Crypto Wants Its Shine Back
At a cryptocurrency conference in Denver this month, a group of singers clad in bright orange onesies took the stage to perform what one industry website later described as an anthem for the crypto faithful, a “blockchain ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.'”
The chorus was a list of crypto’s most notorious villains, from the trash-talking entrepreneur Do Kwon to the disgraced FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried, punctuated by four-letter expletives.
“In the next bull market, we promise not to use,” the song continued, “centralized exchanges run by these toxic dudes.”
After a disastrous 2022, when a procession of prominent crypto firms imploded, the industry is angling for an audacious rebrand. Executives like Mr. Kwon and Mr. Bankman-Fried — once beloved crypto celebrities, with hundreds of thousands of devotees hanging on their every tweet — are now personae non gratae. Their former admirers argue that these crypto villains never truly embodied the industry’s core values, even before their companies collapsed.
At surviving firms, top executives are looking for new ways to market products that many consumers now distrust—and to distance themselves from former colleagues and mentors who could face years in prison. Some companies are trying to capitalize on the growing interest around artificial intelligence, with crypto schemes that feature convoluted AI tie-ins. Others are looking to replace the word “crypto,” arguing that the industry’s original nomenclature has become irredeemably tainted.
Crypto companies were “moving gradually towards changing the narrative” even before Mr. Bankman-Fried’s exchange failed in November, said Todd Irwin, the chief strategy officer at Fazer, a branding agency that has clients in the industry. “After the FTX incident, the move has been turbocharged.”
The cleansing effort is a familiar routine in an industry that has experienced repeated booms and busts over its short history. Early advocates of Bitcoin had to convince the public and regulators that cryptocurrency was more than just a convenient tool for drug dealers. A major crypto boom in 2017 was followed by a long period of law enforcement scrutiny, as exciting-sounding start-ups were exposed as scams.
What to Know About the Collapse of FTX
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What is FTX? FTX is a now bankrupt company that was one of the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchanges. It enabled customers to trade digital currencies for other digital currencies or traditional money; it also had a native cryptocurrency known as FTT. The company, based in the Bahamas, built its business on risky trading options that are not legal in the United States.
Who is Sam Bankman-Fried? He is the 30-year-old founder of FTX and the former chief executive of FTX. Once a golden boy of the crypto industry, he was a major donor to the Democratic Party and known for his commitment to effective altruism, a charitable movement that urges adherents to give away their wealth in efficient and logical ways.
How did FTX’s troubles begin? Last year, Changpeng Zhao, the chief executive of Binance, the world’s largest crypto exchange, sold the stake he held in FTX back to Mr. Bankman-Fried, receiving a number of FTT tokens in exchange. In November, Mr. Zhao said he would sell the tokens and expressed concerns about FTX’s financial stability. The move, which drove down the price of FTT, spooked investors.
What led to FTX’s collapse? Mr. Zhao’s announcement drove down the price and spooked investors. Traders rushed to withdraw from FTX, causing the company to have an $8 billion shortfall. Binance, FTX’s main rival, offered a loan to save the company but later pulled out, forcing FTX to file for bankruptcy on Nov. 11.
So far, the latest round of soul-searching has done little to turn the industry’s fortunes around. Since FTX’s demise, US regulators have announced fines and other enforcement actions against several major crypto companies. The abrupt failures of two reliable banking partners, Silvergate Capital and Signature Bank, have dealt a fresh blow to crypto start-ups, making it harder to conduct basic business operations in the United States.
And the industry is still struggling to demonstrate the practical value of its technology to an increasingly skeptical public.
“Rebranding doesn’t solve the fundamental problem,” said Lee Reiners, a onetime supervisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York who now teaches at Duke Law School. “What is this good for? What problem does it solve? This is just PR”
A year ago, the crypto industry was flush with cash. At his compound in the Bahamas in April, Mr. Bankman-Fried hosted a weeklong conference where attendees downed champagne and partied on the beaches. Among the guests: Su Zhu, a founder of the crypto hedge fund Three Arrows Capital, which failed a few weeks later when a market crash sent all the major cryptocurrencies into free fall.
Now Mr. Bankman-Fried faces charges over his management of FTX that could mean decades in prison if he is convicted, and industry executives are still navigating the fallout.
Steven Saxton got on a call with a bank this year to discuss his crypto start-up, Gorilla Labs, which plans to offer a stablecoin, a type of cryptocurrency designed to maintain a value of $1.
“My CTO said about crypto five times during the conversation. I was like, ‘Just say ‘blockchain,’” Mr. Saxton said. “These guys could be very sensitive to that, and it could make them very nervous.”
But even “blockchain”—the term for the publicly viewable ledger where crypto transactions are recorded—has potentially negative connotations. In January, the crypto mining company Riot Blockchain changed its name to Riot Platforms. Other companies have removed the term “crypto” from their marketing materials, turning to vaguer words like “decentralization.”
“They’re just wearing a different outfit to the same party,” said Mr. Irwin, the branding expert.
The marketing push extends to the world of artificial intelligence, which has replaced crypto as the hot trend in Silicon Valley after the release of ChatGPT, the viral chatbot. A series of AI-themed cryptocurrencies have surged in value, and crypto firms with names like DogAI and CryptoGPT are trying to incorporate the buzzy technology into their offerings.
No crypto company is under more pressure than the giant exchange Binance, which is facing government investigations on several fronts, as well as rising concerns about its financial stability and lack of cooperation with regulators. This month, the exchange’s chief executive, Changpeng Zhao, moved to associate Binance with a more attractive trend. He unveiled Bicasso, a product that uses AI technology to make artwork in the form of nonfungible tokens, the digital collectibles known as NFTs.
“You can turn your creative visions into NFTs with AI,” Mr. Zhao wrote on Twitter. “Give it a try and show me what you make with it.”
The Aftermath of FTX’s Downfall
The spectacular collapse of the crypto exchange in November has left the industry stunned. Jane Street Capital: The collapse of FTX has drawn attention to the little-known Wall Street firm where Sam Bankman-Fried started his career. He was drawn there because of his interest in “effective altruism.”Gaming Markets?: Since FTX imploded, Mr. Bankman-Fried denied accusations that he manipulated markets for his companies’ benefit. Cryptocurrency investors disagree. Bail Terms: A federal judge overseeing Mr. Bankman-Fried’s case has signaled a willingness to jail the disgraced executive for his persistent testing of his confinement’s boundaries. Legal Counsel: A judge allowed the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell to continue advising FTX on bankruptcy, after critics complained of a potential conflict of interest between the firm and the exchange.
In recent months, he and other industry figures have also posted videos on social media seemingly designed to separate themselves from erstwhile crypto heroes like Mr. Bankman-Fried.
“Honor isn’t given,” Mr. Zhao somberly declared in one post. “It’s earned.” In another widely shared video, Jesse Powell, the founder of the Kraken crypto exchange, threw a few awkward jabs at a punching bag labeled “corruption” and “shady players.”
A similar distancing effort was underway in March at ETH Denver, a conference for advocates of Ethereum, the popular crypto platform. In the bathrooms, guests had the option to use toilet paper featuring a Che Guevara-style image of Mr. Bankman-Fried. At the opening event, Jonathan Mann, a songwriter who specializes in crypto-themed lyrics, performed an expletive-heavy anthem denouncing 2022’s crypto villains.
“It was supposed to be a final letting go of all this toxicity and bad vibes and feelings of 2022,” Mr. Mann said in an interview. “I had everyone do breathing exercises before: ‘Close your eyes. Deep breath in, deep breath out. We’re going to cleanse ourselves.’”
Even in 2023, a crypto conference can still attract high-powered guests. While Mr. Mann and four other singers performed, the governor of Colorado, Jared Polis, watched from the sidelines. “He had a grin on his face,” Mr. Mann said. (A spokeswoman for the governor, Melissa Dworkin, said she “wouldn’t misinterpret his curious demeanor as an endorsement of the words used.”)
For some crypto executives, ritualized cleansing is not enough. A few start-ups have abandoned crypto altogether in favor of different types of technology.
In late 2021, Troy Osinoff co-founded Zurp, hoping to simplify complex crypto investments for mainstream consumers. Zurp raised $5 million, built a waiting list of 120,000 people and was preparing to launch last summer when the collapse of Luna, a popular cryptocurrency, triggered a broader market meltdown.
The fallout damaged many of Zurp’s competitors, and Mr. Osinoff decided to pause the rollout because he was worried the crypto markets were not a safe place to park customer funds.
Soon Zurp shifted to a more conventional form of financial technology. The company began developing a credit card that features perks tailored to Generation Z and plans to offer it in the coming months. Mr. Osinoff said he still hoped to incorporate crypto features into Zurp’s offerings, but only once sentiment improved.
“It’s already a hurdle to get people interested in crypto,” he said. “We’re just waiting for it to normalize.”
Susan C. Beachy contributed research.