How design teams, artists, and big brands can leverage NFTs

Mike Parisella, a Salem, MA-based artist, had been working full time as a designer doing freelance tour visuals and album covers in the music industry for roughly nine years before his income came to a screeching halt amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Unsure of how to make a living, he called friend and Las Vegas DJ, Justin Blau, to brainstorm ways to drum up income. “He brought up NFTs,” says Parisella. “At the time I had no idea what they were. We saw a sale from [artist] Trevor Jones that went for $50,000. We dove straight in.”

A year later, Parisella now sells his work on online markets for non-fungible tokens (NFTs) under the pseudonym Slimesunday. He creates motion graphics and digital abstract NFTs using bright colors and wild imagery. Parisella has now garnered an incredible following, making him one of the highest paid NFT artists around. “In our first sale collective, we sold 20 to 50 NFTs and we generated $20,000,” says Parisella, noting work he has done in collaboration with Blau. “We thought it was the most amazing thing ever, selling out in seven seconds. Now, the amount you get off a drop has gone exponentially higher. I had never in my life sold art for that much money.”

Parisella’s experience is just one piece of the NFT landscape for artists, designers, and even corporations looking to leverage the space for business and a host of uses we haven’t yet seen. In the last several months alone, major brands including Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Asics, Nike, Louis Vuitton, and Gucci have launched NFTs to engage with their audiences and market their products. NFT marketplace OpenSea secured $100 million in series B financing, while MomentRanks, another startup which creates collector tools for the NFT market, raised $1.7 million in seed funding this summer. Coca-Cola’s auctioned NFT sold for $575,000 in July to celebrate International Friendship Day and benefit the brand’s longtime partner, the Special Olympics. Entrepreneurs, executives, artists, designers and more are all trying to find their way in the space without much guidance outside of the firsthand experience of the few early adopters who’ve not only made money making, selling or building off of NFTs, but cultivated a community beyond the technology.

We talked to a few closely working in the space for a shortlist of advice for CDOs, designers, artists, and brand leadership. This technology is incredibly new and if you’re not following it daily, you’ll miss something. And, because NFTs and the crypto market in general are getting a ton of media coverage, it is easy to feel like you’re the only one who secretly has no idea what an NFT is and why they’re creating so much wake. “When I first heard of them I had absolutely no knowledge,” says Parisella. “A jpeg selling for a lot of money was the assumption.” Of course, NFTs are not jpegs, and as Parisella learned, while they may start out as one thing, they can be built on or incorporated into other projects that add value or meaning, says Dan Singer, a partner in McKinsey’s media and entertainment practice. “This is a very generic technology,” adds OpenSea co-founder and CEO Devin Finzer. “There is a record of ownership for a unique digital item. It is very much a technology that will have implications and applications across an industry.” Herewith, a few of the ways designers, CDOs, and anyone thinking about how brands interact with their audiences can frame NFTs.

Designer tip: Always establish your price on royalties since NFTs allow artists to own their intellectual property for the long haul.

NFTs offer designers a way to sell individual work that can be monetized and traced over time. OpenSea’s Finzer frames this as a paradigm shift in data ownership. Previously, any freelance design work or artistic project was sold in a one-off contract or transaction. The creator had no tie to any future sale or use of the work, no ownership or tether to claim whatsoever. “For a lot of people who have been digital artists this technology allows them to monetize their work in a new way,” says Finzer. “Previously, the main channel for doing that was either posting things on Instagram or doing contract work. There were limited options.” Now, he says, NFT sales are recorded on the blockchain, enabling whomever owns an NFT to claim royalties in future sales, even writing a five or 10 percent royalty into the contract of every sale. Parisella has a custom contract he now uses, but says most platforms have a baked in 10 percent royalty for any future sale. “You can always trace it back and it helps digital artists show proof of their work.” 

On the flipside, the community an artist builds can benefit from the new paradigm shift, too. “Artists are monetizing their work and their fans are getting credit for being early,” says Alex Atallah, co-founder and CTO at OpenSea. “You’ll get an earlier NFT token ID and it is encoded in a block chain somewhere. That increases the value of the NFT and the art you own.” In addition, because an artist can identify and track their buyers on the blockchain, that leaves room for an artist or designer to leverage their fanbase for future work and collaborations.  

Designer tip: Your NFTs can act as their own brands. Embrace your community and the potential for collaboration.

The connection NFTs allow creators to have with their fanbase is where collaboration and innovation have the most potential. The window for new ideas, businesses and brands is exponential. “I think we’re seeing an era of industry defining artists and brand community,” says MomentRanks CEO and co-founder Danny Adkins. “They can add their own value in different ways.” One example, says Adkins, is the well-covered, Bored Ape Yacht Club which launched in April. What began as a collaboration between four creators has morphed into a collection of more than 10,000 unique Bored Ape NFTs, with over 5,000 owners and accounting for tens of millions in trading volume in less than six months time. The ownership community is thousands strong and is in many ways working as a brand in its own right, offering up opportunities for owners to use their apes to create games, drop merchandise and more. “It opens up creativity in terms of how you can reward your community,” says Adkins. “You can see these GenZ brands popping out in a sort of horizontal way.” Once an NFT is made and sold, what comes next is entirely dependent on the entrepreneurialism of that creator’s community. And while with that may come regulation, those in the space we spoke to say that because NFTs aren’t really securities and have aesthetics to fall back on, whatever regulation that may come down the pike is still unclear and somewhat subjective.

Brand tip: Remember to stay true to your brand as you leverage NFTs as a way to innovate and communicate with your market.

Coca-Cola has a long history of iconic imagery tied to its brand identity: “Simple moments of surprise and delight.” At the end of July, the company dropped its first set of NFTs, inspired by video game loot boxes, to carry that message to its audience in an entirely new way. The project was tied to International Friendship Day and benefitted the Special Olympics. “It was a way for us to test and learn in the space,” says Oana Vlad, global senior brand director at Coca-Cola. “This was a really important first step.” The brand worked with 10 digital artists at avatar creator Tafi to build three unique NFTs, housed in a virtual loot box: a branded puffer jacket, a sound visualizer to mimic the experience of opening a Coke, and a friendship card inspired by iconic 1940’s Coca-Cola trading cards. The auction garnered more than $575,000 in proceeds, all of which went to the Special Olympics. To mark the launch, Coca-Cola hosted “a rooftop party” on the virtual world Decentraland, which curated unique experiences for the buyers. (In Decentraland, users can buy and sell digital real estate, explore, interact and play games.) “Decentraland organized a Coca-Cola NFT launch event in their metaverse where community members could enter a Coca-Cola can and ascend to the can top for a dance party,” says Vlad. Participants could win Coca-Cola digital t-shirts, a close-up look at the digital wearable included in the NFT loot box, and POAPs (proof of attendance protocol). The Coca-Cola can and presence in Decentraland was open for three days, until the OpenSea auction ended.

Vlad says the entire project took roughly eight weeks and hinged entirely on the expertise and guidance of their partners at Decentraland and Tafi who work as experts and creators in the NFT space. “This was uncharted territory for us,” she says. “We didn’t have set expectations, but we were hoping for a positive response from the NFT community. We ended up in the top five NFTs ever sold on OpenSea. The biggest takeaway is how big and engaging the metaverse is. We learned a lot. It is so important to stay true to your brand and work with the right people that have the experience and expertise.” Vlad also notes how critical it was to have both speed and agility when operating in the NFT space. The Coke team had previously worked with Tafi before and so was able to leverage that relationship for this project, saving time and making other decisions come more readily with established trust in place. Vlad says it took about two weeks to assemble the partnerships for this project, though notes it may have taken longer had they not already been familiar with the Tafi team. As for what’s next for Coke in the NFT space, Vlad doesn’t yet know, but she is sure this is just the beginning of exploring how the company can leverage the space to interact with its market and maybe even engage with communities it hadn’t before. 

Brand tip: Don’t just select NFT artists who know the landscape the best. Trust them too.

Parisella urges big brands to heed Vlad’s advice and choose partners (especially NFT artists) carefully and for the right reasons. “They are the most involved in the space and without them, you can’t get very far.” Vlad says the experience at Coca-Cola was true collaboration, with ‘loot box’ NFT designs a result of ideation from internal and external designers and artists. “The inspiration for the designs was called ‘living light’, with the goal of infusing motion and vibrancy into iconic Coca-Cola brand assets,” says Vlad. NFT artists have become formidable brands of their own and their insights and experience can lend invaluable help to design leadership at big brands, says Parisella. “I did a collaboration with Playboy,” he says. “They were one of the best brands I’ve worked with. They gave me full creative control and we shared a 50/50 split. They’re doing curated drops and reaching out to artists [in the space]… NFTs are creating all kinds of new opportunities.”

Nicole Gull McElroy


Serving up Nike’s design strategy

Pro tennis player Serena Williams partnered with Nike to create the Serena Williams Design Crew (SWDC) in 2019 to promote mentorship and diversity in design. A team of 10 New York City designers from several different disciplines were charged with creating an array of products from footwear, apparel, and accessories. Their designs have just been unveiled and a second team of designers (this time in Chicago) has begun work on the project’s next effort. The program is meant to help Nike more wholly reflect the world, as well as its community of athletes, and encourage greater innovation and creativity.


VISA buys into CryptoPunk NFT collab

Rather than launch an NFT, VISA flipped the script and purchased a wildly popular CryptoPunk NFT for $150,000. The company is using the purchase as a way to dive boldly into the NFT market and learn how to leverage NFTs and better understand the growing infrastructure around them. The move is the first in this space for the payments processing company.


GSK’s new health startup incubator

ReWire Health Studio is a startup studio and mentoring program born of a collaboration between GSK Next, the innovative arm of GSK Consumer Healthcare, and venture firm R/GA Ventures. The partnership will select six startups and focus on innovation in three areas of healthcare: oral health, women’s health, and mental resilience. The selected companies will have the opportunity to work in a studio for nine weeks with strategists, consultants, technologists and designers to prepare their businesses for growth. 


Business by Design-Coca-Cola NFT Trophycase

“Fans of the Coca-Cola brand expect the same iconic and optimistic experiences they’re used to in-real-life in the digital world. Magic happens when communities and partners can make the brand their own. We loved how Decentraland embraced the brand and created unique experiences. And we loved seeing NFT and metaverse artists take the iconicity of the brand and put a fresh, modern twist on it.” – Oana Vlad, global senior brand director, Coca-Cola.  

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