Everyone’s heard of bitcoin, sure. But the ballooning cryptocurrency has over 1,000 competitors. There’s a coin for pot smokers called Kushcoin. A coin for betting on Fantasy Sports called No Limit Coin. A coin aimed at women called, yes, Women Coin. A coin promising to make America great again named TrumpCoin. And many, many coins for purchasing pornography, like Titcoin and Spankchain. There are ironic coins for people who are too cool to take cryptocurrency seriously, like Dogecoin or the now defunct Coinye (a completely and utterly unendorsed Kanye West coin). Heck, there’s even a coin called PonziCoin that essentially admits its coins are a scam–but buy them anyway!
Often dubbed altcoins, these competitors range from copy and pasted Bitcoin code to truly innovative, secure software platforms that might birth not just another way to buy groceries, but a whole new internet. Many believe cryptocurrencies will soon be a trillion-dollar industry, driven by speculative investments, futures traders, and so many server farms mining new coins and enabling transactions that they’re actually accelerating global warming.
At least some of their success must be attributed to the ethos that cryptocurrencies embody. For many, they represent a utopian second economy, where money is managed by people rather than banks. It seems like an egalitarian reboot of the global economy, a system that, not long ago, our tax dollars bailed out–and which has only come back more powerful and greedy than ever. But these altcoins are also a story of brilliant grassroots branding, through which the right website and a bit of witty clipart can rally redditors and create market caps in the tens of millions out of nothing but electricity.
Most of these currencies will wither away as the market matures. Yet after talking to half a dozen people in every position across the industry, one thing is clear: Cryptocurrencies, through their names, websites, logos, and brands, resonate with people in ways far beyond getting rich quick. In a world where most of us feel helpless amidst big corporations and an indifferent government, we may define ourselves by the type of money we spend–and the special culture that our chosen coin represents (in that sense, altcoins may be less an escape from capitalism than its zenith). Today, identity defines not just what we buy, but the currency we use to buy it.
THE MEGA-BUSINESS OF CRYTOCURRENCIES
In 2017, the story of cryptocurrencies was actually much larger than any one coin. It was bigger than Bitcoin, which ballooned from $1,000 per coin to around $14,000 by end of year; or Ethereum, which grew over 9,000%; or even Ripple, which bested every competitor with insane 36,000% growth.
A whole new industry found itself flush with nearly unlimited investment. According to Coindesk, 300 different cryptocurrencies raised a total of just over $4 billion in ICOs–also known as “initial coin offerings”–selling their coins to new investors, a technique that outpaced venture capital in the space by significant margins. This digital gold rush was perfectly articulated by two old guard companies, Long Island Iced Tea and the parent company of Hooters, which each saw unusual market gains after promising to invest in white hot blockchain tech. The financial appeal of getting in early on these new cryptocurrencies is clear, though many–even most–might have no shot at gaining a real foothold in the market. Why settle for getting 5% or 10% back over a year on a stock, when you might get 3000% back in a year on a new coin?
But how do you know which altcoin to buy into? For many, the name is the first step.
“My view is, with many sets of coins, people are just trying to get attention. Much the same thing happens with apps in the App Store,” says Daniel Romero, general manager of Coinbase, the U.S.’s largest, and likely most legitimate, coin-buying platform. Coinbase only allows the purchase and trade of four different cryptocurrencies, though thousands exist. “I think it’s the same thing with cryptocurrencies,” he continues. “And having seen a world where Bitcoin exists, and Ethereum exists, you have other digital currencies that have large market capitalizations, and branding around them, I think that’s created a bit of a trend where a lot of other people jump on board.”
I decided to ask a branding guru–Randall Stone, who has led the identities of mega-corporations like Starbucks and Samsung–for an outside opinion of some of the quirkier coins. “They’re almost like bad, trendy startup kind of names. ‘No Limit Coin.’ ‘Zcash.’ A whole bunch of them,” he says, amused. “Some of the branding is just so juvenile and primitive, while others are really sophisticated. And some, you can tell the tech background of the designer because they look a little B2B-esque.”
At the same time, “a lot of them felt like fly by night, here today, gone tomorrow. No real sense of legitimacy,” he says. Take Cagecoin, a coin branded around Nicholas Cage. On one hand, it appeals to certain corners of the internet. On the other, it undermines the legitimacy of cryptocurrency. “The same problem exists for Bitcoin, as it goes from this weird anomaly in the marketplace and becomes more mainstream, this sense of reassurance that this is legitimate needs to be better expressed,” Stone adds.
This article was published on Fast Company. A link to the original piece appears after the post.