A Marketer’s Guide to all the FOMO (and more)

What made an art festival in Miami into an apparent must-visit for brands interested in the metaverse? The short answer is, well, timing. 

In January 2021, with COVID still restricting industry events to a virtual format, Miami-based tech founder Alexander Taub tweeted: Calling it now. First big tech event in a vaccinated COVID world will be Art Basel in Miami in December. Will be similar vibes to what early SXSW became for tech/startups.” Meanwhile, blockchain innovations – cryptocurrencies, decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) were booming. Virtual reality and mixed reality had been permeating the art world for the past few years. And sure enough, Art Basel 2021 drew curiosity from digital marketers that were Web3-curious… and starved for industry gatherings.

But in late 2022, fears of a recession caused tech companies to trim down “moonshot” projects and, by association, brands were forced to rethink experimental activations. Meanwhile, the crypto and NFT bubble appeared to have deflated, with NFT sales on marketplaces like OpenSea sharply declining and apparent crypto behemoths (remember Terra Luna?) falling like dominos – not to mention FTX. 

Will Art Basel remain a regular stop on the digital conference circuit for brands? Is it only for the Web3-curious? And what strategies can they adopt year-round? Here’s what marketers need to know, based on what was on the ground in 2022.

Yes, Art Basel is a hotspot for brands – but it still isn’t for every brand.

Brand partnerships and activations at Art Basel had historically been on behalf of brands that either had a strong foothold in the art world, or catered to the wealthy clientele of art enthusiasts who showed up in Miami every year – think luxury cars, liquor brands, fashion houses, and financial services. 

But over the past year or two, the event piqued other brands’ interest, mostly those that were in some way interested in Web3 or cryptocurrency. And this year, the horizon broadened a little further: Events series Brand Innovators, which hosts pop-up conferences during industry conferences and festivals like SXSW and Advertising Week, hosted an event at Art Basel for the first time.

David Teicher, chief content officer of Brand Innovators, explained why: “We’d been talking about developing a presence at Art Basel for a number of years at this point,” he told Infillion. Art Basel, and Miami Art Week, has become a hotbed for conversation around Web3, a topic of great interest for the marketing industry and our community, so there was a natural fit.”

Teicher explains that while there were plenty of Art Basel’s usual suspects at Brand Innovators in Miami – e.g. luxury brands and the NFT-curious – that marketers have been hovering around the event for long enough that it made sense to host a satellite event.

“To me, that really illustrates the depth of the appeal of the festival and the compelling nature of the aforementioned topics, if not also the draw of Miami in December,” he said. 

If you’re a brand dabbling in NFTs or crypto, collectibles aren’t enough: you need to show real utility.

Anyone who’s been reading about a “crypto crash” or NFT “bubble” bursting would have been surprised at Art Basel, where NFTs and crypto were still front-and-center. Clearly, there are a lot of true believers despite the headlines.

Yet there were still signs that the NFT world knows it needs to find more grounding in reality. At Art Basel Miami 2021, it wasn’t uncommon for a party invitation to either require ownership of an NFT to enter, or to promise a free NFT as a party favor — but that was it, and for the most part, people forgot about their party favor NFTs. In 2022, this seemed far less common. The exceptions were, for the most part, large and well-established decentralized communities like Friends With Benefits (FWB), which have put forth actual reasons for owning their cryptocurrency – which in FWB’s case is access to networking and creative projects.

That’s key. Brands that want to get involved in the NFT or crypto world have to figure out a real-world tie-in. Nike took the stage at an event hosted by media outlet nft now to showcase what it’s building with digital fashion company RTFKT, which it acquired last year. The founders and artist behind NFT community Meta Angels were on the ground, fresh off the launch of their NFT-powered tequila. Electronic musician Deadmau5 debuted music metaverse platform Pixelynx with an augmented reality scavenger hunt powered by technology from Niantic.

In short: Consumers have fully merged the physical and digital in their media and retail habits, and Web3 is no exception. NFT giveaways won’t cut it anymore – show how the latest tech innovations also expand beyond screens.

Today’s art can showcase tomorrow’s creative technology, and major platforms and gaming companies have a massive untapped opportunity in Art Basel.

Last month, in Infillion’s hosted panel with Campaign US, a cadre of creative agency executives from Austin pointed out that brands need to know what they are — and aren’t — getting into when it comes to emerging platforms. “You want people to interact with you,” Megan Trinidad, executive creative director of R/GA, explained in the panel. “Clients, at the end of the day, expect large numbers of people to do the thing that you ask them to do. But the reality is when you introduce a new platform, those people don’t exist.”

But gaining literacy on emerging platforms is essential for success if and when those platforms do go mainstream, and an opportunity like Art Basel presents quite the sandbox. A tech company can test out new “frontier” technologies that aren’t ready for any kind of client or user uptake by working with artists, and in the process, they’re both gaining valuable insights about user experience and also generating goodwill for their brand by supporting artists and creators. And that’s exactly what Meta did, partnering with both artists and chefs at its “Meta House” as well as at the immersive art center Superblue for mixed-reality art that showcased emerging Latin American creatives.

Yet, for the most part, Meta was alone. Big tech platforms and gaming companies mostly didn’t show up in Miami this week, leaving the tech presence to Web3-native companies like Degen Arcade and Teleport. That’s not to say the event is off big tech’s radar. Google, for one, has made plenty of moves to court the art world, including partnerships with museums around the world, and has dipped its toe into Art Basel before, like its partnership with artist Marina Abramovic at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2014, and a VR activation at Art Basel Hong Kong in 2017. But Google was nowhere to be seen in Miami in 2022. The same goes for the likes of Microsoft, Apple, Sony, and most others. (A few exceptions: Adobe, whose software that’s clearly relevant to an art-focused audience, co-hosted a party and art exhibit with retail research outlet Future Commerce, and Samsung co-sponsored several NFT art shows.)

There are a few likely reasons for big tech and gaming companies’ absence. One, the gaming-heavy Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas is fast approaching, and with its timing poised right after the holidays, any activation at the event needs to be planned well in advance. 

Candace Locklear, president and co-founder of tech PR firm MIGHTY, said big companies also might just be concerned they don’t have their metaverse or Web3 strategies locked in, and wouldn’t look forward-thinking compared to the likes of native Web3 startups. “It seems that major, established gaming companies aren’t doing big brand activations at Art Basel because their Web3 strategies just aren’t ‘crisp’ enough to rock it compared to many upstarts,” she told Infillion. “That, plus CES and SXSW are back, and those events are likely eating up the marketing team’s time now.” 

(By the way – Infillion will be at CES. Let us know if you want to meet up.)

But Meta’s strategy – work with artists to test the creative limits of new technologies – was a memorable one, and offers a blueprint that brands can follow. Work with artists and creators to test out a platform’s emerging technologies, and you never know what you might learn.

And that’s something that can apply far beyond an annual art festival in Miami.

Interested in the metaverse? Learn about how Infillion Labs is testing the waters by following us on LinkedIn.