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When a company has a distinctive product, it’s going to want to protect it from copycats. Isn’t that what a patent is for? Not necessarily, in the case of the following trade secrets, which are not patented.
If you don’t patent it, you don’t have to make public the ingredients, components, and/or manufacturing methods.
That doesn’t stop imitators from trying. In food and beverages, secrets can be reverse-engineered by amateurs and pros. Copycat make-at-home versions of many brand-name food items are available on the Internet, and there is also a series of “Top Secret Recipes” cookbooks by Todd Wilbur, who also sells his recipes individually online.
From one company’s blend of 11 spices to a beverage brand’s blend of 23 flavors and the “code books” behind a favorite breakfast food item, here is a rundown of the famous products made with secrets that competitors (or even just home cooks) would love to learn.
"Crime Inc.— Corporate Espionage"
Tune in: Secrets for Sale—Premieres Thursday, August 23rd 9p | 12a ET
By Colleen Kane
Posted 22 August 2012
They’re enticingly showcased in extreme close-up in TV ads: a landscape of craters on a bread surface dubbed “nooks and crannies,” suited for catching tiny pools of melted butter and bits of jam. That’s useful—so how does one replicate such nooks and crannies? It’s a secret, and one that’s well protected, with around $500 million in yearly sales at stake.
In 2010, a former employee of parent company Bimbo Bakeries USA, one of seven people worldwide who knew the secret of the nooks and crannies, came under suspicion before a planned move to competing baked goods company Hostess, according to The New York Times. Bimbo filed a trade secret lawsuit to prevent the employee from making the job switch.
The Times noted that Bimbo’s recipe manuals are called “code books” and, as with other trade secrets, the information on recipes and manufacturing methods is compartmentalized to help keep it secure. After taking the case to an appeals court, the employee was barred from starting the job at Hostess.
The formula for Coca-Cola is one of the go-to examples of a trade secret. According to a company representative, the original formula is written on a piece of paper stored in a bank vault. Only “a small handful” of people know the formula at any time.
In 2011, the radio program “This American Life” devoted an episode to unraveling the secret, focusing on (among other leads) a pharmacist’s formula for a cola beverage, although Coca-Cola denied that the secret was revealed.
The original formula isn’t the only secret that may be of value on the black beverage market. In 2007, employees were caught trying to sell samples of a new Coca-Cola beverage to its biggest competitor, Pepsi.
Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper, too? That won’t be happening for aspiring soda-making rivals anytime soon, because another soft drink with a famously secret formula is Dr Pepper, which is made from 23 natural and artificial flavors. Only three people are said to be privy to the recipe, which was invented in 1885 by pharmacist Charles Alderton in Waco, Texas, and is kept locked in a vault in company headquarters in nearby Plano.
The company has gone on the record to deny one common guess at ingredients: There is no prune juice in Dr Pepper.
While we’re at it, other drinkables whose formulas are closely guarded include Frangelico, Angostura bitters, Chartreuse liqueur and the fizzy drink Irn Bru, which The Guardian newspaper called "Scotland’s best kept secret."
The world’s best known household lubricant got its secret agentesque name in 1953 from its inventor Norm Larsen, and it stands for “Water Displacer—40th attempt.”
An article in The Wall Street Journal reported that the formula is in a bank vault and has only been taken out twice—when changing banks and on the product’s 50th birthday, when CEO Garry Ridge rode on a horse into Times Square while wearing a suit of armor and carrying the formula. He said the company mixes a concentrate in three locations, then distributes it to aerosol manufacturing partners worldwide.
The company reveals what’s not in the secret formula on its FAQ page: WD-40 Multi-Use Product does not contain silicone, kerosene, water, graphite, or chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). As for what might be in that secret formula, in 2009, Wired.com sent a can to a lab and published thisreport.
KFC’s “Secret Recipe of 11 Herbs and Spices” for its original fried chicken recipe is nearly as famous as the former Kentucky Fried Chicken ad slogan “finger lickin’ good.” A section of the company’s website is now devoted to spreading the lore about the spice blend. It states that Colonel Harland Sanders kept his recipe in his mind and used to carry the mixture in his car, but today it’s kept under lock and key in a Louisville, Ky., safe. One company blends part of the spice recipe, and another company mixes the rest, so that neither party has the entire recipe.
The Colonel commented how low-security operation he and his wife, Claudia, operated when he was starting out. "After I hit the road selling franchises for my chicken, that left Claudia behind to fill the orders for the seasoned flour mix. She'd fill the day's orders in little paper sacks with cellophane linings and package them for shipment. Then she had to put them on a midnight train."
Many reverse-engineered recipes for KFC-style fried chicken include speculation that the flavor-enhancing additive MSG is part of the secret mix. Others claim the distinctive KFC chicken experience owes a lot to the pressure-frying technique, which is patented.
After hitting the market in 1969, Bush’s has become a top-selling brand of canned baked beans — its flavorings were the subject of a 1990s advertising campaign touting the “Secret Family Recipe: Specially cured bacon, fine brown sugar, and a delicate blend of spices.”
The ads starred Jay Bush (grandson of founder A.J. Bush) and his talking golden retriever, Duke, who was always ready to spill the beans on the family secret. However, Duke must not have been very good at his betrayal, since the secret has not gotten out. But a Facebook page called I know Bush Baked Beans Secret Family Recipe has nearly 1,000 likes.
The search engine Google dominates Internet searches and by extension, the Internet. Google is the pacing horse, and the key is that search algorithm. Google’s algorithm is its version of a secret recipe: how it mixes the information of a website’s relevance, number of visits, inbound links, anchor tags, user’s location, and other factors, in order to provide the search results best tailored for each user.
Spying is an ever-present threat in the workplace. From the co-worker in the next cubicle to foreign governments, the faces of corporate espionage are all around us. Boeing, Intel and Coca-Cola have all been targets. The losses—estimated by the FBI to be more than $13 billion a year in the United States—can go undetected for years despite sophisticated security. Crime Inc. follows cases where livelihoods are threatened, reputations ruined and trade secrets are bought and sold.
Tune in: Secrets for Sale —Premieres Thursday, August 23rd 9p | 12a ET