Mystery and Transparency

J.J. Abrams, creator of “Lost” started out his talk at TED by saying. “Whenever I meet people, the first thing they ask is, ‘What [the heck] is that island,’ quickly followed by the question, ‘No seriously, what [the heck’s] that island?”

Why does mystery captivate us so? Long ago, Abrams was given “Tannen’s Magic Mystery Box” by his grandfather. He’s never opened the box, but he’s never gotten rid of it, either. It reminds him of how hiddenness can often have as much if not more impact as revelation.


Mystery engages us. Mystery intrigues us, and brings us to new places in our thought processes and imaginations.

Mystery can be a powerful element in good branding. Not the “Is that meat or is that cake?” kind of mystery. The “What is it about you that I find so irresistible?” kind of mystery. I’m imagining a box graph with “transparency” in the upper left quadrant. In the lower right would be “bald-faced lie” but maybe in the upper right quadrant could be “mystery” maybe the lower left could be “Over sharing” or “too much info!” Like so:










 Lie-ey lies



Businesses and brands that stay in the upper half of this graph know how to strike that balance between giving people good intel and leaving them with a bit of expectation.

I think of Farrell’s Ice Cream parlors, a fond memory from my childhood in Phoenix. Farrell’s was an experience. On the transparency side, you knew what you were getting into. You’d walk into a Gilded Age era candy store – that was their version of an entry way – with every kind of gum, lollipop, chocolate, tooth-rotting, diabetes inducing product in the known universe. A server in a straw barber shop quartet hat would seat you, again the Gilded Age décor bright red walls, antiquish pictures and artifacts on the walls, white ice cream parlor tables. But there was mystery, too. Would somebody order the “Zoo?” When a party ordered the Zoo, Farrell’s pulled out all the stops. A siren would sound, an announcement would be made by a (perhaps too) effervescent staffer, and two other wait staffers would run around the entire restaurant (sometimes over empty booths) with a giant bowl of ice cream between them on a stretcher. Wacky ice cream hi-jinks! You never knew if and when this was coming. It was part of their Mystery Box arsenal.

Farrell’s deserves a larger brand analysis, but I’ll leave it to the transparency/mystery quotient for now.

Abrams is right. We tune in to “Lost” week after week, because we know we will discover something, but also because we know we will be confounded in a weird, tantalizing way. Go, mystery!


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