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Are Cryptocurrency and Blockchain the New Look For Loyalty?

Before long, blockchain and cryptocurrency could revolutionize retail loyalty and rewards programs.

Rakuten, the Japanese company best known for its e-commerce marketplace, announced at Mobile World Congress (MWC) that it plans to roll its existing Rakuten Super Points loyalty program into one powered by blockchain, leveraging its 2016 acquisition of bitcoin wallet startup Bitnet to create the Rakuten Blockchain Lab and develop a new cryptocurrency: Rakuten Coin.

In the 15 years since the rewards program launched, Rakuten has issued $9 billion in Super Points, Rakuten CEO Hiroshi Mikitani said during a keynote speech at MWC. Notably, Rakuten is also the No. 1 fintech company in Japan.

The company sees the potential for cryptocurrency rewards to fuel the growth of cross-border shopping as it attracts new customers from around the globe to its many interests, which include Ebates in the U.S. and Priceminister, the second-most-trafficked e-commerce site in France. A “borderless” currency would eliminate many of the pain points that international online shoppers often encounter, such as prohibitive customs duties and costly conversion rates. Cryptocurrency could also become the norm across all of Rakuten’s many touch points.

“Maybe in the future at FC [Barcelona] stadium, you will be able to use our cryptocurrency,” Mikitani said, referencing his company’s sponsorship deal with the Spanish football team.

This could be the year when cryptocurrency truly goes mainstream with enterprises putting out their own digital offerings, according to one Wall Street firm.

“In 2018, we forecast at least three major publicly-traded corporations to issue native digital tokens,” Tom Lee, co-founder and head of research for Fundstrat Global Advisors, told CNBC. “Already three major companies have announced efforts within crypto-currencies, which demonstrate that corporations may be moving towards crypto-currencies before Wall Street has embraced them.”

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Meanwhile, a much smaller firm also sees the opportunity for blockchain in influencing how consumers engage with brands and retailers.

That’s what startup Shping is banking on with its new cryptocurrency rewards program. It bills itself as a “shopper marketing ecosystem” using a tokenized marketing model that incentivizes shoppers to interact with brand products.

Through the Shping app, available for Android and iOS, consumers scan barcodes to reveal current product information that could influence their purchase behavior, such as whether that item has been recalled or if it’s authentic or fake. They can also engage in a number of ways, from penning a review to uploading their own product pics—all of which earn them Shping Coins, the startup’s form of cryptocurrency.

This approach could help marketers increase their ROI on promotional materials and make engaging with them “mutually beneficial” for brands and consumers, said Shping founder and CEO Gennady Volchek.

According to Shping, its brand protection platform is looking out for consumers’ best interests by guiding them to safer and smarter decisions.

Shping recently conducted a presale of its token, generating $3 million in sales and offering a number of limited-time perks, before opening the crowdsale to the larger public.

“Tokenised marketing models like ours [are] fair for all and we believe that is the future,” Volchek said in a statement.