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NFTs and the ‘art’ of digital disruption

Posted June 23, 2021
Cartoon of woman holding mobile phone in front of floating artwork and a stack of coins marked "NFT"

What do chatbots, cryptocurrency and a U.S. $1 million virtual rose have in common?

The answer: digital disruption.

Just as traditional customer service has been transformed with technological advancements like AI and machine learning, the art world evolved with the introduction of blockchain and non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

Conceptual artist Kevin Abosch has made headlines for his work at the intersection of art and tech. His digital photograph of a potato is considered one of the most expensive photos in the world, he’s built a cryptocurrency inspired sculpture entitled Yellow Lambo (a nod to the virtual currency culture) and he has even turned his blood into digital tokens. As part of the TELUS International leadership series, Abosch discussed being a trailblazer in the industry, and the unique considerations that come with the role during our recent online event.

Below are some of the key takeaways from the discussion that highlighted what it means to be at the forefront of the art world’s digital evolution and how these learnings can be applied across businesses.

Artist Kevin Abosch's "Potato #345" depicting a potato on a black background

Image of Potato #345 by Kevin Abosch.

What is an NFT?

The moderator of the fireside chat and West Coast correspondent for The Sunday Times, Danny Fortson, described NFTs best with an analogy: “I think about it as an apartment building that has a thousand apartments, they could be all identical, or very different, but the point is one of them is yours because you went through the whole rigmarole of recording it with the county, wiring money…[to ultimately] establish a chain of custody.”

NFTs are similar conceptually to owning an apartment, but within a virtual context. A NFT is a unique digital asset stored using blockchain to indicate that it’s the original source and that it is not be replaceable, or ‘fungible’. For example, the average comic book today can be traded for another of similar style and value and is thus considered fungible. But, should you possess the one and only signed copy of Action Comics No. 1, which features the very first appearance of Superman, then you would be in possession of a one-of-a-kind item that could not be replicated.

In a similar vein, NFTs can be considered digital collectables. You may not have a physical copy, but the ownership, and subsequent bragging rights, remain the same.

A high-tech, high-touch approach

Art has always been a high-touch expression. In many ways, it’s the essence of human creativity and imagination, which may be why some creations last the test of time; just try and get an uninterrupted view of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre to see what we mean.

But art also continues to evolve and the introduction of NFTs is one of the many ways we’re seeing digital transformation impact the industry. Not just in the art itself, but in how it is managed and sold. “This is the first time in history, digital artists who are creating natively in the digital realm can connect the technology that allows for authentication, chain of ownership and the ability to transact,” said Abosch.

This evolution is not unique to the art world. Businesses across industries have embraced technology to become ‘better, faster, stronger,’ but maintaining the high-touch alongside the high-tech should be the ultimate goal. “I haven’t seen a case yet, where technology truly facilitates that type of discovery that human touch does,” Abosch went on to share.

With this in mind, companies need to be thoughtful and deliberate about how they leverage technology to inspire loyalty, create passionate advocates and drive growth. Enabling customers to use technology to engage with brands should take a blended approach with the understanding that the physical and the digital are not a dichotomy. Or as Abosch put it: “Why can’t you have a physical and a digital art collection?”

Artist Kevin Abosch's "Yellow Lambo" depicting a yellow neon sign that spells out 42 inline alphanumerics representing the blockchain contact address for the unique crypto-token

Image of Yellow Lambo by Kevin Abosch.

Establish an emotional connection

It may seem like an oxymoron to use technology to establish a more human connection, but the meteoric rise in NFTs provides a perfect example of how evoking emotion extends to the digital realm.

NFTs are often related to memes and Abosch says there’s a good reason for that: the emotional connection. “The idea that you could own something like a Nyan Cat where before it was just something that existed…now you have a chance to be connected to something, and that feeling of connection feeds into [one of the reasons] that people buy art.”

Connecting with your average consumer is no different. Research from marketing agency MBLM revealed that customers will pay more for brands with whom they have an emotional connection. Further, Forrester has found that “when a company makes customers feel appreciated, 76% indicate they’ll keep their business with the brand, 80% say they will spend more with the brand, and 87% will recommend the brand to friends and family members.”

Understanding the role of technology in creating an emotional connection with customers is an important consideration for brands. For example, chatbots can be humorous (where appropriate), data can be used to create more personalized service and RPA can help alleviate some common frustrations. Using technology as a tool to invoke positive emotions in the customer experience can have a strong influence on purchasing decisions and brand loyalty.

Use technology as inspiration

Everybody wants to have the ‘next big idea,’ but Abosch cautions that firstism isn’t the end-all be-all. “Just because you are the first to do something doesn’t mean you raise the stakes in a meaningful way,” he says.

Instead, he suggests finding inspiration in technology to help guide innovation. “When I see technology emerge, my first thought is how can I use this as a tool to empower me as a creative person, whether that’s a new deep learning algorithm or hardware.” Abosch said. “I think artists are really great early adopters who play with things in impractical ways… impracticality leads to further innovation.”

It’s safe to say that no industry is untouched by digital disruption, but how brands respond to evolving technology is the key to remaining competitive. As such, leaders in all industries would be wise to internalize Abosch’s words in regards to NFTs: “The future is well beyond what we are seeing now.” How leaders choose to embrace that change is what will separate the disruptors from the disrupted.

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