Bitcoin's Progeny & How Brand Archetypes are Shaping the Cryptocurrency Market
By Patrick Murphy | 15 Minute Read
As designers we're constantly trying to improve people's lives by tailoring a product or system's function, appearance, and aura to perfectly suit them. Which is why Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are particularly intriguing to me. Cryotpocurrecies represent the redesign of an entire facet of the global economy: money. Nearly all people use legal tender in order to participate in modern society, but money as we know it isn't without problems. The world's economy is multifaceted, but all of its currencies share commonalities: they rest on the shoulders of valuable physical material, are backed and insured by governments, and are managed and processed by institutions that have distinct agendas not necessarily aligned with our own. Don't get me wrong, governments and financial institutions are great things – I happen to like roads, law enforcement, and not stuffing my cash into mattresses to keep it safe. But government and institutions' influence over our money's behavior has had side effects ranging from unjust ATM fees to full-blown economic crises. Problems plaguing products and systems exist all over the place, but thankfully there's often one person displeased enough with the shortcomings to come up with a solution. Steve Jobs did it for MP3 players. For fixing the fundamental problems of money, however, it's taken a shadowy computer genius with a vision for the future of finance. In 2009 Satoshi Nakamoto* developed and launched a peer-to-peer digital transaction protocol that used a decentralized unit of value called a Bitcoin, running on an ever-evolving, unhackable string of code called a blockchain to ensure automated transaction legitimacy. Confused? Yeah, me too. In layman's terms: Bitcoin is digital cash that can be transferred directly from one individual to another without a bank or government interference. Bitcoin can also be “mined” just like gold, only these miners trade picks and pans for computing power, churning through data to earn their digital nuggets. That data they're crunching are actually transactions made by those sending or receiving Bitcoin - and it takes many separate computers' verification to officially add the transaction to the blockchain, Bitcoin's permanent and public ledger of exchange activity. This widely-distributed data processing is the core function of Bitcoin's security and accuracy. One accountant could be wrong, or worse, hacked. The blockchain essentially employs multiple digital accountants that don't know each other to all agree on the details of a single transaction. To cheat such a system is nearly impossible.
*Let's add another glaze of curiosity to the world of cryptocurrency: No one really knows who Satosi Nakamoto is. The one thing agreed upon is that he or she probably isn't a real person – it's an alias for a developer or even a large group of developers. Many experts believe the blockchain code that powers Bitcoin is way too advanced to have been the work of one person, genius or not. It's also speculated that this mysterious entity is rich. Like, really rich: Nakamoto “pre-mined” about 980,000BTC in the early days of Bitcoin's takeoff. In mid-December that stash was worth about $19 billion. With a capital B. As in Bosnia, a first-world country with a GDP of $2 billion less than that.
Fast forward to 2018, and Bitcoin has gone from a novelty experiment worth fractions of a cent to a financial leviathan trading as high as $19,000 per unit, with a market cap of $326 billion. But Bitcoin's not the only kid on the block – it's now just one of 1300 (and counting) cryptocurrencies that Bitcoin itself directly or indirectly gave rise to. In 2011, two years after Nakamoto's wild idea went live, a handful of other coins launched as a small cohort of entrepreneurs began to see the allure of decentralized currency and the unique utility of blockchain technology. From 2013 on, the growth of the crypto market has been exponential, with hundreds of new coin products launching every year. Some are direct Bitcoin competitors touting security, anonymity, or speed advantages over the established giant. Others target more specific user bases, aiming to be the currency of the future for everything from online video games, digital media, and fantasy sports to scientific research funding, NYC residents, and even Cannabis. Many are based on the blockchain architecture pioneered by Bitcoin. Others have developed divergent algorithms and protocols for managing their respective digital ledgers. Collectively, these Bitcoin descendants are known as Altcoins. Why so many different coins? Well, need for specialization aside, there's still a lot of money to be made. Interest in cryptocurrency skyrocketed in the wake of Bitcoin's ~2,100% gain throughout 2017 as average Joe investors and Wall Street hotshots alike began to see the space as a serious investment opportunity. These days, you'll see an ICO almost every day (that's “Initial Coin Offering”) wherein consumers can purchase “tokens” (shares representing a single future coin) of minuscule value in the hopes that their investment will blossom as that particular coin product goes live. The buy-in has been mind-boggling, with many ICOs netting hundreds of millions of dollars of infusion, resulting in launch-day market caps in the billions – not to mention the billions of dollars already pouring into established coin products.
Which brings me to the real purpose of this article: with such a flooded market, cryptocurrencies are relying heavily on branding to differentiate themselves from the pack. Some rely on their products' unique capabilities and the pedigree of their development team to generate interest. Others have invested a lot in building a polished identity with a breathtaking websites, crisp communication, and killer social marketing. That last part is crucial for a coin - investors cling to social media news feeds for market info. A single tweet can trigger drastic spikes or dips in a coin's value. So how are different coins branding and positioning themselves? At Trig, we're big fans of The 12 Brand Archetypes, and have used this system of identity determination in many brand creation and overhaul endeavors. If this is the first you're hearing of this, do yourself a favor and read Connie Tran's (Trig's own Brand and Marketing Manager) article on building a brand with the 12 Archetypes. It's good stuff. Curiosity led me to apply the 12BA system to the current crypto brand landscape. Every coin has a spirit animal, an archetype – I figured with 1300 currencies to choose from, surely there would be an example of all 12. Ready?
The Hero: Bitcoin
The Hero wants to make the world a better place, and is determined to “be the change.” The hero is brave, confident, and honorable – traits required to pioneer uncharted territory. In solving major problems no one else will, it inspires others to achieve greatness.
It's no overstatement that Bitcoin and creator Satoshi Nakamoto are the hero of cryptocurrency. Without Bitcoin's creation nearly a decade ago, cryptocurrency might still have come around the bend, but it would probably take 10 more years to get where it is now. Bitcoin is the archetype, the example, the groundbreaking first that launched an alternative fiscal universe and inspired countless others to join the movement. It's first-to-market status means it has inherent issues that others are rapidly solving with competitive products. It also means that Bitcoin remains the golden face of all cryptocurrency, and it's unlikely that the coin will fade from the world's vision anytime soon. It's branding perhaps belies it's superhero status – its marketing media, website, and “B meets $” logo are more kitschy and lighthearted than powerful and dramatic - but like the coin itself, the logo and underlying identity is now a cemented icon of cryptocurrency.
The Outlaw: Potcoin
The Outlaw doesn't play by the rules – it gets its identity from breaking them, and reveling in its rebellion. The Outlaw fights the status quo it views as too tame, too boring, too polite, and embraces the disenfranchised. The outlaw will never be truly accepted by the rest of the world, and it wouldn't have it any other way.
Assigning the outlaw archetype to Potcoin is actually a little unfair, even inaccurate, but it underscores hard truths about the reputation of marijuana and the “dark side” of cryptocurrency. Potcoin aims to be “the standard form of payment for the legalized cannabis industry,” and it's web presence and overall branding serve that message well. The logo is a direct riff on that of Dash, a successful mainstream coin, and it's all business. The website and messaging are polished, professional, and...well, more lucid than mellow. The outlaw thing to do would perhaps have been a weed leaf logo, Rasta color scheme, and a high degree of playfulness in the messaging. But Potcoin smartly flaunts the same sophistication that a lot of players in the pot industry are delivering these days. But all the sophistication in the world may not be enough to overcome weed's speckled past. Even today, the legal state of Canabis in the US can be summed up with “it's complicated.” The acceptance of marijuana as a safe and viable means of treatment and recreation is actually pretty analogous to the acceptance of cryptocurrency as a safe and viable means of currency and trade. The decentralized, virtual, and anonymous nature of cryptocurrency has inadvertently made it the perfect payment tool for drugs, black market dealings, and various other forms of illegal activity – even terrorism. Potcoin certainly deserves its try at bat, but to make it it will have to overcome not only the criticism, looming regulation, and competitive environment that all coins are facing, but also the criminal stereotype of the product it was built to serve as well.
The Magician: IOTA
The Magician makes dreams come true. It is a visionary, whose charisma draws you into it's vivid imagination. It's avant-garde thinking can occasionally amount to unrealized whimsies - but if believed in, it can pull off the impossible.
IOTA is an entirely different animal than most cryptocurrencies. While Bitcoin and many others are based on blockchain technology, IOTA uses an architecture called a “Directed Acyclic Graph.” Ok, real talk: I cannot for the life of me explain the DAG. It's some seriously complex and deep technological stuff, so suffice it to say that DAG transactions occur in a chaotic tangle that somehow spits out accurate info while completely obscuring it's own path - so it's secure, anonymous, and quite fast. IOTA is intended to be the platform of communication AND payment for the Internet of Things. IOT is, to borrow a quote from Jacobim Mugatu, “so hot right now.” The rapid infusion of intelligence and connectability into everyday products is set to completely transform the way we interact with our homes, businesses, and the rest of the world. App-enabled lightbulbs, smart blinds, and Alexa are just the beginning.
A good chunk of the IOT industry is playing magician right now – to varying degrees of success. With so many different companies building inter-device communication protocols, most are just fighting for theirs to become the golden standard. Some ventures are writing protocols that adapt some standards to others. Whose magic will actually work? We don't know yet. But IOTA is the first and biggest venture trying to make the magic required to supercharge the IOT with a cryptocurrency approach. IOTA's brand is indeed magical. The logo is ethereal and captivating. The website is beautifully constructed and dynamic, and features alluring visuals and animations to explain it's rather complicated mechanism. Only time will tell if IOTA can pull the rabbit out of its hat when the IOT dust settles, but it's certainly drumming up some brand magic in the meantime.
The Creator – Ethereum
The Creator strives to make things with meaning and enduring value, but also curate a climate where others are free to act on their own imaginations and create for themselves. A non-conformist, the creator is never satisfied with the status quo, and incessantly pushes towards a better alternative.
The Ethereum Project no doubt features a cryptocurrency (called Ether), but that's just a necessary component of its larger purpose. Developer Vitalik Buterin saw blockchain technology as merely a starting point for applications way beyond a cash alternative. Ethereum is actually a blockchain-based distributed computing platform that features “smart contracts” - in Ethereum's own words: “applications that run exactly as programmed without any possibility of downtime, censorship, fraud or third-party interference.” This allows other developers to build applications on top of the Ethereum protocol. Applications that, using traditional frameworks, are difficult to execute with the level of accuracy and security that a smart contract provides. Despite it's “more than just money” mission, Ethereum has quickly risen to one of the top 3 cryptocurrencies after a whirlwind 13,000% growth in 2017 to sit just below Bitcoin for market cap and trade volume. Side note: had you been visionary enough to invest, oh, $1000 in Project Ethereum last January, you'd now be shopping for a Tesla Model S. You're welcome. The Ethereum Project's brand is creator through and through, down to the name: Ether is the hypothetical, matter-less medium that permeates the universe, the perfect analogy to the Tabula rasa the platform gives developers. Ethereum's angular logo is modern and monolithic, and it's marketing outreach and website are highly targeted at developers and believers in the idea that currency is just the beginning of crypto technology.
The Caregiver – Humaniq
The Caregiver is a protector, a healer, a nurturer of those in need. Selfless and relentlessly compassionate, the Caregiver finds purpose in healing the compromised, uplifting the downtrodden, or simply calming the unsure.
Cryptocurrency doesn't neccesarily rewrite the rules for the distribution of wealth, but it does so for access to wealth, especially for those far off the financial grid: the poverty-trapped poor of developing nations. Humaniq is a humanitarian outreach project driven by its own coin running on the Ethereum prototcol. It's goal is to connect people not plugged into traditional economies to the rest of the world, enabling identity authentication with biometrics instead of the formal paper documentation that's often a barrier for the underprivileged. Through the project, startups from these populations will be able to receive funding, manage assets, and even be placed in growth accelerators. The project is lofty – the proliferation of it requires software that can run on primitive networks, on-the-ground implementation, and perhaps the biggest hurdle: outside interest and investment. The brand doesn't shy away from its mission's profound complexity, but it communicates like a good caregiver should: it leads with the need. It's website strikes a balance of urgency and hope – hope that it aims to provide. Humaniq's leveraging of crypto-technology for empowering the powerless might just be the care the world needs.
The Ruler : Tether
The Ruler has control issues of the best kind. In a world fraught with uncertainty, it aims to create order from the chaos and confusion. It's authoritative stance prevents it from connecting with others on a personal level, but like all great leaders it can't afford to let emotions get in the way of it's goal: being a foundation of stability for its vulnerable subjects.
Cryptocurrency was formed on the idea that the ideal money is completely detached from fiat (any government-backed currency, like the Dollar, Euro, or Yen), yet this very detachment causes issues of its own. Most cryptocurrencies are still highly volatile in value – with very little history, economic integration, or government oversight, coins swing wildly in value day to day, or even hour to hour. This is partly why coin investment is so alluring. Millionaires can be made in a single day with the right pick. But the market far more easily spits out those who bet wrong and lose everything. This has made participation in cryptocurrency pretty risky, even for established coins like Bitcoin or Ethereum - both of which have ridden the value roller coaster since peaking in mid-December. Tether hopes to exploit all the benefits of cryptocurrency (no middlemen, fast transactions, anonymity) while eliminating the volatility that comes with it. Tether does this by tying the value of 1 Tether directly to the value of 1 Dollar. The cryptocurrency is also backed, albeit not by a government but by the Tether organization itself, who actually holds the $1 billion and counting assets that the investor-held Tether coins are ....uh, tethered to. Takes all the fun out of cryptocurrency, right? That's exactly the point. The product has generated huge interest from parties not willing to take the risk of investing in more volatile coin markets. Tether's branding does what any Ruler's brand should, but many don't: communicates the benefit of stability in an approachable, friendly way - without fear-mongering. If you've read/watched the Hunger Games, you know that “hope is the only thing stronger than fear.” Tether provides hope in a market laced with fear, uncertainty, and doubt.
The Jester: Dogecoin
The Jester renounces boredom, pretension, and sternness. The Jester uses humor and absurdity to contrast itself from an all-too-straight-laced world. The Jester knows life is short, and that the best way to honor this truth is to simply have fun.
There's a lot of silliness to be found in the world of coin, but no coin has had its silliness taken quite as seriously as Dogecoin. A legitimate and trade-able coin based on Litecoin's blockchain architecture, Dogecoin launched in December of 2013 as a parody of cryptocurrency. It's branding is based on an infamous internet meme featuring a Shiba Inu dog with a curious facial expression, over which a caption of grammatically-incorrect contemplations is pasted. It's intent was to be a coin driven by a vibrant community, and distanced from the already-controversial Bitcoin. It's purpose was to serve as an online tipping system, wherein consumers of online content could reward contributors for stuff they liked. Similar to a “like” or an “upvote,” but with a monetary attachment. A real coin for rewarding valued online contribution – but also one that didn't take itself too seriously. Doge's branding reflects this perfectly, from the coin design and logo featuring an amateurishly stylized graphic of its dog mascot, to the Comic Sans font featured throughout its website. Unlike most coin products' websites, you won't find an egalitarian manifesto about how this coin's proprietary technology is evolving the world of finance and life as we know it with Doge. Just a few brief statements about what it is, how to use it, and a link to its Reddit group - the hub of the aforementioned vibrant community supporting Dogecoin. As with a lot in cryptocurrency, you can't make this stuff up - a short month later in January of 2014, Dogecoin hit a market cap of $60 million, and briefly surpassed Bitcoin in trade volume. At the turn of 2018, it had a capitalization of over $1 Billion, putting it in the top 3% of cryptocurrencies by trade volume and market cap. It's positioning and branding may be playful and absurd, but it's ethos clearly struck a chord beyond its initial community of support. Dogecoin is now traded and utilized like many heavy-hitting cryptocurrencies. It's no Bitcoin or Ethereum now, but the coin wars aren't over. In 5 years, you might be buying your morning latte with money featuring a delightfully awkward canine.
The Everyman: Litecoin
The Everyman is your friend, your neighbor, the “good folk” you live life and share values with. It wants to connect and belong, and it's faithful and supportive to those around it. The Everyman meets you where you are, but will walk with you to where you aspire to be.
Litecoin was launched in 2011 by former Google employee Charlie Lee, who also goes by the handle “Satoshi Lite,” a playful homage to the mysterious creator of Bitcoin. Litecoin could be considered Bitcoin's little brother, the light version to it's predecessor's full-calorie offering. This status isn't an accident - Litecoin was always intended to compliment Bitcoin, not compete with it. Lee started mining Bitcoin shortly after it's genesis, and quickly came to believe in the world-altering potential of cryptocurrency. After learning hard lessons from two failed coin launching ventures, he developed a winner with Litecoin. Designed to be easier to mine, less susceptible to hacking, and much faster to transact, Litecoin realized Lee's vision to make a coin that was “fair” for all. Lee is still a big fan of Bitcoin (his team still regularly chats with theirs to bounce ideas off each other) but foresees the stalwart being treated more like gold – an investment, a store of value. Litecoin, Lee claims, is suited for everyday transactions, like buying a bagel or a pair of shoes. It's visual identity follows suit – the website is simple, devoid of frills, and helpful for everyone from crypto-novices to hardcore miners. A huge part of Litecoin's Everyman identity is actually Lee himself – an avid tweeter, he frequently engages the social media community to push the project's message and extol the values of cryptocurrencies as a whole. Lastly, the logo: A curly line away from the British Pound symbol, it is perhaps the most familiar, comfortable icon in the world of coins.
The Lover – Sexcoin
The lover is a big-hearted romantic. It wishes to create warmth, intimacy and inspire love in others. The lover is friendly, compassionate, and even sensual if the mood is right. It can be selfish and grounded, but it is also faithful and committed.
Ok, so this one's obviously a little taboo, and NSFW. You've been warned - don't go googling Sexcoin in your office. At $97 billion, the adult entertainment industry is one of the biggest markets no one really talks about. The discretion it's patrons exercise makes it the perfect grounds for cryptocurrency, which offers tidy transactions and, above all, extreme anonymity. Sexcoin's goal is to be the currency of choice for the consumption of adult media and entertainment. The idea actually has a lot of merit, but I'll be honest: the execution of Sexcoin's brand and website are painfully bad. Shallow verbage, sloppy graphics, and an awful logo abound on its website. The worst (funniest) infraction present is a series of poorly-photoshopped images of lingerie-clad women. It definitely misses an opportunity – whereas Potcoin dresses its taboo industry up and makes a case to be taken seriously, Sexcoin's promotes the gaudiness and misogyny much of the adult industry is actually trying to overcome. This is obviously a low budget endeavor – many of the 1300 some odd coin products are. Also obvious is a fact that many “specialty” coins are facing: One could use Bitcoin or a plethora of other mainstream cryptrocurrencies to pay for adult entertainment and still get the same benefits Sexcoin is selling. But if Sexcoin can somehow convince the porn-watching world that it's currency is the ideal medium of exchange for digital pleasure, it could conceivably be a big thing. A 97 billion dollar thing. But branding is important – and this is one brand that probably won't....I can't resist one awful pun....climax. Ok, back to maturity.
The Innocent : Monero
The Innocent is pure soul, It strives to be and do good, and carries as much youthful enthusiasm as it does incorruptible virtue. The Innocent can be naive, and is often vulnerable in a world that so quickly dissolves innocence, but that's exactly why the world needs it – the Innocent reminds us how to be our best selves.
Monero isn't all that different from Bitcoin and others, but it's utility does focus on one thing more so than any other cryptocurrency: Privacy. Monero's transaction algorithm completely obscures information on the sender, the receiver, and amounts of coin transfers. Adding to the veil of identity and activity, the currency is designed to be fungible – all Monero coins are identical and interchangeable. This means that certain coins cannot be marked as fraudulent or blacklisted due to their history, however shady. So does this all really add up to innocence? Morality? Goodness? Actually yes – in a way. Monero is all of these things, IF you subscribe to the idea that privacy and anonymity are attributes of a pure, ethically-sound currency. If you believe that functional sterility is the only answer to the inevitable bias present in most payment systems. To accept this, you'd also have to accept that such a system could allow behavior that is anything but innocent to flourish, but it's also the truest expression of the Innocent's ethos: “Free to be you and me.” Monero's branding does a great job of persuading this idea: The logo is clean and succinct, and the simple but crisp website communicates the virtues of the product with tidy, cartoonish graphics and animations.
The Explorer – EOS
The explorer is a nomad, a seeker of the unknown and uncharted. It's restless nature demands it constantly move, even if it risks wandering too far from the mainstream. The explorer will take you on a journey, and it wont always be comfortable – but wherever you wind up, you'll be the first to get there.
With so much of the cryptocurrency conversation revolving around money (half of the term is "currency" after all) it's easy to miss the larger idea behind blockchain and similar decentralized architectures: the ability to build and run applications. As discussed above with Ethereum, plenty of projects' missions are first and foremost to create frameworks where other developers can construct applications that thrive on the utility of the blockchain. The financial product is often a big part of this, but not the primary goal. This is very much the mission of EOS, a platform that enables applications to be built onto it's blockchain backbone. EOS claims to have solved the scalability issues currently plaguing Ethereum, it's primary competitor, and also claims to be operable with zero transaction fees - a big deal when many crypto platforms are seeing huge fees due to surge in trading volume. EOS' look is strikingly similar to Ethereum – the logo is another flavor of the angular, faceted form the later employs. The EOS brand, however, is a little more stirring. A website rich in technical information and replete with developer guides sits on a backdrop of breathtaking horizon imagery. This aesthetic combined with EOS' affirmations about scalability communicates a central message: EOS is a tool for exploring the applications of crypto technology, ready to be driven far into the unknown.
The Sage: Cardano
The Sage is a guru – its wisdom and intellect make it a trusted source of knowledge. It wishes to help the world gain insight and understanding. The Sage will guide you on the path to righteousness, and does the homework to prove it knows the way.
The Cardano product itself touts a lot of wisdom and righteousness. The project aims to fix many of the issues with established cryptocurrencies by making a more secure, adaptable platform. A robust development team comprised of academics, engineers, and scientists created the 2-layer architecture that gives Cardano it's edge. The first layer operates like a standard blockchain ledger, while the second serves as the operating environment for apps employing smart contracts and distributed computation. This unique composition allows Cardano to do what many Cryptocurrencies cannot: be updated painlessly. When some coin platforms undergo a major update to the underlying code, they are forced to “hard fork” into 2 different products altogether, necessitating an unwelcome shift for those invested in the initial coin. Cardano's framework allegedly solves this issue, and promises far greater flexibility and adaptability in future evolutions. Cardano's website is a captivating expression of Sage principles with a nod to ancient mythology, all swimming in constellation-esque graphics evoking the flow of digital information. It's algorithm is named Ouroboros, the fabled circular serpent eating it's own tail that represents continuous evolution and regeneration. It's wallet (a digital storage tool for keeping one's coins) is named Daedalus, the skilled craftsman of Greek lore who designed the un-crackable labyrinth that imprisoned the Minotaur. All of the brand's characteristics seem to conjure feelings of expertise, assurance, and a touch of ethereal mysticism – exactly the feelings a good Sage should arouse.