The challenge of blockchain branding

by Jesse Ratner of The Blockchain Agency and Russ Meyer of Russ Meyer Brands

When people hear about The Blockchain Agency and what we do, we often get the following question in one form or another: As brand and blockchain experts, what is the primary problem facing blockchain companies?

Turns out it’s actually a pair of inter-related problems — two diametric challenges that have to be solved simultaneously in order to ‘win’ at building a successful blockchain brand.

One of the key challenges in branding is that the perception we want to curate is in someone else’s head. As marketers we may be able to influence that perception, but we can’t control it. That becomes even more important today since where and how people form their perception of your brand doesn’t just come from your marketing, but from many other places: friends, family, online reviews, competitors’ marketing, etc., etc. So branding is an influence model, not a control model.

Effectively executing this influence model is critical to solving the primary problem for the blockchain space right now.

The first challenge facing blockchain companies today is simply survival

There are thousands of startups that want to apply blockchain to every problem under the sun. In every sector — from energy to real estate, finance to healthcare — entrepreneurs are testing whether the application of blockchain and related tech (like smart contracts) can drive innovation and value. We’re not going out on any limb when we say many of these ventures won’t survive. In some industries, blockchain will fail or be deemed irrelevant. In other industries, blockchain will be useful and some blockchain companies will become wildly successful.

For those who seek better odds at surviving, the first communication and branding challenge is explaining not just what blockchain is, but why it matters: why it’s a better solution than what’s currently available in your industry, and why it’s worth the effort to undertake the change. To influence someone’s perceptions about blockchain’s value, your marketing should explain the relevance of blockchain to the industry and the problems that industry needs to solve. With this challenge, you’re ‘marketing’ blockchain as a solution against the current state.

The question of the value of blockchain goes all the way to the core of who we are, why we value technology, and what it says about our culture. It serves as a lens for which to view the social and cultural politics of our time. There’s a certain clarity that links the value of the blockchain and decentralization to, ultimately, globalization. And it’s value stands in fairly stark contrast to perceptions of the value of centralization and nationalism. The message that ‘blockchain’ and ‘decentralization’ sends to the market is blockchain is fundamentally different, not like Web2.0 companies that collect, hoard and monetize your data, etc. As negative perceptions regarding Web 2.0 companies grow, it makes a lot of sense to position your blockchain brand against the current centralized platforms — as the new better alternative.

For many blockchain companies, such as Status (Status’ principles), decentralization is central to their story and the brand perceptions they want to create. A primary goal of these companies must be widespread adoption of the decentralized Web. If blockchain technology is the foundation of Web 3.0, then every organization will need to position their brand to capture and amplify the momentum behind these global secular trends — away from centralization (bad) towards decentralization (good). Every blockchain brand must communicate the fundamental value of the blockchain in order to be successful. And within that success is the seed of the second, diametrically-opposite challenge.

The second challenge for blockchain is one of gaining recognition and distinction.

Some may say that success breeds success. But success also breeds competition. Any blockchain brand that succeeds in communicating blockchain as the alternative to the status quo is also going to succeed at attracting competitors.

Once the perceptions in the marketplace are such that customers see and appreciate the value of the blockchain technology, a blockchain brand must also stand out from the competitors — to be distinctive.

Imagine a successful category, where the value of decentralization is appreciated by customers. Once that happens, how do you stand out when every blockchain brand will have the word ‘decentralized’ in their copy?

When we have a decentralized social network, decentralized insurance, a decentralized drug store, doesn’t it all start to sound the same? Won’t we have to also talk about what makes us distinct?

Absolutely. The laws of branding don’t change for the blockchain. Marketers are always navigating the tension between relevance and distinction. When you look at the competition in the blockchain space, you can see this tension. Currently, perceptions of ‘decentralization’ communicate that we’re not like those Web2 companies. But, as we’re seeing, if everyone is differentiating on the same message, then no one is differentiated at all. Once you succeed in making “decentralization” relevant to customers, it doesn’t distinguish you from competitors. To truly succeed, you need more than the category relevance; simultaneously, you need to be defining and planning for what will make you differentiated in a future state of competitors all shouting the cost-of-entry category attributes.

When thinking about branding for blockchain organizations, we apply the same fundamental approach that we’d apply today to a company like Google. Remember: Every organization markets — not every organization thinks in a strategic, long-term way about their brand. At least not consciously. But when we first get to know a client, the fundamental inputs that will inform the brand (or messaging or content) strategy are the same for blockchain orgs as they were when Jesse worked with YouTube Advertising or Russ worked with Seamless: What category are we playing in? Who is our audience? What’s our mission/vision? Why are we unique? What are our value props? Out of this analysis, we can think about how to best position an organization given the current competitive landscape: Where’s the whitespace? Given what we know about the future, what’s the best position to be in down the road a bit?

Blockchain is a brand in 2018. What will 2020 look like?

The blockchain space is moving fast. Blockchain brands will need to identify a durable, differentiated, defensible space they believe is right for today — and expect to re-assess regularly (perhaps even within a year’s time) — to create something akin to an MVP (the minimal viable product). Think of it as a Minimal Viable Brand. They will need to build goals against that MVB, map out the marketing plan and all the milestones needed to accomplish the goals and how the messaging will roll out across all the marketing vehicles while simultaneously thinking about where the brand will need to move to in a year’s time or so.

Is brand building for blockchain organizations the same as brand building for more traditional companies? Yes and no. Many of the principles are the same, but blockchain brands will need to solve two contradictory challenges simultaneously: they will need to contribute to the broader adoption of blockchain, but they need to know that they’re riding a wave. They will need to consistently express the core story and truths of their brand and what makes it distinctive. And they will need to evolve their brand along with their offering as competitors vie for big opportunities in this explosive new market.

Jesse Ratner