We’re going to let you in on a little secret; secret product offerings are an excellent way for challenger brands to begin a grassroots marketing campaign, foster a loyal fanbase and potentially steal a customer or two from the Goliaths of their industry. From off-menu food items to exclusive turndown services, brands small and large have been keeping their best benefits on the DL for their most devout followers. By creating an air of prestige and capitalizing on their customers’ social media clout, the companies below have mastered the art of mum’s-the-word promotions and challenged their competitors with much bigger advertising budgets.  

The Secret’s Out About In-N-Out Burger

The greatest cultivator of exclusivity in the fast food industry would have to be In-N-Out burger. First, they refused to expand beyond California’s borders. Then, they agreed to broaden their horizons but refused to franchise. And now that they are relatively easy to find in any major Texas city, they continue to maintain their challenger spirit by refusing to list their most popular items on their in-store menus (even if it’s readily apparent on their website). Take “Protein Style” for example, where your favorite burger is wrapped in lettuce instead of a carb-loaded bun. Or “Animal Style,” where your favorite burger comes with their proprietary grilled onion spread. Sure, McDonald’s has a similar sauce, and Burger King will let you replace your bread with wilted greens if you wish, but there’s something about walking up to that counter and uttering an unlisted term that makes customers feel like members of a secret society. Judging by the lines snaking out of their drive-thru day and night, it’s a rather larger society.

Starbucks Hides in Plain Sight

You would think being the world’s largest coffee chain would allow Starbucks to rest on their laurels, but you’d be wrong. Aware that some espresso snobs wouldn’t be caught dead supporting such a giant corporation, Starbucks took the offensive and started opening “Stealth Starbucks” stores in metropolitan areas across the country. These locations look, smell and sound just like the kind of shops where mustachioed baristas turn latte foam into fine art, but they’re actually owned and operated by the Starbucks corporation. Another way Starbucks appeals to purists who prefer their coffee NOT taste like milk and simple syrup is the Short Size. Most consumers think Tall is the smallest cup Starbucks has to offer, but literally hiding behind the counter is an 8 oz vessel that’s perfect for a true European-style latte (two ounces of espresso, six ounces of steamed milk). And let’s not forget their other secret menu, which seems to challenge Baskin-Robbins more than coffee shops. Starbucks is a perfect example of why no matter how big your company gets, you should never lose your challenger spirit.

JetBlue Is Not Stingy with Their Eats

What JetBlue lacks in flight paths, they make up for with free TV, a free check-in bag, and most secretly, free unlimited snacks. While you’re lucky to get half a can of soda and a Biscoff cookie on most carriers, JetBlue will give you a six pack of Coke and all the Terra Blues chips you can fit in your stomach. You simply have to ask for it. It’s surprising how many passengers continue to settle for one drink and one bag of chips. That goes to show the level of customer service we’ve grown accustomed to with airlines, and why the travel and transportation industry needs more challenger brands ASAP.

Kimpton's Poppin Bottles, Discreetly. 

Speaking of travel, the hotel industry is ripe for secret rewards, and Kimpton Hotels is no stranger to the “shhhh” factor. With 64 boutique hotels in 33 cities, no two locations are alike—aside from the customer service. One way they quietly build customer loyalty is their complimentary champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries service. Be it a birthday, an engagement, a honeymoon or something only you would understand, all you have to do is tell the concierge and they will see to it that your bedside table is garnished with a bottle of bubbly and chocolate-y strawberries. And while it’s not available at every location, some Kimpton properties across the country now (slyly) feature their exclusive Nightcap Program, featuring port wine, brandy, cognac, and snacks that will put you in the mood for a snooze. As always, just ask the concierge.  

L.L. Bean 100% Satisfaction Guarantee

The clothing industry is another area where customer service is king, but it takes a lot more than e-coupons to make customers feel special in this overcrowded market. To emphasize their customer appreciation and quality craftsmanship, L.L. Bean continues to honor their 100% Satisfaction Guaranteed policy. Whether you’ve owned your L.L. Bean merchandise for a week or a century, if your item ever fails to meet your needs, L.L. Bean will refund or replace it; no questions asked. And while other outdoor retailers like REI are tightening the strings on their return policy, L.L. Bean CEO Steve Fuller told NPR that the only concern they have is if the company promotes the policy enough. Sure, they’re going to get some scammers, but they’re also going to earn the trust of a lot of customers who are jaded by increasingly tedious return restrictions.

It’s Becoming Pretty Obvious

In the age of social media, where word-of-mouth recommendations hold even more weight than Super Bowl advertisements, it’s in every brand’s best interest to give their customers something to boast about. People are constantly looking for ways to make their lives sound more prestigious, and if you give them a free bottle of champagne or endless potato chips, you best believe they’re going to Instagram, tweet, Snapchat or Facebook about it. The question is, what “shhhh” of yours will they be sharing?

Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin

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