24 Feb 2021

Brands aren't made, they're born

Adam Sefton, Digital Strategy Director, writes in The Drum why authenticity and being an outsider to mainstream brands has been the secret to Bitcoin's success, and proves you don't always need polish to succeed.

Bitcoin has been in the news again this week, its value having jumped 72% this year. Much of this game came after Elon Musk's Tesla bought $1.5bn worth and said it would accept them as payment for its cars. But does the mysterious cryptocurrency need a rebrand? 

If 10 years ago you had bought $1,000 worth of Google stock, today it would be worth in the region of $6,000. If you'd been smart enough to stump up the same for Apple stock in 2011, you'd now be sitting on more than $12,000. Pretty good going, right? But if you'd bought $1,000 of bitcoin, you'd now be a multi-millionaire. Your investment would be worth over $17m. 

The numbers are so large it seems unreal. 'I would have made what?' you ask, confused. Well, seek solace that you're not the only one who missed out, and perhaps even take some schadenfreudian pleasure in the news that some banks refuse to process cryptocurrency payments. 

Many early Bitcoin investors will remain millionaires in a virtual sense only; crypto-millionaires, if you like, seemingly cursed to look at ever-increasing digits on a screen that can never become real. 

But, of course, it does become real. There are Bitcoin millionaires. Even billionaires. There's a list online in fact. 

When things happen outside of what we perceive as mainstream culture, it's natural to think they might need our help to grow. We think it's our role to change these technologies and 'bring them into the mainstream', like they're some hick relative that's had just enough etiquette training to know how to hold a fork. 

Bitcoin needs a rebrand if it's ever going to get accepted, right? 

Well, no. 

The question we should be asking is, why does Bitcoin need acceptance from banks? Why does Bitcoin need any of us? The IPA reckons the whole of the ad industry supports almost a million jobs. Whereas the Reddit forum r/wallstreetbets, the trading discussion hub that is behind the most recent focus on cryptocurrency, now has an impressive 4.4 million members. 

And what about your own currency? What would have happened if you'd have invested $1,000 in the Great British Pound in 2011? You'd have lost $260. Now remind me, which currency needs the rebrand? 

Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies operate in the modern world far better that they're given credit for, forcing Sky News to reference Doge memes, tweets by Gene Simmons and photoshopped Lion King gifs. The headline 'Elon Musk, Snoop Dogg and Gene Simmons send joke cryptocurrency Dogecoin surging' is not one I expected to be reading in early 2021. 

And the truth is that these outsider brands navigate the phenomena of a post-digital age with much greater ease and comfort than 'mainstream' brands ever could. They're at home in the world of the meme, of fluid meaning and evanescent culture. Bitcoin has built a legion of loyal followers and cracked celebrity endorsements without paying anyone a dime. It is, in many ways, the perfect financial rebel brand, able to stand against whatever mainstream financial institution you need it to. 

Pissed off with the banks? Buy some Bitcoin. 

Fed up with Wall Street? Buy some Bitcoin. 

Annoyed by the hedge funds? Buy some Bitcoin. 

It's the James Dean of the finance world. Positionings this clear can't be created. They simply are. They're brought into being by the actions of the company and the people who work for it. They're picked up and spread by people who come into contact with it. The brand wasn't made, it was born. 

The word authentic has got a rightfully bad reputation over the last few years - an increasingly vague and meaningless label used disingenuously to try and confer instant credibility. And yet this is exactly the secret to Bitcoin's success. From a branding perspective at least, it's simply being itself. 

There's a lesson here, perhaps. Maybe the job of branding isn't always to create a new positioning or purpose as much as it is to help you understand who you really are, give you a bit of a polish and help you out into the world. Branding is an act of discovery rather than creation. 

Bitcoin doesn't need a branding agency to help it because it already knows what it is. 

It's living its best life with the help of celebrity billionaire endorsers and millions of people willing to go to the trouble of finding trading platforms that let you buy it. It is an example of why not everything needs the polish of a professional brand - its success is not because it's well branded, but entirely because it's not. 

Maybe other currencies could learn from that approach. 

How about the poor old post-Brexit, pandemic pound. If any currency could do with a rebrand right now, it's GBP, right? I'm thinking James Dyson, riding on the back of one of the Queen's swans while a background of kaleidoscopic colours twists and twirls behind him. 

'Into the sun', he'll be screaming as the swan is catapulted, £££s flying from his pockets, arching high through the air and out of the atmosphere into space. 

First published in The Drum