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For Crypto, Branding Could be the Highest Currency

The race is on! In the somewhat daunting but increasingly discussed world of cryptocurrency, there are several “coins” currently vying for dominance, and many are gaining traction fast. But which will triumph? The answer may well come down to branding, since the success of these newcomers to the world of finance will rely on widespread consumer uptake, and effectively communicating a complex and abstract concept to the masses.

Before proceeding, let’s be clear about what cryptocurrency (or “crypto” as it is affectionately known) is, and why it is becoming increasingly relevant. In essence, it is a form of digital money that can be used in the same ways as “fiat” currencies issued by governments – like the Dollar, the Pound, or the Euro – but currently serves as the backbone for innovative projects related to decentralized finance and the internet of things.

Though questions have been raised about crypto’s energy consumption and environmental impact, it has been gaining traction thanks to endorsements from tech-celebrities like Elon Musk, and a general interest in alternative financial models (as an opportunity to place long-term investments that will hopefully outlast market volatility, or as a way to play the system and make a quick buck). It may, in the not-so-distant future, become the dominant method of paying for everyday items.

Like fiat currencies, there are different types of crypto that vary in value against traditional currencies, and each other. And a recent surge in interest in these “coins” has led to many emerging types, all competing with one another for users and investors. Their values fluctuate dramatically, since the concept of crypto is relatively new and there is not a widely accepted trust in its stability and longevity – at least for the moment. But it is inevitable that, out of the many types of crypto currently available, only a select few will prevail in earning the trust of the public and become a primary digital currency.

As a comparison, who remembers the early days of the internet? Back then, there were several search engines that were used to trawl the web for information. They all did a similar job, but had their visual differences and usage quirks. Some of the first, like Alta Vista, no longer exist. Others, such as Yahoo, have a greatly diminished presence and now live in rarely visited corners of the net – proving that, when it comes to digital products or services, it’s almost always a case of winner takes all.

Undoubtedly, the winner in this instance was Google. Yes it was functionally superior to some of its competitors. But it was the simplicity of its homepage; the distinctive colorful logo that regularly interchanged with timely themes and artistic interpretations; the ease of navigating its results pages that made it stand out and created an emotional connection with its users. Now it is almost ubiquitous, and one of the largest companies in the world. Arguably because of its branding advantage during a crucial time.

When good branding is absent, creating an emotional connection to the end user is a tall order.

It’s worth noting that not all of these coins have the same functionality. Although frequently grouped under the same umbrella, they each have idiosyncrasies in the way that they are coded, and in their creators’ ultimate intentions for disrupting traditional financial systems. This said, there are some uncanny similarities between the world of crypto today and search in the early days of the Web. There are first-to-market entrants, like Bitcoin, that may die or become less significant, while other players may likely be left standing. Cardano's Ada and Ethereum's Ether come to mind.

Equally interesting, as with early search engines, no single coin today stands out from a brand or design perspective. All are represented through a very homogeneous, skeuomorphic approach. Take Bitcoin’s gold coin with a "B" styled like a dollar sign, which probably is the most egregious of the bunch, or Ethereum’s Delta Airlines-esque triangles logo. Pay a visit to any of their websites and you'll notice they all look very similar, too. As we know from the world’s top companies, when good branding is absent, creating an emotional connection to the end user is a tall order.

So what is the opportunity? Fiat currencies often reference their country’s colors, symbols, and historical figures, while crypto presents both a challenge and a chance for creativity due to its abstract nature and lack of physical commodity. It is neither bound by history or geography, freeing us to think of the various coins as brands more than traditional currencies. And if that’s true, then there is a playbook to work from, starting with the defining of a clear and compelling brand story that is easily understood by the public. This story should then be reflected in an iconic identity. With this foundation in place, the wheels of the marketing engine can start to turn. Shouldn’t the protagonist of the next Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster be paying in Ada?

Much remains to be defined about the future of crypto, and we’re only scratching the surface of the potential for its development. But if history is any indication, the crypto companies that embrace branding, and create tools for communicating and marketing their purpose and functionality to the broadest audience, will have the best chance at becoming a part of our everyday lives and ultimately winning the crypto race.

Written by Base partner Geoff Cook. Edited by Dan Howarth.