Why Secrecy Works for Apple

Last Updated Sep 3, 2010 3:15 PM EDT

Apple's symbol is an Apple with a bite taken out of it. This theme is an extension of the company's original logo, which featured Issac Newton sitting under an apple tree, about to be conked on the noggin.

I think the logo has a richer current running through it, one not envisioned by its creators. Adam and Eve, as we recall, lost their innocence when they bit into the forbidden fruit. When the company is at its best, rolling out products that are entirely unexpected and entirely delightful, we are offered the apple to take us out of our innocent, hum-drum lives -- at least until the damn antenna doesn't work.

This is why secrecy is such a powerful weapon in Apple's arsenal, and something it should never, ever, abandon.

Charlene Li, author of Open Leadership, makes a great point about this in a recent interview with the Washington Post. She recalls the recent Steve Jobs intro of iPhone 4, a few weeks after the world had already seen the phone, left in a bar by an employee, in news accounts.

"He raised it and said, 'I think you've all seen this thing before,'" Li recalls. "And the energy went out of the room. Everyone knew what it was already." The bite of the apple wasn't as sweet.

Apple should be secretive, she says, because that's what customers want.

"Their whole relationship with customers is about the game, the surprise, the secrecy, the delight that comes with a new announcement. What is Steve Jobs going to do? What is he going to announce? It's a very special relationship Apple has crafted, because it is closed."

It's all smart marketing for Apple, along with hyper-event marketing, limited product at rollout, and Job's black wardrobe. (Try to think of him announcing a new gizmo in a lime green Polo shirt.)

Can you think of other companies who play off of secrecy as well as Apple?


(Apple image by Flickr user kyz, CC 2.0)
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.