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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

What happens when hype is misplaced

The pressure to capitalize on new tech can leave brands flat-footed if it doesn’t live up to the hype. But brands that participate in culture will always find ways to disrupt.

What happens when hype is misplaced
[Jacob Lund / Adobe Stock]

Once an object of envy and aspiration, private clubs have languished in recent decades as young people lose interest in that brand of exclusivity. Instead, we’re witnessing the monied members of the Millennial and Gen-Z cohorts wade into the burgeoning NFT “gold rush,” joining digital clubs that are defining the future of “members only.”

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One of the most successful of these projects centers on a community of disillusioned apes. The creative brainchild of four anonymous thirtysomethings, Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC) is a collection of 10,000 unique ape avatars minted as NFTs that double as membership tokens to an exclusive online social club with real-world perks. The entire project sold out within 12 hours at an initial asking price of 0.08 ETH, about $190 USD at the time.

But in the roughly nine months since the project’s launch, it has become a cultural juggernaut, garnering interest from numerous celebrities, gracing magazine covers, and expanding beyond the Blockchain into the physical worlds of fashion, publishing, and music.

As a result, the minimum price for a BAYC NFT has skyrocketed from a fancy dinner to a modest house. By the end of 2021, BAYC had already surpassed $1 billion USD in sales, achieving the milestone faster than many of the largest and most influential companies in the world.

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So, what is the ultimate significance of this cultural phenomenon? It’s difficult to say just yet because even when explained simply, for the typical layperson, NFTs remain too abstract to meaningfully wrap their minds around. In fact, according to Gartner, NFTs have between two and five more years of development before they offer any benefits that can drive mainstream adoption.

And yet, none of this has curbed brands from playing into the growing hype. Some have opted to simply ride the wave of BAYC by purchasing avatars and designing collaborations with them. Other brands, however, have fully launched their own NFT products ranging from fragrances to streetwear to toilet paper-inspired art. But why so much scattershot experimentation with a technology that most consumers don’t understand or even find useful yet?

The short answer is that brands are desperate for consumer engagement and often bet on “shiny new things” as viable pathways to cultural relevance. This isn’t a novel tactic. Nearly two decades before the metaverse became topical, huge brands like Coca-Cola futzed around in an early interpretation on Second Life, spending millions before realizing the novelty had worn off with consumers. Google famously botched the launch of its highly-coveted Google Glass only to witness wearables and augmented reality become mainstream a decade later. And more recently, Quibi, a mobile platform poised to revolutionize entertainment, convinced brands to buy its entire first-year ad inventory, only to shutter operations after six months.

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Many brands operate as if the wellspring of innovation can only be tapped by hopping on the bandwagon behind whatever is new in tech. But if we look closely at some of the brands driving the seismic shifts of our time, it’s clear that the biggest disruptors are sometimes more tapped into culture than they are technology.

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A generation ago, the idea of fully electric cars still felt futuristically foreign, but today, we share the roads with several variations of battery-powered electric vehicles. Tesla is largely responsible for accelerating this shift and has become the most valuable car brand on the planet. But while its stated mission is “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy,” this noble sense of purpose isn’t how its brand actually shows up in the world. Instead, it openly embraces the irreverence of internet culture through cheeky stunts and troll-like behavior. Only Tesla thinks to sell branded short-shorts in response to Wall Street betting against (or shorting) its stock. No other brand gets away with putting a test dummy in a roadster and launching it into space to the tune of David Bowie’s “Starman.” For a brand like Tesla, an impulsive and iconoclastic celebrity like Elon Musk at the helm somehow makes sense. This is a company that produces sustainable battery technologies, but a brand that operates in culture with a spirit of rebellion and creativity that delights its most rabid fans.

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As a society, we are becoming more aware of the full impact of meat and animal product consumption on our planet, but often have limited options. As such, plant-based brands like Impossible Foods are creating enjoyable (and sometimes preferable) alternatives. And while the groundbreaking science behind its products has always been central to its story, its ability to co-create with other brands is how it has managed to grow so quickly. We live in a cultural moment that is dominated by collaborations, and Impossible has recognized this. Through partnerships with familiar and highly accessible brands like Burger King, Starbucks, White Castle, Trader Joe’s, and Disney, Impossible makes it easier for consumers who actively want to eat less meat. And that has allowed it to move beyond the specialty product aisle to become a brand with the power to shape the future of how we eat.

But when we look at existing technology, it’s clear that leaning into culture can help brands extract value even when they don’t have new tech to hype. The world of fashion is seeing this firsthand with peer-to-peer social e-commerce platforms like Depop. The technology-powering Depop resembles eBay on the backend and Instagram on the front. But the brand’s commitment to being a progressive, community-powered fashion ecosystem really resonates with Gen Z.

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As 2022 unfolds, brands will continue playing with NFTs and other emerging technologies to engage the consumers they care most about. Many of these brands will fall into the trap of hyping whatever’s new, regardless of what it is. But the winners will be those that reject technological determinism and lean into culture and taste as they road map the future.

Innovative brands understand that technology’s mere existence does not change the world. Technology is just a tool. It serves society—not the other way around.


Alain is Founder and CEO of SYLVAIN, a strategy and design consultancy that provokes progress for companies, people, and society at large.

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