NFTs Will Become the Ultimate Marker of Belonging

NFTs Will Become the Ultimate Marker of Belonging

Nonfungible tokens (NFTs) are all the rage these days and, of course, marketers are wasting no time jumping into the pool to cash in on what might be the next big thing.

If ever there is something on the tips of tongues within the popular cultural zeitgeist, it will find itself top of mind for contemporary marketers.

I’m not clairvoyant enough to predict whether NFTs are a fad or a sign of a long-lasting practice on the horizon, so I will resist the urge to spill any additional ink on prophetic declarations. However, from my vantage point, one thing remains quite clear: We’re spending too much time thinking about the “NF” and not enough time focusing on the “T”—and that is where the true value lives.

On its surface, the “token” constitutes ownership of a unique digital asset. However, this receipt of ownership can also provide access to something far greater. Like the gold coins that grant entry into to the New York Continental Hotel of the John Wick cinematic universe, the token empowers its owner with membership into a community. It is, ostensibly, a cultural artifact of authentication that signifies that you are “one of us.” This is where things get interesting.

In this case, the “token” is more than authenticated ownership; it serves as a receipt of authenticated membership. NFTs arm brands with a technology that facilitates group membership through roadmaps that benefit token owners. The actual asset is inconsequential relative to the possibilities that come from fostering community, especially for brands that already have community associations like Apple, Ford F-150, Patagonia—even sports teams or political parties.

Imagine a Lakers NFT that grants post-game access to the court, whether your seats are courtside or nosebleed. The opportunities are endless—not just the perks per se, but how brands, artists or institutions activate a group of people who see the world the way they do. Not only is this the true opportunity for brands and NFTs, but it is also the future of brand writ large.

A short history of the brand mark

The first established brands served as a way by which consumers could distinguish which products belonged to which company. The brand mark served as a “legal mark” of ownership. Over the years, marketers utilized value propositions and positioning statements to differentiate their products from their competitors, which evolved brand from a legal mark to a “trust mark”—a mechanism that absorbed uncertainty for consumers.

In this case, the brand mark provided consumers with a good housekeeping seal that assured them the product could be trusted to perform. You know the saying, “nobody ever got fired buying IBM?” That’s the benefit of brand as a trust mark.

Later still, marketers would work their wizardry to evoke emotions among consumers to elevate the brand beyond a transactional relationship, fortified by trust, to an affinity-based relationship built on love. Kevin Roberts of Saatchi & Saatchi aptly referred to these brands as “love marks.” But the brands that dominate culture (and, subsequently, commerce) have evolved into “identity marks;” the marks we use to communicate who we are, what we believe and where we reside within the stratified social world.

These signifiers—like Apple, Supreme, Nike, Carhartt, Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia or even Bernie Bros, MAGA and QAnon—are more than just legal marks, trust marks or love marks. They are receipts of identity that people use to project themselves to the world based on the meaning and ideology associated with these brands and their congruence with the people who consume them. The literature refers to this as self-concept theory, where people purchase brands that are consistent with, enhance or in some way fit well with the conception they have of themselves.

The resulting effect of this phenomenon will no doubt drive the next evolution of brand, or—dare I say—the future of brand: brand as a “community mark.” Naturally, the brands that people use to communicate their identity are ripe to elevate from an identity mark to a community mark by fostering and facilitating the people who subscribe to the ideology of the brand.

You don’t need a crystal ball to predict this; it’s written on the walls. The longest standing institutions in the world—government, military, religion—have understood this since the beginning of time, and they’ve leveraged culture to keep their members engaged and catalyze collective behavior among them. We’re not in a state of identity-based politics—we’re battling community-based politics, where people congregate and act in concert with people like themselves.

Ergo, this presents the real opportunity for NFTs—the group. The future of NFTs is intrinsically connected to the future of brand because they provide an operationalizable receipt of membership into the subculture (via the token) that enables the brand to facilitate the community and foster loyalty among its members—all at a premium, no less.

Technology extends human behavior

At its core, the notion of people subscribing to communities based on shared interests and consumption activity is not a new phenomenon. People have long congregated within groups that share similar cultural characteristics, all within the context of commerce—think Harley Owners Group, Trekkies, Sneakerheads, the Hip-Hop Community, the Beyhive, Swifties or even fans of the movie Twilight, where people claimed membership within Team Edward or Team Jacob.

This is quintessential human behavior; we are social animals, after all. The difference today, however, is that Web 3.0 technologies like NFTs create greater opportunities to operationalize intrinsic human behavior. As the late philosopher, Marshall McLuhan would argue, technology merely extends human behavior. Likewise, it’s the same case for NFTs.

Therefore, it would behoove marketers to consider shifting our frame for NFTs from a “nonfungible” asset to a subcultural membership that the brand can foster and facilitate over time. It’s the “T” in NFTs where the world opens up for creative exploration.

Time will only tell how long the roadmap for NFT adoption will be. However, I can say with great confidence, the roadmap will determine its success for community engagement.


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