Bitcoin, Brands and Brand Positioning

Bitcoin started out as a fringe movement among crypto-anarchists in the open-source community, but has rapidly gained acceptance as a legitimate alternative to fiat money as it pertains to digital transactions. Accordingly, the volume and value of mined Bitcoin has seen exponential growth since this crypto-currency was first launched in 2009. As per available data, nearly 13.28 million Bitcoins have been mined so far [1]. Meanwhile, the value of a single Bitcoin has increased from £4.25 in July 2012 to a high of £753 in November 2013 – an increase of roughly 17600% [2].

Bitcoin was originally developed as a fast, safe and cost-effective currency for digital transactions. Consequently, its earlier adopters were tech-forward users in the open-source community. Despite its growing clout in the mainstream, Bitcoin’s most aggressive proponents remain largely entrenched in this community.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, to learn that brand Bitcoin, as it exists today, has come to be associated with words like “underground”, “alternative”, and even “anarchic”. This lends it considerable weight as a branding tool for certain businesses. For others, the negative connotations of Bitcoin, along with its proliferation through underground marketplaces, can be largely detrimental to the business’ brand image. Adopting and accepting Bitcoin through online channels, therefore, is something a brand must consider carefully before making a decision.

Bitcoin as the “maverick”

virgin-bitcoin

There are some obvious business arguments in favour of using Bitcoin, namely, the low transaction costs associated with the currency, emphasis on privacy, storage of coins in digital wallets, and speed of transactions. This has made the currency especially useful for digital-only transactions (i.e. purchasing digital products) where user privacy is important. For example, the popular website Reddit, which emphasises anonymity, accepts Bitcoin as a transactional medium largely because of its privacy features (Reddit’s community is also tech-oriented, which helps in higher adoption). Since Bitcoin is also decentralised and unregulated, it has earned the image of being a “pro-internet freedom” currency.

Integrating Bitcoin gives a brand the added advantage of aligning itself with Bitcoin’s brand associations. As noted earlier, Bitcoin has come to be associated with the “alternative”. In some ways, this is not dissimilar to the debate between open-source and closed-source software in the 1990’s, when some brands adopted open-source solutions such as Linux to position themselves as the “mavericks” who care about “community” and “digital freedom”.

Consider the example of the popular domain registrar, Namecheap. Namecheap has consistently positioned itself as the alternative to the more mainstream registrars (chiefly, Enom.com and GoDaddy.com). To this effect, it has aligned itself with pro-internet movements such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s legal fight against the SOPA (“Stop Online Piracy Act”) in the United States in 2011 [3]. Namecheap later started accepting Bitcoin in 2013, noting in its release statement that the company considers itself the “pioneers in the space of innovation and online freedom” [4].

Bitcoin-Brands

In fact, the top websites that accept Bitcoins is almost entirely composed of brands that identify themselves as the “alternative” [5]. This includes Virgin Galaxy (space flights), OkCupid (the free alternative to Match.com), PirateBay.org (free, pirate alternative to file sharing), WordPress.com (free alternative to paid Content Management Systems), Reddit.com (alternative to Digg), Mega.com (alternative, restriction-free file sharing), and Overstock.com (online-only alternative retailer).

When a business adopts Bitcoin, it is signalling to its users that it is a “maverick” that cares about issues such as internet-freedom, user privacy and being tech-forward. Brands that self-identify with these qualities would benefit the most from adopting Bitcoin – at least in the form that it exists today.

… Bitcoin as the “criminal”

website-seized

However, the privacy and anonymity of Bitcoin has also made it the favoured transaction medium in underground marketplaces known for trading illegal drugs and contraband. The volume of this trade is immense, although given the secretive nature of these marketplaces, the exact figure is hard to ascertain. By one estimate, roughly half of all Bitcoin transactions are to buy drugs online [6].

The large volume of these transactions, coupled with the recent closure of Silk Road [7] (the largest underground marketplace) and massive security breaches at popular exchanges like Mt. Gox [8] have affected Bitcoin’s image in the mainstream. Besides “alternative”, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that some have also started associating words like “illegal”, “scam” and “unsafe” with the currency (howsoever factually untrue it may be) [9]. Naturally, this association rubs off on brands who choose to adopt the currency. For mainstream brands that don’t have tech-forward audiences that understand Bitcoin, this may even backfire.

The keyword, thus, is “alternative”.

Given the current state of Bitcoin, every brand should make careful considerations before aligning itself with the currency. While on the one hand, it can amplify the “maverick” image of a brand that identifies itself as tech-forward, pro-internet freedom and “alternative”, it can also harm the image of a brand with customers who don’t fully understand Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies.

Further Reading

[1] https://blockchain.info/charts/total-bitcoins?timespan=1year&showDataPoints=false&daysAverageString=1&show_header=true&scale=0&address=

[2] http://blogs.marketwatch.com/thetell/2013/11/29/bitcoin-hits-record-1242-as-it-nears-value-of-ounce-of-gold/

[3] http://venturebeat.com/2011/12/27/namecheap-offers-discount-for-domain-transfers/

[4] https://www.namecheap.com/support/payment/bitcoin.aspx

[5] http://www.forbes.com/sites/jonmatonis/2013/05/24/top-10-bitcoin-merchant-sites/

[6] http://lsvp.com/2013/08/15/about-half-a-percent-of-bitcoin-transactions-are-to-buy-drugs/

[7] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/silk-road-closed/

[8] http://www.wired.com/2014/03/bitcoin-exchange/

[9] http://www.debate.org/opinions/is-bitcoin-a-scam

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