Adam Hanft is a brand strategist and founder of Hanft Projects, a consultancy firm that has worked with, among others, McKinsey, Microsoft, Conduit, Fidelity and Match.com. Here he shares his opinions on why bitcoin, the brand, is in dire need of some work.
The fiercely emotional debate about bitcoin – which is simultaneously an argument about the currency itself as well as a set of fixed views about governments, markets and economic structures – highlights a stunning gap in the bitcoin ecosystem.
On one hand, bitcoin is a brand – it’s the name of a currency and payment platform, like the euro or PayPal – but it’s a brand with no leadership at the top. As a brand, it's like an unguided missile, which is what you would expect since it’s a peer-to-peer framework with no governing locus or central authority. Bitcoin is like the weather or the ocean – it answers to no one.
That can change, though. If one of the companies leading the bitcoin revolution started to adopt smart consumer marketing practices, others would follow – and they might even start to fund a consortium like the dairy cooperatives who bankroll “Got Milk”, or the Cotton Council, or one of hundreds of other trade associations.
The last couple of months have demonstrated the need for this level of deep brand attentiveness, bitcoin has been bounced and bruised by the Mt. Gox bankruptcy; its association with the Silk Road shutdown; and dramatic volatility in pricing. Most recently, you can add buffeting to the bouncing and bruising, as Warren Buffett has said that while bitcoin can be an effective way to transfer money, so is a check, and "the idea that it has a huge intrinsic value is just a joke in my view”.
Because of its anarchic, distributed nature, the bitcoin brand can be created by anyone, and is at the mercy of everyone. Which means the arguments made on its behalf are not just diverse, but become platforms for bitcoin’s defenders to weave in their larger worldview, which is so often tendentious that it actually undermines the argument by distraction. That leaves most people confused and vulnerable to negativity, setting back the bitcoin adoption curve.
An example of what happens when extraneous commentary is dragged into the discussion – and I don’t want to pick on Ariel Deschapell who made this point in a piece for CoinDesk last week – is this quote.
“However Bitcoin is not just a currency that promises to eventually end the trend of patchwork national currencies that exist for the almost sole purpose of allowing governments to endlessly fund their own deficit spending.”
I know that when Mt. Gox went down, there was an open letter from some industry leaders that reinforced the long-term prospects of the currency – but a one-time communication is no substitute for a focused, strategic, disciplined effort to manage the bitcoin brand and brand it for the mainstream.
So as a thought experiment, if I was named CMO of the Bitcoin Council – formed to brand the otherwise amoebic and borderless bitcoin – here are some things that I would do.
1. Eliminate “cryptocurrency” from the vocabulary
“Crypto” is a prefix that has nothing good about it, especially as far as the mass market goes (and currency is the ultimate mass market product, after all). The word raises all the negatives of bitcoin – mysterious, not trustworthy and dangerously complex. It also triggers other “crypto” associations – like crypto-fascist, crypto-Nazi, and cryptosporidium, a germ found in fecal material that causes diarrhea. Not exactly the neural associations you'd want for your brand.
Because advocates aren’t marketers, the word appears all over bitcoin company websites – there’s even a “Cryptomining Blog”.
The alternative? Well, since we’re talking about something as deeply psychological as money, we need to understand how the mind is organized to think about it. George Lakoff, a brilliant semiotician and author of “Metaphors We Live By” has studied the way language actually shapes the mind and influences judgment and perception.
For bitcoin, that means the virtual currency runs up against the metaphorical construct of money as something real and solid. Just look at some metaphors and you’ll quickly see the pattern:
'Bring home the bacon'
'He holds onto every nickel'
'Cash on the barrelhead'
'That money in the bank is a real cushion'
'Bet your bottom dollar'
'He’s on the gravy train'
'Pay me in hard cash only'
'You can take it to the bank'
Or even: 'Peanuts'
Interestingly, “trust" is also metaphorically physical, as in “I put my trust in him” or “I lost my trust” or “I misplaced my trust”. These are very powerful frameworks.
So the descriptor for bitcoin has to work within those existing metaphorical structures, rather than challenge them. That’s just what “wireless” accomplished; it worked within the construct of a landline phone – while making the point, first, that it was an outgrowth of something you were already familiar with.
For example, bitcoin could describe itself as “hard virtual currency” or “real virtual currency” or even “bankless money” to remind people how much they dislike banks. “Currency” is abstract, “money” is real.
2. Stress that bitcoin is in early days
Much of the bitcoin rhetoric is overheated – as most of the language of movements and rebellions always is.
As a mythical CMO of bitcoin I would dial all that back. I would avoid grand promises about upending the conventional money system, and calmly invite people to join us on a journey to create a new, trusted form of digital payments between individuals.
I believe that part of the volatility we’re seeing is the result of grand pronunciamentos that raise expectations to the fragile point where any negative news shatters the façade. They also make bitcoin advocates into unreasonable zealots.
Scientist Roy Amara famously said that we overestimate technology in the short term, and understate it in the long term. Bitcoin should calmly remind its detractors of the Amara Law.
3. Build confidence at every turn
For example, reinforce credibility by letting people know – in one central place – which retailers are accepting bitcoin. If you Google “Who accepts bitcoin” you don’t get a simple answer.
Social media can help, but most bitcoin social media functions are at the VC and investor level, not at the Joe Schmo level. It feels like the messaging in a political campaign, not that in support of a consumer product. There’s no storytelling about the advantages of using it – the fun, the convenience, the emotional rewards.
Also, over-communicate. Companies in the space should use their websites to tell their story, simply and powerfully.
4. Don’t insert bitcoin into ideological battles
Avoid using bitcoin as an ideological platform.
Some bitcoin advocates may think the Federal Reserve is the devil incarnate, others may think that the NSA is behind efforts to discredit the currency.
The point is that no successful payment system ever attracted users by an argument; you can’t build a mass brand in this category by winning debating points, but by demonstrating convenience and confidence points.
All of these strategies would be the first order of business for a bitcoin CMO. Can it happen without an industry association – recognizing that the structure of bitcoin makes it really hard for a focused and disciplined brand to emerge? I think it’s possible. We’ve seen examples where unstructured entities can maintain a common ethic and voice; Wikipedia is a great example.
Either formally or informally, the faster that bitcoin gets itself into consumers’ heads as a trusted brand, the faster it will get into their (metaphorical) wallets as a trusted currency. Inevitability isn’t a strategy.