Secret Meaning is the New Black

As odd as it sounds, companies that want to create their own brand could learn a lot from the kids who helped you build your first treehouse, Yale University’s Skull and Crossbones Society and the He-Man Women Haters Club from the old Our Gang comedies. And maybe even Boy and Girl Scouts and Fight Club.

Think about it for just a minute and you’ll see what I mean. All of them thrived on secrecy, shared symbols and a feeling of being instantly understood. The best part was that you didn’t have to be pretty, popular or even all that athletic to belong. All you needed to know was the secret handshake, the password or the secret code and you were instantly cool no mater what the rest of the world thought. Ironically enough, belonging to the group even helped validate your sense of being unique.

In short, you’d follow those guys and gals to the end of the earth. The only problem was, they weren’t so good at selling things because, well, that wasn’t what they were about.

But they could have been. If only they’d realized that secret meaning was the new black.

We’re not talking about the hidden meaning that some organizations or religions may imbue in otherwise ordinary, everyday things, though. Instead, we’re referring to the shared sense of meaning that people find in the products they use everyday and how to harness it.

The footwear maker KEEN is a good example. The company may have been built around the need to make sandals a safer form of sportswear, but it quickly evolved into a larger community centering on its own invention, HybridLife. The concept is meant to cover how we split our lives between working, playing and giving back. In addition to allowing the company to state its goal of finding solutions through what it makes and its business practices, it also encourages its customers/followers to take care of each other and the planet. And, by the way, the company helpfully adds, it couldn’t hurt if you threw on a pair of KEEN shoes, socks or used one of its bags while doing it.

The company has even co-opted symbols from our past and present and given them new meaning through Recess Is Back, an initiative designed to encourage its followers to play more. First, there’s the concept of recess, a callback to those halcyon days in grade school when we would take off time from our (class)work, blow off steam and play. The company’s web site also helpfully provides Recess Passes (like the Hall Passes of our school days) to e-mail to friends to encourage them to join you in your effort to have some fun in the middle of your workday. Finally, it also encourages you to print off a door hanger, something usually associated with the fun of vacations and hotel stays, to put on your office door. It turns the convention on its head by substituting “Do Not Disturb” with “Disturb All You Want I’m At Recess.”

It would have been easy for the company to just create a better mouse trap in the form of a sandal with a toe bumper, rest on its laurels and let the money roll. KEEN took it a step further and created a cult-like following by using the symbols its customers already know to tap into their passion.

Here’s why it works:

Smart Use of Symbols

We live in a world that is dominated by symbolism and we are hard-wired to tap into it. Regardless of whether those symbols are religious icons like crosses or six-pointed stars or iconic logos like an apple with a bite missing or a pair of yellow arches, there is a meaning attached to them. Those symbols and the meaning we ascribe to them are the key to the global sectors of any cult. KEEN wisely takes symbols we already know and adds a new layer of meaning to them.


Cult brands know they cannot appeal to everyone, so they focus instead on their community of likely customers/converts/believers. Instead of trying to appeal to all sandal wearers, KEEN focuses on those who are interested in the larger world around them and who want to do more than just buy any sandal that will get the job done. The focus on the symbols of recess like hall passes and door hangers allow them to further refine the group to folks of a certain age who remember hall passes as well as people who travel.

Providing Meaning

Once they have built a following through use of symbols customers recognize, and causes they identify with, companies like KEEN know how to provide a focus for that passion. And not just through the sale of their product. They often also harness the passion to other products and services. Companies like KEEN and others often show the causes they support and encourage their customers to get involved as a way to deepen their connection and commitment.

Increased Individuality Through Group Membership

Yes, I know it sounds strange, but there’s just something about identification with a group that makes people feel more like individuals. Undoubtedly it has something to do with finding a place where a person who previously felt he or she didn’t fit in society has suddenly found the group they identify with and the association allows them to walk taller, feel prouder and more confident than the folks who don’t belong.

There’s a fine line between being different and not different enough. For a cult brand to succeed, you want to stand out from the crowd, but not so much that you frighten your intended audience. In order to get your members to interact and spread word of mouth, you need to build in them a sense of belonging and being a part of something while still encouraging their sense of uniqueness and individuality. By sharing values, objectives or life ideals, brands can work as human identity markers.

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Founder, President, & Chief Strategist
David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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