Last week, ads touting the Winklevoss twins’ cryptocurrency exchange Gemini began appearing across the city, on taxis, phone booths, subway cars—even taking over a full-page ad in the New York Times.
Unsurprisingly, crypto aficionados were not impressed, especially since the marketing push emphasizes regulation (an unpopular topic for Libertarian-leaning crypto enthusiasts). The ads call Gemini “the regulated cryptocurrency exchange” and use messaging like “The Revolution Needs Rules” and “Crypto Without Chaos.” Today, the Winklevii, Cameron and Tyler, took to Reddit for an AMA (“Ask Me Anything”), where users could question their new marketing strategy.
The Winklevii have a history of compliance in the crypto space. They founded Gemini Trust Co. in 2014 but waited until the New York State Department of Financial Services granted them licensing before launching what was initially just a bitcoin exchange in 2015. Since then, the exchange has obtained licenses to trade other cryptocurrencies including ether, Zcash, Litecoin, and Bitcoin Cash. This map (posted by Gemini) shows where the company is licensed to operate, which includes all U.S. states but Hawaii. In September 2018, the Winklevii announced their own stablecoin, the Gemini dollar, nodding yet again to state-regulated standards. It is based on the Ethereum network and backed by U.S. fiat held in a Boston-headquartered bank.
Promoting rules and regulation alienates a lot of people involved in the cryptocurrency space, and the Winklevii must know that. Indeed, their new ad campaign hasn’t been well-received by crypto figureheads—like Erik Voorhees, CEO of ShapeShift. Three days ago on Twitter, Voorhees reminded the internet that crypto “has a lot of rules already,” adding, “Crypto is a system of laws and not men.”
Co-founder of Messari, Dan McArdle, seemed to agree with this sentiment, taking his opposition to Gemini’s pro-regulation message to the next level.
Maybe Gemini is trying to be controversial, taking the “all press is good press” route. The sheer number of their ads populating New York indicates an expensive effort to get their name out there. But that begs the question: How many average passersby in the city are going to know enough about cryptocurrency to care that this company, Gemini, is supposedly bringing order to it?
New York is so overrun with Gemini ads now that one is plastered to a phone booth three blocks away from BREAKER’s office, proclaiming “Money Has a Future.” I stood by the advertisement for about 15 minutes this morning asking people walking by if they’d noticed the ads and whether they were “excited about the prospect of a more regulated cryptocurrency exchange.”
We figured most would respond to such a pointed question with a blank stare. Indeed, the many people who walked by and refused to stop and answer a question about a phone booth ad may have responded that way. Instead, out of the four people who responded to my Billy-on-the-Street-style pestering, three expressed interest in the idea of a more regulated cryptocurrency exchange. (To be fair, our offices are right by Manhattan’s Financial District, likely skewing the results of this very informal survey.)
“I’m intrigued about what’s to come in terms of the right regulation, because for me there’s going to be regulations regardless,” said Alec Cohen, who walked past the advertisement on Fulton Street around 10:45 a.m. He admitted his job as an executive in “internet services and tech consulting” meant he knew more than the average person about crypto. Cohen “wouldn’t say [he’s] excited about regulation per se,” but he is excited about the “overall potential” of more mainstream cryptocurrency adoption.
People outside of the tech industry also seem to have ideas about the need for regulation in crypto. Burton Josephs, who sold his garment industry business last year, said that crypto “seems to me like the Wild West. My nephew and his friends invested in bitcoin. Some made a fortune, some lost a fortune.” A UPS delivery man walked past the Gemini ad pushing a pile of boxes. “I have to wait to see ‘til it works,” he said enigmatically of Gemini’s regulated exchange.
The last passerby who agreed to answer our questions, maintenance worker Malik Hassan, wasn’t too sure what cryptocurrency was, at first. But when I brought up bitcoin, he said, “I heard it can be a little illegal,” harkening to cryptocurrency’s dark web drug buying connotations.
Maybe that’s the point of the ad campaign—getting people to associate the name Gemini with legality in the crypto space. As Ari Paul, cofounder and CIO at BlockTower Capital, a crypto investment firm, put it, “I almost bought BTC in early 2013, but didn’t trust Gox [referring to the ill-fated early bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox].”
Or maybe the “value prop” of these advertisements isn’t really targeting “humans walking the streets of NYC,” as The Block’s Mike Dudas puts it. It could be targeting regulators, the Winklevii raising their hands high like the class brown noser, saying to the SEC that’s blocked their ETF multiple times, “Look, we’re legit. We like rules, and we’re playing by the book.” At the Consensus: Invest conference in New York this past November, SEC chairman Jay Clatyon certainly didn’t make the future of ETFs look any brighter.
In the Winklevii’s Reddit AMA that started today at 1 p.m. EST, someone’s already asked about their “short-term plan for gaining approval on Crypto ETFs.”
“We understand the Commission’s concerns and are working hard to address them (i.e., increased marketplace surveillance) w/ the following steps,” wrote Cameron Winklevoss. They’re working with NASDAQ and have an in-house team dedicated to monitoring Gemini’s marketplace. They’ve implemented their own “marketplace conduct rules.”
Someone else addressed the controversial marketing campaign directly. “Some voices in crypto took umbrage with your recent advertising campaign in NY … Could you explain the reasoning behind it? Does Gemini stand alone in this respect?”
Cameron replied, “We know we aren’t going to please everyone, but the healthiest and most vibrant economies have thoughtful rules to promote positive outcomes. You can’t point to a lawless economy that is thriving. To be clear, there are exchanges and custodians that subscribe to our principles [his link], and it’s encouraging to see that we are not alone in this regard—but for us this is a core focus and something we have worked hard to be thought-leaders in.”
Turns out, the Gemini advertising campaign in New York is slightly targeted. “The ad buy has a heavy presence throughout crypto alley in Flatiron and through the financial corridors in midtown and downtown,” wrote Paul Caiozzo, founder and COO of Interesting Development, the agency that worked with Gemini on the campaign, in an email to BREAKER. Chris Roan, Gemini’s head of marketing, wrote to BREAKER, “We put significant time and resource into hyper-targeted media on ongoing basis, but we believe this campaign can help bring new investors into the category.”
The AMA is deliberately part of this larger campaign, Roan confirmed, and it will be followed up by a Gemini talk taking place at Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park (ironically the location of the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011) tomorrow, January 8. There, wrote Roan, Gemini will “discuss these issues [brought up in the ad campaign] directly with the people of New York.”