Want Magic? Spill the Secrets of Your Black Box

With the rise of cloud computing, it’s easy to get the impression customers don’t care how a particular process or product works—that they only care about results. And the process of hiding—black boxing—the inner components of a product or service, definitely makes sense when competitors are snooping for clues. However, in the name of transparency, giving customers a “window view” of your daily processes might just be the key differentiator you’ve been seeking.

Watch Apple CEO Steve Jobs give a keynote presentation and you’ll probably come away with the belief there’s more power in “magic” and “mystique” than exposing the inner workings of a particular product or service. However, in some instances you can also create “magic” by showing customers the value creation process.

Take BMW for example. An article in the Financial Times titled; “Benefits of a Showroom Bypass” cites how BMW is now offering buyers a way to circumvent the dealer showroom and custom build a car of their very own.

Customers can customize their own automobile from paint and interior colors to installation of custom features such as grills and moon-roofs. But the real magic begins when BMW films the entire production process of a customer’s specific car – all the way down to showing the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) – and then ships the DVD to the buyer.  Imagine receiving a DVD in the mail showing how your specific car was built –now that’s magic!

If customers are not appreciative of the value your company delivers, perhaps a new strategy of additional transparency can win them over.  Some examples to increase transparency include:

  • Show customers your ingredients, components, processes, configurations etc. “Behind the scenes” tours anyone?
  • Help customers analyze trade-offs similar to what Progressive Insurance does by showing competitor rates
  • Give them more references – i.e. 90% of your customer base, not just the 2-3 customers who love your product/service

To be sure, too much transparency may disclosure your “secret sauce” to competitors. But where possible, “throw back the hood” of how your product or service is created or delivered. It may just end up telling a more magical and differentiated story than your competitors!


  • What’s the right level of transparency to engage customers, while still maintaining a bit of mystique in how your product/service is built and/or delivered?


    • Thanks for the comment. A colleague of mine pointed out the same video you’re describing. I guess I’m one of the few folks on the planet that didn’t know about it! Thanks for sharing and visiting Boundaryless Marketing!

  1. If someone will really wish to find out what “secret sauce” is, he will find it. The only way to protect the recipe is to get it into registered intellectual property pool, or rely on the time required to find out the recipe and copy it (i.e. use market advantage to the maximum for limited time).

    Apple is linked to the “magic” and “mystique” because we believe in it. But the same “magic” and “mystique” can easily become “frustration” and “failure” – when you need to cast a magical spell yourself, but do not know how to do it and at the end it’s your failure.

    “Right” level of transparency does not exist. Everyone defines what is right for them, and it’s one of the ingredients of their complex business recipe.

    But there’s clear boundary where mystique may become failure.
    – customer finds out (or just feels) that he was tricked (technologically, contractually, etc)
    – customer understands that he was left alone with black box
    – assumed processed do not work, and information is unavailable or non-reliable

    For that, company needs clear understanding and definition of the usability of the product or process, and provide necessary information and training services to the customers. For processes – proper “adaptors” between organizations, process quality measures – and act on them.

    Trained customer is a loyal customer. A partner. Otherwise it’s customers at risk.
    If you charge customer with, let’s say, system administration – provide sys admin books and training, enough to do that task. For complex issues keep knowledge inhouse.

    • Eugeny, I’m not quite sure that if someone really wants to find out what your secret sauce is that they’ll find it. Coke has been able to keep their formula a secret for 100 years – even though spectral analysis pretty much let’s scientists know its ingredients.

      And I’ll agree with you that there’s some consumer “buy-in” to the magic and mystique of Apple (it takes two parties) but Mr. Jobs does a pretty darn good job of keeping his cards close to his vest and creating a fair amount of pre-launch hype, doesn’t he?

      • Mr. Ping: The secret ingredient is… nothing!
        Po: Huh?
        Mr. Ping: You heard me. Nothing! There is no secret ingredient.
        Po: Wait, wait… it’s just plain old noodle soup? You don’t add some kind of special sauce or something?
        Mr. Ping: Don’t have to. To make something special you just have to believe it’s special.
        [Po looks at the scroll again, and sees his reflection in it]
        (Kung fu panda, 2008)

        If you can’t find secret ingredient, it just does not exit in the place you are looking at. It is in the heads of those who believe in secret ingredient. Secret coca’s ingredient is a huge dose of sugar in 100ml, which causes diabetes and obesity.
        I am not in the position to evaluate Mr. Jobs. I am just watching 🙂

  2. Eugeny – love the Kung Fu Panda reference. Very clever.

    Secret ingredients – isn’t that the marketers job to make others believe they exist – even when perhaps all that’s being sold is sugar water?

    Thanks for commenting!

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