How can brands connect with consumers through NFTs?

Beyond Art: A Digital Revolution

Art is a mirror to society, and it has always reflected political, cultural and technological revolutions in different ways. From ushering in a new era with its own visual language, to adopting innovative technologies, or expressing new and disruptive ideas. And there’s a paradigm shift happening at the moment, which seems to be turning the world of art and content creation, and its financial rewards, on its head — the NFTs. 

It has never been more difficult to define what classifies as ‘art’ — whether defined as the expression or creative application of human skill and imagination, the emotional response it elicits, its aesthetic value, or whether it can be defined by the artist’s choice of medium. And as communication theorist Marshall McLuhan argued: “the medium is the message”, which essentially means that the medium through which content is carried holds as much, if not more, value than the message itself, playing a vital role in the way it is perceived. 

With more industries applying NFT projects to their business plan when aiming for a successful web 3.0 strategy — harnessing the communicative and evocative potential of art, and working at the intersection of NFTs, art, fashion and creativity can allow brands to differentiate their image in the marketplace. Through the access to exclusive content and with an emphasis on community building, marketers have the potential to drastically grow their audience reach and drive brand awareness. 

NFTs offer an unparalleled opportunity to develop brand uniqueness, becoming the foundation for many brands’ digital strategies, and offering a new way to tell stories creatively.

So… What are NFTs?

NFTs, or Non-Fungible Tokens, are unique, distinct and irreplaceable codes that state ownership of a digital item. NFTs represent a unique asset, like a piece of art or digital content, and allow for ownership to be tracked through the blockchain — the same technology used in cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. Each NFT is a unique token on the blockchain (the most popular being the decentralised, open-source platforms Ethereum or OpenSea), with unique identification codes and metadata that distinguishes it from others. Unlike other tokens, NFT can’t be copied or duplicated. In general, fungibility means that an asset’s individual traits are mutually interchangeable and indistinguishable from each other. For example, money is fungible —a £5 note generally doesn’t differ from another £5 note. On the other hand, a painting is generally non-fungible — each one is unique. NFTs are like paintings, with each token being unique from all other tokens.

In his seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935), cultural theorist and philosopher Walter Benjamin argued that mechanical reproduction devalues an art object’s aura (uniqueness). Benjamin also outlined the challenges inherent in drawing a line between an original and a copy, owing that to processes of printing and circulation. In the context of our rapidly evolving digital landscape, thinking about the dissemination of content, Benjamin’s assertion on originality is also relevant — before the emergence of NFTs, every item would simultaneously be an original and a copy. 

The NFTs space brought into light notions of ownership, monetisation, traceability and transparency. 

Digital rarity and exclusivity

NFTs are therefore designed to give the consumer something that can’t be copied: ownership of the work (though the artist can still retain the copyright and reproduction rights, just like with physical artwork). To put it in terms of physical art collecting: anyone can buy a Picasso print. But only one person can own the original.

This brings us to the idea of why brands are so interested in NFTs — it’s a way to create a digital scarcity and exclusivity with anything related to their brand. One allure of collectibles is that there’s a finite number of NFTs being offered for each project, often with tiers of value and exclusivity. And due to the total transparency of NFTs (both physical and figurative — as after all, they are digital!), and leveraging blockchain technology, the smart contract attached to an NFT cannot be edited, meaning the business that launched the token will always be able to see the return whenever the NFT is sold. 

A lot of the conversation revolves around NFTs as the next step in fine art collecting, only with digital art. We had the opportunity to chat with Sylvain Lévy, collector and co-founder of DSL Collection (DSL), which encompasses a collection of contemporary Chinese art that has embraced since its inception the latest technologies. He believes that the 21st-century collector must think beyond established boundaries — and the pioneering collection can be accessed online via virtual exhibitions, programs, reading material, and VR experiences. 

The NFTs redefine our understanding of curatorship in its purely physical dimension, and as Sylvain Lévy argues: “a good curator is one that tells a compelling story without using words, but using just artworks”. This can, of course, also be applied to digital curation — and in a broader sense, visual storytelling in marketing as a whole, as NFTs give the possibility to both fans and creators to tell stories across different mediums.

Community-first approach: blending of digital and physical realities

The pandemic forced the art world to move past traditional structures (which were not always inclusive), adapt for a digital-first community and access new audiences, with interactivity and viewer experience holding center stage.

NFTs open up a host of possibilities for collaborative creativity across virtually all media formats. Extending beyond their aesthetic value, NFTs give rise to community building through new forms of storytelling within different mediums, enabling opportunities for shared experiences and co-creations. And it’s worth remembering that we’re currently living in the experience economy (a term coined by Pine and Gilmore), which calls for a reimagining of customer experience in Web 3.0, with a greater than ever focus on the sale of memorable experiences to customers. From NFTs as a way to sell digital collectibles to raise funds for social movements that a brand supports (such as MAC x Keith Haring), through providing one-of-a-kind fan experience of collecting sports events tickets (NFL Super Bowl 2022), to NFTs as digital apparel and merchandise — with virtual garments that customers can wear within virtual environments (such as $13 digital Gucci sneakers), or a more tangible experience offered by Tiffany, with an option each token redeemed for a physical pendant (NFTiff).

In addition to the rarity and exclusivity, there is also a passion or interest in the topic underlying the collectible and the associated community. Leveraging the community-based ethos of web 3.0, brands can find ways to interact with NFT communities. With NFTs, brands can offer their consumers a chance to buy into a community, allowing for a much deeper connection than customers who buy a subscription. To achieve success, brands need to build engaging communities with tactics that incorporate both physical and digital approaches — thus operating at the intersection of both when applying “phygital” strategies, and going beyond branded NFT drops, live events, concerts, and metaverse marketing activations. 

What comes next?

There’s great opportunity for brands and marketers willing to engage with this new technology, and allowing your community to guide the future of those projects, as well as using NFTs as utility keys for access to exclusive spaces and offerings, and to confirm a consumer’s ownership — can give brands a unique entryway to communities. With this in mind, brands should be thinking about the omnichannel blending of digital and physical realities to continuously engage and grow a brand’s community in the metaverse. Lévy summarised the promise of the next web as follows: “You have to make sure that whatever you do, speaks the language of your time. We’re entering uncharted territories”. 

And he’s right — it’s a rare moment for brands to observe, learn, and ask questions, without running a great risk of missing out. Without a doubt, NFTs will shape future digital communities, the world of art and content creation — and if brands tune in with their audiences, there is a unique window of opportunity to use NFTs as a tool to engage, build, and drive the brand into the future. 

A strategic adoption of the NFTs can bridge physical and digital spaces between audiences, by connecting the creative community, allowing for decentralisation of the market and financial freedom for creators — defining the future of the media sector in the process.