How to Start a Headless Brand

Public Assembly was created to explore what happens when you take concepts like hyperstructures and headless brands literally. Spun out of ZORA (where I currently contribute towards engineering + devrel), PA has learned a lot very quickly by grounding our approach to organizational development in these theories. 143 days into the experiment (and with some hours to kill in Narita Airport), the time feels right to share some observations we’ve made so far.

What’s Changed Since 2019

"BRIDGE SZN II" by zora.eth
"BRIDGE SZN II" by zora.eth

The following is a quote from the 2019 Other Internet piece that introduced the concept of headless brands:

While brands have traditionally been planned and designed directly by corporations, the rise of networked media has challenged the coherence of centrally-managed brand identities. New blockchain-based decentralized organizations take this a step further by giving users financial incentive to spread brand narratives of their own.

Before COVID cemented humanity’s transition into the Post-Internet age, I was a firm believer that digital culture and media were secondary to their physical counterparts. Today, the case for digital primacism can no longer be denied. The current era of platform-locked relevancy metrics faces what appears to be an unstoppable trend towards permissionless content distribution + platformless identity — made possible by emerging blockchain networks and ever expanding internet access + broadband speed.

Why would you spend energy on the Instagram algorithm in hopes of building a following that’s becoming less convertible into social/financial capital everyday, when you could instead contribute to the smart-contract based feed of your choosing where rewards and recognition are baked-in at the protocol level?

While the current version of the internet forces us to act as individuals — competing with one another to stay afloat in the bottomless pits of privately controlled web2 algorithms — the Onchain Era encourages group participation, and tools to empower your squad are appearing everyday. Combine this cooperative ethos with movements that are powerful enough to maintain attention overtime, and headless enough to let anyone take the reins, and interesting things begin to happen.

Why Does Headlessness Matter

Tokyo subway map
Tokyo subway map

Let’s go back to the Other Internet piece again, which provides a smart interpretation of what a brand really is, and points out the issue traditionally managed brands are running into these days:

The fundamental tension of narrative control in the networked era is that most companies impose a hierarchical brand management model onto what has effectively become a distributed, permissionless process. And when the emergent meme-space of networked media meets censorship-resistant infrastructures, brands take on a life of their own.

Brand = narrative. Brand management = narrative control. Centralized brands can implement various strategies to foster a narrative they think is beneficial (for who?), but in a world with permissionless, cross-platform content sharing + and increasingly sound arguments in favor of cc0/less-restrictive IP models, a brands’ ability to control its own narrative using traditional methods is rapidly diminishing.

This is where headless branding come in. What happens if you consider the trend towards unstoppable, onchain media networks inevitable, and decide that the only way for a brand to survive in this new era is to cut its head off? Public Assembly is actively exploring this question, and here are a few things we think we’ve learned to be true:

  • Headlessness is important to brands for three main reasons, which influence brand awareness + perception in different ways:

    • Better decision making in concave environments

    • Can minimize central points of failure

    • Increased potential for credible fairness

  • Headlessness can be applied to brands in two main directions:

    • How brand direction is created (new products, images, language, etc.)

    • How consensus about brand direction is reached (which directions receive positive/negative from stakeholders)

  • Headlessness exists on a spectrum, and the two main directions of headlessness can simultaneously exist on different points of that spectrum.

  • The act of “starting” a headless brand can be very centralized — but is a tradeoff that can be made for faster development of brand direction in the short term. Steps will then need to be made to progressively decentralize the creation of brand direction.

    • In the long run, founding teams can play an influential role in uncovering new directions for the brand (think research probes to Mars, subway system architects, etc) — but need to be careful not to be overly involved in the consensus making side of things.
  • Metalabels may be an ideal structure for the founding teams of headless brands because their multidisciplinary nature means that founding teams can move their brands forward in multiple directions at once (community dynamics + infra, image creation, design, engineering, etc).

  • Metalabels may not be an ideal structure for the founding teams of headless brands because they overly restrict the influence of the founding members, who could impact + scale the brand more effectively by opting to foster individual realms of influence instead.

    • Operating as a metalabel while optimizing for individual realms of influence appears to be possible at the same time
  • Nounish DAO’s may be a good form factor for headless brands because they:

    • Incentivize anyone to create new brand direction by rewarding capital/reputation/governance for successfully proposing + executing ideas

    • Facilitate progressive decentralization of the brand-consensus side of things via the recurring governance auction format

  • Nounish DAO’s may not be a good form factor for headless brands because they:

    • Are too restrictive in terms of participation. Certain kinds of proposals require governance ownership, which may be financially inaccessible to a majority of participants if the headless brand itself is valuable. Even if access to proposal submission could be distributed beyond governance holders, it probably doesn’t make sense to distribute access to consensus power (aka who can vote on ideas for new brand direction) beyond governance holders due to increased risk for predatory value extraction — resulting in consensus making remaining overly centralized + non-representative of the community that identifies with the brand

    • It remains to be seen how much ownership + governance people really want in their favorite brands in the long run

What Does Success Look Like

"Proliferation Factor" by tranqui.eth
"Proliferation Factor" by tranqui.eth

Success for every headless brand will be different. For some it might be a simple measure of funds paid out to contributors. For others it may be a qualitative analysis of how much they’ve moved the needle in the fight against climate change.

Regardless of the organization, I suspect there is some question like “how much has the meme proliferated”, that is relevant to all headless brands. The graphic above is my first attempt at representing a standard framework for tracking public awareness + perception of a headless brand.

How to Start/Join a Headless Brand

A sampling of existing onchain collaboration tools. Top row: Metalabel, Nouns Builder. Bottom Row: Syndicate, PartyBid
A sampling of existing onchain collaboration tools. Top row: Metalabel, Nouns Builder. Bottom Row: Syndicate, PartyBid

Following the arrival of multiple new tools geared towards facilitating onchain coordination over the past few months, there’s now more ways than ever to get your hands dirty contributing to a headless brand. Here’s my suggestion for how to get started:

  1. Find your squad. Mine goes by the name #FF89DE. There’s no guide for this.

  2. Establish yourselves as a metalabel. Ideally the members of your metalabel will have a diverse array of expertise so that any + all directions are fair game.

    1. It was only after #FF89DE launched Public Assembly onchain that we realized we had been acting as a metalabel the whole time.
  3. Look for a headless brand to contribute to. If the headless brand for you doesn’t exist, consider starting one.

Is This Going to Work

Screenshot from
Screenshot from

Only time will tell. Early signs suggest that Public Assembly has the ability to attract participants, coordinate externally to win proposals in other DAOs, and coordinate internally to fund work onchain. The meta-goal of Public Assembly is to serve as a reference for others to draw from when creating their own headless brands, which also includes illuminating what not to do. If you found any of this interesting/helpful be sure to follow along on twitter, and check out our forum where most of the public conversation currently takes place. Feel free to hit me up personally as well.


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