X marks the spot: is rebranding the new normal in tech?

No sooner had Facebook become Meta than Twitter turned into X. Name changes are not previously unheard of in the corporate world, but what does Big Tech’s penchant for rebranding mean for the future of corporate naming?

In 2001, desperate to shed the negative image it had earned over numerous health lawsuits linked to its popular cigarette brands, Philip Morris changed its name to Altria.

It wasn’t the first time a mega-corporation had tried to pull a fast one with its moniker – a few years prior, British Petroleum had rebranded as BP Amoco following a merger before simplifying to BP the same year as Altria was born.

Once again, the purpose was far more than just a makeover – the British-based oil giant hoped to recast itself as an environmentally friendly beast and that a new name would help carry the message through.

Laughable as that concept might seem to some, it clearly hasn’t lost sway – at least not among the bigwigs that run boardrooms in the top echelons of the corporate world. That fact is evidenced strongly by the growing propensity of the biggest wigs of them all – tech CEOs and billionaires – to adopt the practice.

So in 2015, we saw Google rebranding as Alphabet, with Facebook following – or should we say changing – suit in 2021 and becoming Meta. Not one to miss a trick, Elon Musk has crowned a controversial first year at the helm of Twitter by abruptly declaring it will no longer be known as such – from now on, tweeters must accept that X marks the spot.

When two of the tech world’s top five companies and one of its richest tycoons go for a dramatic rebranding in the space of less than a decade, it does beg the inevitable question: what does today’s increasingly fluid digital landscape portend for corporate and brand identity?

Rebranding less risky in the digital world

Ryan Hamilton, founder of entertainment app Universimm, thinks social media platforms, in particular, are leading the charge towards a new space that is far less dependent on the branding certitudes of old.

“As we've seen with Facebook's rebrand to Meta and Musk's conversion of Twitter to X, big social is indeed redefining how we identify with branding and naming,” Hamilton says. “In the past, changing a company's name and logo was considered a risky move that could confuse customers and erode brand equity. However, in today’s fast-paced and dynamic tech industry, where innovation and disruption are the norm, companies are more willing to take bold steps to differentiate themselves.”

Facebook/Meta architect Mark Zuckerberg’s now infamous adage “move fast and break things” appears to hold true for company naming, if Hamilton has it right.

“Changing names and logos can be seen as a strategic move to reflect a company’s evolving vision, values, and offerings,” he says. “It allows tech firms to shed old perceptions and signal a fresh start, capturing attention and generating buzz in an increasingly crowded market.”

"It is substantially easier to rebrand a tech company than, say, a soda company. If an established brand were to rebrand as Big Blue Bottle Pop, its customers would have to look for the new label in the store. Twitter transitioned to X [but] you can continue to type 'Twitter.com' into your browser and come up with the same website."

Chuck Catania, chief communications officer of tech firm Modulus

Then, of course, there are the somewhat less complicated mechanics of rebranding in the digital world – or, to put it another way, there is less to worry about when your product resides on a pixelated screen and not a supermarket shelf.

This is because while changing physical signage and logos can be cripplingly expensive, potentially confusing to consumers, and risks steering them away from your product, this is far less likely to be the case in the fluid world of digital marketing.

“It is substantially easier to rebrand a tech company than, say, a soda company,” explains Chuck Catania, chief communications officer of Modulus. “If an established brand were to rebrand as Big Blue Bottle Pop, its customers would have to look for the new label in the store, which means they would have to know about the rebrand.”

But back in tech-world, this simply wasn’t an issue for Musk: “Twitter transitioned to X [but] you can continue to type ‘Twitter.com’ into your browser and come up with the same website. In fact, if you type in ‘x.com,’ it directs you to ‘Twitter.com’ – not the other way around. Facebook, too, as well as Google, have kept their original domains.”

Kelly Ferraro, CEO of corporate communications agency River North, agrees. “Tech companies, with their intrinsic ability to adapt, evolve, and revolutionize, seem more poised than traditional companies to undergo significant brand changes,” she says. “The move from Google to Alphabet and Facebook to Meta illustrates this. Such transformations aren’t just rebrands but recalibrations of company direction and focus. The name becomes a signifier of where the company is heading rather than where it’s been. There is always ego involved as well, to some degree.”

… but we remain Google’s (unruly) children

All that said, while the logos splashed across company HQs might have changed, can the tech giants truly be said to have changed their names if the rebranding only applies to the parent company and not the flagship product or service? Meta and Alphabet may own Facebook and Google, but it’s the latter two brand names that remain top of mind for most users.

In the end, therefore, Big Tech’s rebranding efforts amount to little more than an uptake of umbrella terminology, and betray motives more akin to those of Philip Morris/Altria: intended as face (no pun intended) saving gestures, they could even be reasonably considered the whims of men who have enough money to dispense with a little sense once in a while.

“Arguably, these were more a change in corporate naming than the prevailing product brand,” says Catania. “Just read any news article mentioning a Tweet. It will refer to the post on X and immediately mention that it was formerly Twitter. So, have any of these companies really rebranded at all? Does anybody in the public talk about scrolling through X? Do they Alphabet something? Do they post to Meta?”

"Elon Musk's shift in market branding highlights the significance of storytelling and creating a compelling narrative. Musk has mastered the art by effectively communicating his vision and mission to the public."

Ryan Hamilton, founder of entertainment app Universimm

After all, what’s in a name?

I put it to my panel of experts that what really counts is the product or service that underpins the name or logo by which it becomes known, with the latter being an index or convenient reference point at most.

“While a company’s name and image play a role in attracting initial attention, it is the quality and value of the product or service that ultimately determines its long-term success,” agrees Hamilton. “Consumers are more likely to remain loyal to a company that consistently delivers excellent products or services, regardless of its branding efforts. The service or product a company provides has far more staying power than the name or image it chooses to trade under.”

So why go to the bother of rebranding in the first place – even if doing so is less risky and more affordable than in the traditional world of business? In Hamilton’s opinion, Musk’s renaming of the social media platform he famously bought for a staggering $44 billion last year is more of an exercise in showboating, but make no mistake, it’s a clever one nonetheless.

“Elon Musk's shift in market branding highlights the significance of storytelling and creating a compelling narrative,” he says. “Musk has mastered the art by effectively communicating his vision and mission to the public. He has successfully crafted a narrative that resonates with people on an emotional level, making them feel connected to his brands. This storytelling approach humanizes the brand and creates a sense of authenticity, which is crucial in building trust and loyalty among consumers. It demonstrates that market branding is not just about selling products or services, but also about creating a meaningful connection with the target audience.”

Well, perhaps. Personally, I still find it hard to see how all of the above can be distilled into the single letter X, but maybe I’m missing something.

At any rate, Chris Cocek, CEO of Gallant Branding, agrees that logos have to be masterminded – that is, they must have something essentially appealing or compelling associated with them to be successful.

“Whatever you decide to do with your brand, just remember, at the end of the day, your brand is a symbol,” he says. “And symbols don’t mean anything on their own. Symbols are just empty vessels until we imbue them with meaning. Another way of saying that, as [branding guru] Marty Neumeier likes to say, ‘Your brand is not what you say it is. It’s what they say it is.’”

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