What’s pink and blue and comes with a casual 56 grams of sugar? That'll be the Unicorn Frappucino, which is sadly not a joke, but a legitimate limited edition drink recently created by Starbucks.

It’s also just one example of a brand using hidden menu items as part of a marketing strategy.

So, (sugar-aside) why are consumers such suckers for a secret menu? Here are just a few reasons why it tends to work.

1. Inherently shareable nature

It appears social media users cannot keep anything a secret these days. It’s been just a few weeks since Starbucks released its Unicorn Frappucino in the US, and there are now over 150,000 images using the related hashtag on Instagram.

This was the aim, of course, with Starbucks deliberately creating a drink that they knew users would love. Regardless of whether or not it actually tasted nice (or could induce diabetes), consumers bought the item purely for the chance to post a selfie with it

Other brands have also seen secret menu items go viral in this way – but it’s not always on purpose. 

Arby’s, the US fast-food chain, found that customers were requesting its ‘meat mountain’ special in restaurants – a stack of meat that was originally featured in a promotional image. The restaurant began making it for those who asked, leading to customers spreading the word on social and ultimately creating Arby’s first ever secret menu item. 

Unsurprisingly, as more and more brands have introduced secret items, consumers have also become extra savvy when it comes to sharing them. In fact, hashtags and websites, such as Hack the Menu, are dedicated to promoting the most recent items as well as offer reviews and opinions.

2. Allows brands to experiment

While a secret menu is a great way for brands to generate buzz, it can also be used in a more functional capacity. 

This means that instead of adding a new item to the main menu - which comes with the risk of customers not liking it or bemoaning the loss of an item it could have replaced – brands can still introduce it without the pressure or commitment.

With less investment on marketing spend to promote new items, consumer response can be gauged to establish whether or not it’s worth introducing long-term. Often, items will find their way onto the main menu eventually. Take Starbucks again, for instance, whose 'pink drink' (now known as the Strawberry Acai Refresher) first made the rounds on Instagram last year.

Brands like Panera and In-N-Out Burger also do this on a regular basis, even creating a permanent ‘not-so-secret’ menu for items that prove continuously popular.

So, why don’t they just create a bigger menu overall? Ultimately, the sort-of-hidden element is all about customer service, offering people increased flexibility and opportunities to customise orders, without overwhelming or saturating the main menu. 

In-N-Out Burger's 'not-so-secret' menu

3. Builds customer loyalty 

Lastly, one of the biggest reasons brands use secret menus is that it instills a sense of importance in customers. 

People feel like they are getting their hands on something rare, or as if they are part of an exclusive club. As a result, they are more likely to forge a memorable or more meaningful connection with the brand, meaning they are also more likely to return again in future. 

Does it always work?

Of course, the strategy does not come without its downsides. As the Unicorn Frappucino demonstrates, brands run the risk of veering into gimmicky territory, resulting in the view that secret menus are purely a money-making scheme rather than something for the benefit or thrill of customers. 

Meanwhile, brands must also consider that staff will have to manage orders of customised items in stores and restaurants – as well as avoid potential waste.

On the other hand, with huge opportunity for brand awareness and increased sales, it's little wonder so many restaurants can't wait for us to shout about their so-called 'secrets'. Consequently, it doesn’t look like the trend will disappear anytime soon. 

Related reading:

Nikki Gilliland

Published 11 May, 2017 by Nikki Gilliland @ Econsultancy

Nikki is a Writer at Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

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