From Secret Sauce to PR Confection in 4 Steps
In my last post I explained the history and significance of secret sauce, or IP, in tech marketing. I also laid out the challenges of getting PR mileage from your core tech.
To summarize, “secret sauce” underpins a solution or component. This almost magical ingredient has given bragging rights to scores of companies over decades.
But promoting the underlying tech is not the same as hyping a finished product. It may be unclear how it can advance your PR goals.
Secrets can build curiosity if you toss out a few crumbs. But the tension must break at some point. Even if you convince a journalist that there’s something pretty cool under the hood, they will get weary of the dance unless you show more cards (am I mixing enough metaphors here?) Say too much, and your competitors can rip it off.
In this post, I explore the steps needed to overcome these challenges and turn this asset into a PR advantage.
1. Take Stock of Your IP and its Potential
The best way to understand the tech is to just ask. The answers from this kind of discovery can inform everything from messaging, positioning, branding, website, collateral and so on, not just press releases.
E.g., when we sit down with a tech startup we ask:
- Tell us about your core tech
- How/when was it developed?
- What was the “Eureka moment” that led to it?
- How does it reflect your team’s expertise?
- Does it build on anything else (like open source)?
- Has your team published academic papers about the IP?
- Does it give you a competitive advantage?
- Is it patented/protected?
You need to ask, because the founders may take their core tech for granted and want to jump right to telling the world how great their product or solution is.
It is not just about fact finding – but teasing out the cool, to help turn a dry story about technology into something really interesting.
2. Hitting the Sauce
Hopefully you are realizing that this kind of info can be very helpful – and not just for hyping the secret ingredient.
The IP often reflects the company and team’s DNA. Knowing more about their R&D and tech chops can inform story-telling and thought leadership efforts and become part of the larger company narrative.
From there it depends on how relevant the technology is to the company’s goals. If it is aligned and provides a competitive advantage, all the more reasons to double down.
Like real sauce, the tech has a shelf life. If the company has pivoted, then the original tech may be less relevant. Or perhaps the vendor has gone on to conquer new markets and launch different offerings – then, the original IP may be less relevant.
It is hard to cover all possibilities but let me list a few ways below to overcome challenges and leverage secret sauce in your marketing.
3. How Much to Say and When (To Baste or not to Baste?)
The best time to flaunt it is at the beginning and throughout the first few years of a startup’s journey.
How big a deal should you make over secret sauce, vs. other things you could be talking about? Why say anything?
To the extent that IP explains your advantages vs. the competition, then it boosts credibility. Plus, there’s the good old “gee whiz” factor, if it’s just really cool tech and a breakthrough.
Some are afraid to talk about the core IP for competitive reasons. I think that fear is overblown. First, if you’ve gotten patents, it is for all intents and purposes public info that anyone can look up. If you haven’t, you need to weigh the risks of discussing the tech vs. holding the cards close. Assuming you are willing to share details, they should be woven into the messaging and storytelling.
It is not a binary decision, either. You can dance around it and share some details without giving so much away that it can be reverse engineered.
4. Explaining the Unexplainable (Simmering the Sauce)
If you are with me so far, and want to open up the sauce spigot, the next question is how to do this, especially when the underlying technology may be very hard to explain and understand.
All kinds of content can help. PowerPoints, white papers and academic papers should be provided to those who want to dig deeper and really understand. But it is not a great idea to leave this to chance. Your success in communicating with journalists, who may not be tech wonks, will hinge on breaking your tech down in simpler terms.
Do this well and the IP becomes shorthand for the company’s differentiators.
How to explain at a high level depends on what you have. Typical tools include demos, explainer videos, analogies and metaphors. While a deep dive into translating technology is beyond the scope of the post, perhaps a couple of mini-case studies will help.
ThetaRay: Threat detection for banking
Secret sauce challenges:
ThetaRay is on the cutting edge: their proprietary machine learning and AI algorithms process massive amounts of data, and glean intelligence about the “unknown unknowns” – threats that are anomalous – without historical context, regardless of the type of data.
How it does this is hard to explain. The claims sound almost too good to be true. Plus, there is much noise, competition and growing skepticism about AI. Most solutions are “black boxes” that are inscrutable and sometimes accused of bias.
We provided many ways for the media to validate and better understand ThetaRay’s tech, ranging from videos to white papers and even demos (unlike many others, their solution is “explainable AI” and not a black box).
It helped to flaunt the reputations and academic papers of founders and world-renowned mathematicians Amir Averbuch (Tel Aviv University) and Ronald Coifman (Yale); and highlight the years of research behind the secret sauce.
To explain at a high level, we positioned their tech as Artificial Intuition, as written in this TNW piece.
[Artificial intuition] … enables computers to identify threats and opportunities without being told what to look for, just as human intuition allows us to make decisions without specifically being instructed on how to do so. It’s similar to a seasoned detective who can enter a crime scene and know right away that something doesn’t seem right, or an experienced investor who can spot a coming trend before anybody else.TNW
Identiq: Anti-fraud privacy protection for e-commerce
Secret sauce challenges:
Identiq aims to stop the rampant propagation of personal info and combat consumer fraud through a “provider-less trust network” that validates customer identity for e-commerce companies without sharing, sending or storing PII (personally identifiable information).
They employ cryptography to make sure the person applying for a mortgage or setting up a customer account is who they say they are. Identiq obviates the need for third party data clearinghouses (like credit bureaus) to do this.
If members of the Identiq network validate the ID it can be proven, to a high degree of mathematical certainty, that the person is the real deal, and not a fraudster with stolen credentials.
The problem is that it is maddeningly difficult to explain cryptography, and convince people that Identiq can help e-tailers confirm a person’s identity – without sharing or storing any details.
We used a number of tools to explain Identiq; from videos to comparisons with online auctions to dumbed down explanations, like “Bob and Bill both have a number in mind, and they want to know whether it is the same, but they don’t want each other to know what number they have. So, they tell Steve, a third party. Steve can then tell them whether they have the same number, without telling either of them what each other has.”
Tech Republic covered it here:
The idea is to make it easy for companies to identify who their new customers are through a “network of trust”… They can do that without sharing the customer’s personal information…Tech Republic
“We looked into a branch of cryptography called multi-party computation, which is over 30 to 40 years old,” Arad said. “This branch deals with the question of how multiple parties can calculate some function together without revealing their own individual inputs.”
For example, if you were conducting an online auction, every participant can make a bid and multi-party computation can allow the participants to find out who the winner is without revealing individual bids, he said.
It helped to cite a renowned cryptography wonk:
Ran Canetti, professor of Computer Science at Boston University and the recipient of many awards including the RSA Award for Excellence in Mathematics and the IBM Research Outstanding Innovation Award, explained the cryptographic context behind the anonymity of the [Identiq] network. He discussed why a technique which had been established in academic circles for decades had recently emerged to tackle real-life challenges.Professor Ran Canetti
We also established credibility by naming the global brands who are rallying around Identiq.