Crypto wants its shine back

in a cryptocurrency conference in Denver this month, a group of singers dressed in bright orange jumpsuits took the stage to perform what one industry website later described as an anthem for crypto believers, a "blockchain 'Blowin' in the Wind'".

The chorus was a list of cryptocurrency's most notorious villains, from trash-talking entrepreneur Do Kwon to disgraced FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried punctuated with four-letter swear words.

"In the next bull market, we promise not to use," the song continued, "centralized exchanges run by these toxic guys."

After a disastrous 2022, when a procession of prominent crypto companies imploded, the industry is seeking a bold rebranding. Executives like Kwon and Bankman-Fried, once beloved crypto-celebrities, with hundreds of thousands of devotees hanging on their every tweet, are now persona non grata. Their former admirers argue that these crypto villains never really embodied the core values ​​of the industry, even before their companies collapsed.

At surviving companies, top executives are looking for new ways to market products many consumers now mistrust, 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 cryptographic schemes that feature complicated AI bindings. Others seek to replace the word "crypto," arguing that the industry's original nomenclature has been hopelessly tainted.

Crypto companies were “gradually moving towards changing the narrative” even before the Bankman-Fried exchange fell apart in November, said Todd Irwin, chief strategy officer at Fazer, a branding agency that has clients in the industry. “After the FTX incident, the movement has accelerated.”

The cleanup effort is a familiar routine in an industry that has experienced repeated booms and busts throughout its short history. The first defenders of bitcoins it had to convince the public and regulators that cryptocurrency was more than a convenient tool for drug dealers. A huge cryptocurrency boom in 2017 was followed by a long period of scrutiny from law enforcement, as startups that seemed exciting were exposed as scams. So far, the latest round of soul-searching has done little to change the industry's fortunes. Since FTX's demise, US regulators have announced fines and other enforcement actions against several major crypto firms. The abrupt failures of two trusted banking partners, Silvergate Capital and Signature Bank, have dealt a new blow to crypto startups, making it difficult to conduct basic business operations in the United States.

And the industry is still struggling to prove the practical value of its technology to an increasingly skeptical public.

“The rebranding doesn't solve the fundamental problem,” said Lee Reiners, a former 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 cryptocurrency industry was flush with cash. At her resort in the Bahamas in April, Bankman-Fried hosted a week-long conference where attendees drank champagne and had fun on the beaches. Among the guests: Su Zhu, one of the founders of the Three Arrows Capital cryptocurrency hedge fund, which failed a few weeks later when a market crash sent all major cryptocurrencies into a free fall.

Now Bankman-Fried faces charges for his management of FTX that could mean decades in prison if convicted, and industry executives are still dealing with the fallout.

Steven Saxton got a call from a bank this year to talk about his cryptocurrency startup, Gorilla Labs, which plans to offer a stablecoin, a type of cryptocurrency designed to hold $1 in value.

“My CTO said crypto about five times during the conversation. I was like, 'Just say 'blockchain,'" 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 visible ledger where cryptographic transactions are recorded, has potentially negative connotations. In January, crypto mining company Riot Blockchain changed its name to Riot Platforms. Other companies have removed the term "crypto" from their marketing materials, resorting to vaguer words like "decentralization."

“They're just wearing a different outfit to the same party,” said Irwin, the branding expert.

The marketing push extends to the world of artificial intelligence, which has replaced cryptocurrency as the hot trend in Silicon Valley after the launch of the viral chatbot ChatGPT. A number of AI-themed cryptocurrencies have risen in value, and cryptocurrency firms with names like DogAI and CryptoGPT are trying to incorporate the trendy technology into their offerings.

No cryptocurrency company is under more pressure than exchange giant Binance, which is facing government investigations on several fronts, in addition to growing concerns about its financial stability and lack of cooperation with regulators. This month, the exchange's CEO, Changpeng Zhao, associated Binance with a more attractive trend. He unveiled Bicasso, a product that uses artificial intelligence technology to create works of art in the form of non-fungible tokens, the digital collectibles known as NFTs.

“You can turn your creative visions into NFTs with AI,” Zhao wrote on Twitter. "Try it and show me what you do with it."

In recent months, he and other industry figures have also posted videos on social media ostensibly designed to set themselves apart from former crypto heroes like Bankman-Fried.

“Honor is not given,” Zhao declared somberly in a post. "He earned it." In another widely shared video, Jesse Powell, the founder of crypto exchange Kraken, threw some awkward jabs at a punching bag labeled "corruption" and "shady players."

A similar distancing effort was held in March at ETH Denver, a conference for advocates of ethereum, the popular crypto platform. In the bathrooms, guests had the option of using toilet paper with an image of Bankman-Fried in the style of Che Guevara. At the opening event, Jonathan Mann, a songwriter who specializes in crypto-themed lyrics, performed a swear-filled anthem denouncing the crypto villains of 2022.

“It was supposed to be a final release of all this toxicity and bad vibes and feelings from 2022,” Mann said in an interview. “I had everyone do breathing exercises before: 'Close your eyes. Deep inhale, deep exhale. We're going to clean up.'”

Even in 2023, a crypto conference can still attract high-level guests. As Mann and four other singers performed, Colorado Governor Jared Polis watched from the sidelines. “He had a smile on his face,” Mann said. (A spokeswoman for the governor, Melissa Dworkin, said she "would not misinterpret curious behavior from him as an endorsement of the words used.")

For some crypto execs, ritualized housekeeping isn't enough. Some startups have abandoned cryptocurrencies entirely in favor of different types of technology.

In late 2021, Troy Osinoff co-founded Zurp, hoping to make complex crypto investments simple 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 crash.

The fallout hurt many of Zurp's competitors, and Osinoff decided to pause the launch out of concern that crypto markets were not a safe place to park client funds.

Soon Zurp switched to a more conventional form of fintech. The company has started developing a credit card that features benefits tailored to Generation Z and plans to offer it in the coming months. Osinoff said he still hoped to incorporate cryptographic features into Zurp's offerings, but only once sentiment improved.

"It's already a hurdle to get people interested in cryptocurrencies," he said. “We are waiting for it to normalize.”

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