Brands and rebrands. There’s no way of avoiding that topic with Facebook’s pivot to an entity called Meta. The overhaul of arguably the most tarnish brand in big technology today has inspired a deluge of thought and thought leadership on brands and what they mean. 

But the Facebook rebrand has also placed the tech giant squarely in the realm of crypto. Folks in crypto have been building what they’ve been calling “the metaverse” long before Mark Zuckerberg expressed a public interest in joining it. And crypto people aren’t happy about Facebook’s stated metaversal ambitions. 

The conversation about brands, crypto and the metaverse also collides with another concept that has been floating around at this intersection for some time: the notion of “public domain” brands, or “headless” brands. Facebook’s push into the metaverse, and Meta rebrand, may test those concepts to the core. 

What’s a headless brand?

Let’s get into the headless brands discussion. The term emerged from an essay that was widely read among certain VC and crypto-adjacent circles. It’s written by a group called Other Internet, that works on various kinds of intellectual heavy lifting for clients and for itself. 

The basic idea of headless brands is this: The internet made everything a network, which in turn makes it very difficult for corporations to maintain sole control over a brand. According to the headless brands essay, brands started out in a centralized form.

Corporations were uniquely suited to exploiting brands in the pre-internet and mass media era, because the costs of accessing widespread audiences was high. You had to get on TV to reach millions of people. Corporations could turn their brand ownership into marketing budgets which in turn got them on TV and in front of millions of people. Those millions of people then began to recognize the brands. And so the cycle continued. 

The internet, or “networked media”, started to dissolve this relationship. Instead of a central broadcaster that millions listened to, people started watching, reading, and listening to lots of different sources. This is akin to Chris Anderson’s claim that the internet created a “long tail”—or many niches—of almost everything. Corporations now find it more difficult to transmit its brand message to a mass audience. 

What emerges from this state of networked media are networked brands. The seminal example is Bitcoin. Its founder has vanished, no single entity controls it, and yet it’s recognizable enough to have sparked a $3 trillion market for cryptocurrencies in just over 10 years. It has an associated logo, brand values (and its own ecosystem of Bitcoin maximalist influencers) and more. 

Here’s a passage from the essay:

“We are moving from an era of centralized, bureaucratic value creation firms to an era of decentralized, permissionless value creation networks. As organizational models change, so too will the intangible cultural artifacts created by these new institutional forms. Brands, narratives, memes—we now choose our own headless gods.”

CryptoPunks, Bored Apes and brands

So much for headless brands in the context of a protocol. Enter NFTs, and the wider notion of the metaverse, which is the thing that the corporation formerly known as Facebook is staking its future on. 

One incident that illustrates the value of a headless brand in concrete terms took place a few weeks ago. A startup founder named Richerd Chen, who owns a CryptoPunk and uses it as his Twitter PFP, or profile picture, was offered an unprecedented sum of money for it: 2,500 ETH or about $9.5 million at the time. It would have been the largest on-chain sale of a Punk ever. 

Perhaps surprisingly for those of us without crypto fortunes, Chen turned the offer down.  “My punk is not for sale. Don't care what anyone offers me,” he tweeted. His reason? The brand was way more valuable. “Over the past six months I have used 6046 as my identity and have built up a significant brand around it,” he explained on Twitter, referring to his Punk’s serial number. “To me, my brand, identity, and what I’m building in the NFT space will be way more valuable in the long run,” he continued. 

Chen’s reasoning was that because he had adopted a CryptoPunk as his personal brand, it would accrue value over time as he embarked on his business and other pursuits. Eventually the synthesis of the Punk’s and his own brand identities would generate a sum greater than its parts. Therefore, selling the Punk isn’t worth the millions. 

It’s debatable whether CryptoPunks is a true headless brand (its creators signed a deal with a big-time talent agency to further develop the intellectual property), but at the very least it’s probably not a typical, centralized brand developed by a creative agency or marketing department. 

ored Apes, the other NFT collection to have caught fire—holders of Bored Apes held parties all last week in New York during NFT conference season, booking The Strokes and others to play—address the issue of intellectual property development directly. If you own an Ape, you can exploit the intellectual property associated with that specific ape. In theory, this could lead to thousands of owners each developing IP for their apes, strengthening the Bored Apes brand itself (the creators of Bored Apes also signed a deal with a major agency). 

Meta’s task ahead

As Meta tries to corner the market for the metaverse, its competitors are going to be these headless brands, fuelled by incredibly wealthy owners who aren’t taking orders from an ad agency. It’ll be a clash between the centralized Meta metaverse and the decentralized, headless, crypto metaverse. 

For Meta to be truly meta, it must embrace the principles behind headless and public domain brands. Otherwise, its move is hollow: just a new name.

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