Beeple’s collage, Everydays: The First 5000 Days, sold at Christie’s for $69 million

The Land of Make Believe

January 20, 2022

The world is a strange and wonderful place. Every day we are confronted with surprising and occasionally horrible news. And if you’re like me, the days where you feel like an alien on your own planet happen with increasing frequency. A few months ago, this headline stopped me in my tracks:

Buyer of $69 million Beeple NFT is a crypto investor using the pseudonym Metakovan

Am I an earthling, or do I live in a video game fantasyland?

If you’re totally perplexed, let me summarize. Mike Winkelman is a digital artist who sells his work under the name Beeple. NFT stands for “non-fungible token” – a certificate representing a digital asset, usually an image, animation, or video. And the buyer (no explanation for the pseudonym) made their money investing in cryptocurrency. See a detail of Everydays: The First 5000 Days above.

Is this real?!

The value of digital art and other collectibles is much like the value of a Rembrandt or a Picasso. It is completely subjective and determined by factors such as uniqueness and reputation.

Value is as real as many other things that we often take for granted – such as countries, laws, and money. These are all social constructs. They don’t exist in objective reality, but as a result of human interaction. Oh, sure, you can stuff some bills in your wallet, or raise a flag on holidays, but they are only symbols.

Similarly, a brand is not a logo. In fact it’s not a thing at all, but instead reflects the collective impressions and expectations of an organization’s target audiences.

The value of human behavior.

It is risky to adopt a marketing strategy that relies on people doing things that they’ve demonstrated no inclination to do. It might pay off spectacularly, as with the global embrace of smartphones. Or it could be swept into the dustbin of history – Google Glass, anyone?

While NFTs are relatively new, and investing in them is highly speculative, the patterns of human behavior have persisted over time. These are things you can count on:

We rely on stories to make sense of the world.

Anthropologists tell us that storytelling is central to human existence. Stories are common to every known culture. Just as the brain detects patterns in nature – like a face, a flower, or a sound – it also detects patterns in information. Stories are recognizable patterns, and in those patterns we find meaning.

The best stories will place your audience at the center of the action – as the hero. And every hero’s journey needs a guide or mentor – think of Star Wars, To Kill a Mockingbird, or Harry Potter, among many others. This is the role your organization should fill.

How do your stories help people understand the organization? Do they make your audience feel empowered? Are they designed to be shared with others?

The experience is more valuable than the thing.

Imagine boarding an airplane. You’re excited to begin a new adventure, and settle into your seat. The attendants at the gate were pleasant and professional, the take-off was smooth, and as you reach cruising altitude, you lower the tray table only to find a coffee stain. And this makes you wonder about the reliability of the jet engines.

Irrational? Maybe so. But it highlights a simple truth – while good design may increase consideration and perception of value, a negative experience can quickly undermine trust. In other words, the most valuable thing is not a thing, it’s the experience.

How well do you understand your audiences? What does the customer journey look like? What do they need from you? What do you need from them?

Humans are non-linear.

When we watch movies or read books, we are accustomed to consuming narratives in a carefully prescribed sequence. These stories are linear, with a beginning, middle, and end.

The internet has changed all that. It is the first medium that can be text, audio, video, or all of the above. Thanks to the revolutionary convention of hyperlinking, the narratives that have emerged are told in a way that’s nonlinear, participatory, and immersive.

Do you provide multiple access points to the same information? Does that information make sense by itself – and in random sequence or context? Do your communications work this way both online and in printed communications?

Believe in value creation.

Selling an NFT for millions may seem like a fairytale. People may choke on their coffee when reading about a large corporation’s million-dollar brand launch. But like a social construct, value exists because human beings agree that it exists.

Attempting to find a shortcut – to catch lightning in a bottle – betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of design and marketing. Successful outcomes are built on a deep understanding of an organization’s people, traditions, and audiences.

Take the time to understand patterns of human behavior, and you can unlock more value in your organization’s brand.

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