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The stuff that separates the marketing bonanzas from the also-rans. If your product doesn't have a 'secret formula' then you might as well forget making a fat and healthy profit on it. Coca Cola's got one (well, it has to have, doesn't it? Otherwise it's just a 'soft drink with vegetable extracts' - I had a hell of a job getting the idea that it was made out of potatoes, carrots, and sprouts out of my head. For a while it even smelt of them - heck, perhaps it still does) - Uncle Joe's Mintballs have got one, although I can forgive them for that, because they are so nice. Quiggins' Kendal Mint Cake's got one too. I wouldn't be surprised if MacDonalds had one, and Andrex as well (Andrex make loo roll in the UK - they could still get a secret formula into it if they tried hard enough).

But why? There are at least two reasons why 'secret formulas' work. The first is that we seem to be automatically impressed with secrecy. If it's hidden, then it must be worth knowing, we reason. If it's in a computer somewhere then we hack it and if it makes soft drinks, then we drink it. This doesn't really make much sense - if it's hidden, then someone wants to hide it: this, at its most basic form, presupposes no intrinsic value. If you're an incurable cynic, then you might say the best way to artificially inflate the value of anything is to stop if from being easily available ( - interestingly enough this came up in a recent court-case against the perfume business by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission (why is there only one Monopolies Commission?). The charge was that companies artificially inflate their prices. The companies retalliated by saying that people didn't want to buy something that was cheap, as it wouldn't make them feel as good about wearing it. The horrific thing is that they're probably right: think about the smell of tacky perfume... it smells 'cheap'. We seem to have an in-built disgust of things that are easily obtainable.)

The second reason we like secret formulas is to do with our perception of the product too. And it's that word 'secret'. It's not a 'denied' formula, or a 'restricted' one. It's secret: big men in black suits, and dark glasses guard it, in safes. This formula is transported in a limousine from high-security vault to high-security vault - (ooh, Frosties, with that wretched tiger: they had one too - a breakfast cereal, I ask you!). Guns, and disused warehouses, and rendevous on bridges at midnight figure hugely in our impression of anything with a secret formula.

The ironic upshot of all this, though, is that if a company really didn't want its recipe being desired and scrutinized, the very best way to do it, in this age of high-technology, is to make it as accessible as possible. Write it in big letters on a bill-board. If it's that easy to get hold of, what could it possibly be worth? Let's not even bother reading it.

Coke have now realised this. And have published theirs.

Sales are probably still on the increase.

Go figure.

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