sold for $500,000 in 2017.
  3. Reclusiveness – Some brands create demand by deliberately avoiding the press: declining interviews, restricting access, responding with “no comment.”


Reclusive brands and personalities that have thrived

Personality Brands

Banksy – Banksy is an anonymous England-based graffiti artist, political activist and film director whose satirical and distinctive street art is known around the world and whose pieces have fetched well over a million dollars. No one knows when and where Banksy’s latest work will pop up; the elusive artist creates clever social media events that send fans on a scavenger hunt to find new works of art. And his identity remains a closely-guarded secret.

Howard Hughes Jr. – In the ’40s and ’50s, billionaire Howard Hughes was a business mogul with almost total ownership of RKO movie studios, vast real estate holdings, and an influential figure in the aviation industry. While his exploits and lavish lifestyle were world-renowned, the man himself was an enigma and his reclusiveness made him an enduring legend.

Harper Lee – Lee was a media recluse, refusing all interviews and speaking requests after To Kill a Mockingbird became a global bestseller in 1960. For 40 years the public clamored for a follow-up to her iconic novel, with no response from Lee. In 2015, with mystery still surrounding the author, Lee’s sequel Go Set a Watchman was published, setting a one-day sales record at Barnes & Noble.

Reclusive Consumer Brands

Sriracha – David Tran, founder of Huy Fong Foods and maker of the original Sriracha sauce, does no advertising and takes no interviews. Yet his product has grown into a cult favorite. Tran only recently began giving interviews, and very few at that. He doesn’t like talking to the press and won’t share information about his business model, operations or market size, saying only “the ‘secret’ sauce sells itself” by word of mouth.

Tesla – Elon Musk’s 2008 Tesla Roadster was the first highway legal serial production all-electric car to use lithium-ion battery cells. Being the first of its kind and having limited availability made it a status symbol. It wasn’t until Musk filed a $100 million IPO that promotion expanded to the broader market.

Club 33 – A private club located in the heart of Disneyland, Club 33 has no official website and Disney does not advertise it. With its $25,000 initiation fee and $10,000 annual fee, there is a 14-year waiting list for new memberships.

To Go Undercover or Not?
When should a brand consider “undercover” as a deliberate strategy?

  • Startups with no marketing budget may be able to create buzz, word of mouth or intrigue about their brand
  • If your team has connections or includes influencers, you can try using them to create mystique
  • A groundbreaking product that is entirely new can be buzzworthy
  • A product that addresses a need that is in the news could attract attention without formal marketing


When is This a Bad Idea?

  • When your offer adds only incremental value to something that already exists
  • If you are not willing to maintain a quiet personal profile
  • If you are uncomfortable having others speak as your appointed representatives
  • If you are not both patient and persistent
  • If CEO presence or key information sharing is a required threshold


Finding Influencers in a Haystack

It can be challenging to find influencers who will prove the brand’s value and help create demand.

  • Prestigious affiliation motivates some consumers to buy, but this strategy won’t work for brands not affiliated with people who have an established reputation
  • Startups may not have the ability or time to build a reputation without press or marketing
  • If your product is not unique or first on the market, influencers may not be enough
  • If you don’t have access to influencers and/or your audience, this is not the best strategy

Additional Reading on Strategies Deployed by Undercover Brands

  1. Tapping Brand Ambassadors
  2. Invite-Only Marketing
  3. Word of Mouth
  4. Influencer Marketing


For more thought leadership content and to access Marketing Coach, visit Ivy Cohen Corporate Communications

The original article can be found here.


  • Lauren Keyson

    Lauren is the Founder and CEO of Keyson Publishing. She is also the Founder and CEO of the not-for-profit Disruptive Technologists, Inc., and founder, writer, and publisher of This latest project incorporates published digital content for the web, newsletters, podcasts, quarterly events in partnership with Microsoft, webinars, Think Tank events & dinners with some of the most disruptive voices in technology today, as well as a large social media network on multiple platforms.

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