What is the future of branding – is it decentralized? As DAOs continue to explode in popularity, the question is not often asked but should be considered. Marketers and designers working with large corporate brands, agencies, and startups alike should take notice when considering the future of branding, as next generation companies shift away from traditional centralized directives toward decentralized consensus for many operational business practices.
As the Cabin DAO continues to grow, launch new products, and bring on more contributors, understanding how to tackle branding is a critical question to answer. Should it be a centralized directive, entirely decentralized, or somewhere in between?
In this deep dive, we’ll discuss:
Like all of web3, we’re early, and the beauty of this space is that we don’t have all the answers, but we’re here with a decentralized community to engage and discuss.
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DAOs as a whole are very difficult to define and continue to evolve as practitioners learn what works and what doesn’t across different types of projects in diverse verticals. There are new DAOs popping up every week and it can be challenging to keep track of them all, what they do, why they exist and how to get involved.
Engaging in a DAO can feel a bit like participating in a fantastical role-playing game, complete with guilds, quests, and bounties, all represented by a smattering of emojis that spread through Discord servers and tweets. As a result, unique branding can be confusing to distinguish from DAO to DAO apart from some different logos and colors. Ultimately though, there is a new wave of decentralized branding experiences upon us, and this frontier is primed for discovery.
Some of the larger DAOs have begun to formalize documentation related to their brands, but most have little to nothing on their public sites. In fact, after reviewing over 100 of the most popular DAOs (seen below) less than 10% of them publicly feature any form of brand vision or style guide.
Most DAOs focus extensively on developer documentation, particularly protocol DAOs. While this is obviously the right priority, there certainly remains an opportunity to further document and express brand vision and style as DAOs continue to grow.
Here is a snapshot of branding guidelines from some of the most popular DAOs:
Friends with Benefits has a traditional and comprehensive representation of brand guidelines, with detailed guidance on colors, fonts and styles. They’ve organized them in Google Drive with a PDF and Figma file.
Shapeshift has created a simple webpage that outlines the core brand elements, including background on the fox icon, fonts and illustrations.
Maker has a very simple and concise representation of its brand assets, organized on a Notion page.
Bankless provides standard brand assets, including logos and fonts, and expands on it with a brand pyramid. Like Maker, they use Notion.
When considering decentralized branding for DAOs, it’s helpful to take a moment to look back at the traditional approach to branding. Branding has long been the cornerstone of marketing and advertising and has a variety of definitions. This is a quick primer for non-marketing folk.
A practical definition of a brand:
“A brand is a name, term, sign, symbol, or design or a combination of them, intended to identify the goods and services of one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of the competitor.” - Phillip Kotler – Author of Marketing Management
An emotive definition of a brand:
“A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another. If the consumer (whether it’s a business, a buyer, a voter or a donor) doesn’t pay a premium, make a selection or spread the word, then no brand value exists for that consumer.” - Seth Godin
The concept of branding itself goes much deeper into what are often called pillars of branding and may include:
I like to identify these on a spectrum from Brand Essence on the left to Brand Assets on the right. The Brand (or product) Experience is the sum of all of these inputs and the ultimate reflection of a brand.
For reference, here’s a peek at some of the world’s biggest brands, both centralized and open-source, and how they tackle branding.
Why do organizations put so much energy into their brands? Much of this structure has been put in place to enable a compelling and consistent brand experience across a variety of touch points. A brand is a reflection of its vision, mission, and values and if this isn’t considered, the brand expression can end up being fragmented, disconnected, and confusing. A strong brand is one that is consistent and has meaning. DAOs should consider this as they form a perspective on their branding.
That said, one of the most exciting aspects of a DAO is that there is no rulebook. There is an opportunity to start from first principles and collectively create. So, digest traditional branding practices merely as reference, then forge your own path and create the vibe that’s right for the DAO you’re working on.
DAOs are an opportunity to approach traditional business practices differently, but it is easy to fall into the trap of applying centralized practices to a DAO. This is not always a bad thing as there are indeed tasks that should likely remain centralized, but I believe that many people are drawn to DAOs because they provide an opportunity to do things differently - with more empowerment and community-ownership.
So, what might “Decentralized Branding” look like?
At Cabin, we’re asking this difficult question and exploring a new approach to branding as the DAO grows. Consider a school of fish and how they swim in perfect unison, yet without any clear instructions or map for where they are going.
“A fish decides where and how to move relative to its position in the school. If the fish behind gets too close (less than two body-lengths), then it speeds up; if the fish in front gets closer than that, then it slows down. Schooling fish watch one another and also feel the waves their neighbours make as they swim, with pressure-sensitive pores along their body called the lateral line. And each fish has its preferred spot in the school. Some are natural leaders and tend to hang at the front and guide the whole school, while others choose to follow.” - How do Schools of Fish Swim in Perfect Unison?
One could think of decentralized branding in a similar manner. First, think of the DAO as a school of fish and the expression of the DAO brand as the entire school shifting and changing as it navigates through the sea toward its destination.
We can break down the above into Four Traits of Decentralized Branding:
The brand as a whole is a reflection of all the fish in the school, or all the members, products and experiences in a DAO. Think of each fish as a touch-point in the brand experience, with none making up the entire brand on their own, but rather a piece of the larger brand picture. Each fish is moving differently, in a different location with a different role, but represents a bigger brand idea in the form of the school.
Certain people within a DAO will naturally gravitate towards the development of the brand, including the vision/mission and associated visual style. This starts with the founder, then often reflected in the product experience and associated visual assets. It is the job of the leader(s) to establish the initial direction and foundational framework for the team. These leaders may be temporary though and new leaders should always be able to emerge from the rest of the school.
When it comes to branding, many people may not be interested in trying to reinvent the entire look and feel. Contributors may just want to get going and use assets already created and ensure it is an accurate and consistent reflection of the brand. This enables faster and more consistent product and community development. That said, all voices should be strongly heard in a decentralized organization as that is what makes it different from traditional organizations.
As the DAO (school of fish) travels through the market and seasons (ocean), encountering obstacles, and learning, each member of the community is listening to both users of the product (external environment) as well as others on the team (internal environment). Needs also change through the seasons and the brand needs to appropriately adapt. Sometimes that may mean minor tweaks to the brand expression or major overhaul of assets.
If fish can do it, DAOs can do it. But practically, how do we apply this to brand building at a DAO? Read on…
Cabin took a relatively centralized approach to defining the fundamentals of the brand, beginning with the Essence (Vision, Mission) and then the Assets (Logo & Colors). This has helped generate initial momentum and consistency.
We now want to let the DAO riff, explore, and discover the rest of how the brand is expressed. Over time, people in the network may develop overwhelming consensus for different elements of brand expression or even redefine the fundamentals. The beauty of a DAO is enabling the discovery of new concepts through its members.
The Vision is normally the reason the DAO was started in the first place by the founder(s), but it should be clearly documented and socialized with the team. This creates the foundation for culture and the north star for how the DAO behaves, what products are built and what the experience is. The Mission is often defined as the short-term path toward that Vision. Cabin’s Vision and Mission is as follows:
Cabin’s Vision (10 Year) is to become the decentralized city for creators
Cabin’s Mission (1 Year) is to become the embassy for DAOs
*We’ll outline the roadmap for this in a future post.
These are the core assets that create a springboard for all new assets and experiences: logo, core colors, and font. Beyond this, there is a world of interpretation. At Cabin, we’ve published these assets on a public Figma project and are available to all contributors and community members.
With the Brand Vision and Foundational Assets set, we’re putting all new content together in a stream, where creators can gain inspiration from and riff off of or leverage directly.
We don’t want to limit what the Cabin brand might look and feel like, in fact we want it to explode into several different directions based on how the community wants to express it. This may vary across website, blog, products and IRL experiences, but will ideally have a common Cabin thread that is developed through the process.
As with any decentralized project, gaining widespread consensus across community members is how decisions get solidified. Thus, as new visual styles and assets are created and reused over time they may become “validated” and become a Foundational Brand Asset.
Other brand elements within the spectrum should also become increasingly owned and validated by the community versus centrally controlled. This is the crux of moving towards decentralized branding. The hope is that this will enable a greater balance between both community contribution and expression as well as consistency for the brand over time.
We’re using Are.na as our platform for Brand Expression as it enables flexible posting of multiple types of media in an easily shareable format. It also will show the evolution of our brand over different seasons and product developments.
This is just the beginning of our decentralized branding journey and we look forward to what expressions we discover as we continue to grow and collaborate both internally and with other DAOs.
This is a new frontier and would love to hear what you think of decentralized branding as well as approaches your DAO has taken to date.