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Trade secrets: A recipe for success?

Coke is known for its secret formula, just as KFC is known for its 11 herbs and spices and McDonalds for its "secret sauce." NBC's Carl Quintanilla reports on why trade secrets are such a cornerstone of corporate America.

As secrets go, it could have been the "real thing."

Classified documents. A sample of a never-before-seen Coke product. Secrets allegedly stolen by a Coke secretary and two others, and as sensitive, police say, as government data.

"This information, by definition in the statute, is worth a great deal of money," says U.S. Attorney David Nahmias.

Just how much money is hard to say.

The Coca-Cola company has more than 400 brands, and Coke's original recipe has been locked up in an Atlanta bank ever since a Georgia pharmacist invented the stuff in 1886.

Other companies guard their secrets, too.

KFC mixes its 11 herbs and spices at two locations.

Mrs. Fields says you can count the number of people who know her recipe on one hand.

But in the $100 billion beverage wars, where one ad can be a cultural touchstone, "secret recipes" may actually be more illusion than treasure.

"Anybody with a small amount of money and access to a high-tech chemistry lab could go in and do an analysis of Coke or Pepsi, break it down and replicate it," says John Sicher of Beverage Digest. "The real power of Coke is the trademark and the brand."

And there's no denying the power of that brand. For some of us, deciding whether to drink Coke or Pepsi is the easiest, and most passionate, decision of the day.

Warren Buffett is never without his can of Cherry Coke.

Tony Stewart may have won the Pepsi 400, but we know what he drinks.

In the end, experts say the Coke episode may help both companies, even as the alleged perpetrators miscalculated. It could be a "soda spy" case where the fizz went flat.