July 24, 2023

Everybody is blowing up their brands

I wish I could stop caring about Twitter. The once-actually-kinda-great internet commons has become a carnival train wreck since Elon Musk purchased it last year – and try as I might, it is impossible to look away.

Threads was promising for a minute, and though engagement has fallen off a cliff, it still might be a viable escape route. But this week, Musk again took centerstage with another antic that is so ridiculous you can’t help but pay attention: he’s changing the app’s name from Twitter to “X.”

This man spent $44 billion on this website, and now he’s going to change the name, likely because he has an obsession with the name X going back to his PayPal days. The iconic blue bird is being tossed aside in favor of a nondescript black and white X logo. (To be fair, the new icon isn’t terrible, it’s just generic and probably untrademarkable. Oh, and it looks like another, less safe for work, breed of website out of context.)

While Musk’s reckless behavior is unique, his strategy, oddly, isn’t. Over the last several years, some of the biggest brands in the world have thrown their iconic names to the wayside in favor of a new, shiny moniker.

Most notably, HBO Max is now just Max – a move that discarded one of the strongest brands in entertainment in favor of the type of word you add at the end of a URL if you can’t get the one you wanted. On a smaller scale, just paid $21.5 million to buy the name and other IP from the bankrupt Bed Bath & Beyond, supposedly with the intention of taking it on as their own. (This is the same Overstock that spent millions in the last decade trying to rebrand as, a failed endeavor that even included a stadium naming rights deal.)

Half a degree different, Facebook’s corporate parent is now Meta, and Google’s has been Alphabet since 2015. These sprawling companies wanted to separate their business from their products, but the results have been mixed. When mentioned out of context, both corporate names still often need the “parent company of…” modifier to make sure everybody understands what you’re talking about.

Why do these companies discard such potent brands? I think there are two reasons.

The first is ego. New leadership likes to create new stuff. Build a bridge, and you get a ribbon cutting and your picture in the paper. Maintain a bridge, and you just get your paycheck. Musk and other executives want to show that they are innovating and that they can achieve success on their own terms instead of just coasting. Changing a brand’s name and identity is the quickest way to put your fingerprints on a company. (Restraint and simplicity leave much less evidence.)

Second, it appears that these executives have taken the wrong lesson from successful renaming initiatives. Apple Computer, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Starbucks Coffee have dropped the computers, donuts, and coffees from their names and become stronger brands because of it. Each of these companies kept the word that housed the brand equity and tossed aside the descriptor word. Dunkin’ didn’t try to become “Donuts” – they knew which part of their name was important and focused on it.

HBO Max did the opposite. The meat was in the HBO, not the Max. Now it’s just another app. Twitter is just the latest brand to go down the same path.

On the bright side of this, maybe changing Twitter’s name and icon will break the spell for me and some of my fellow legacy users. When it no longer comes up as I type “t…w…i…,” or scan for the familiar shade of blue on my screen, that added friction might be just enough to shake me loose for good. We’ll see.


About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just wrote his first book (Simply Put), and works with cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

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