When Twitter users opened the app July 24, most were shocked to see the small bluebird perched on the top of their feed for years was replaced with a stylized X. It was the latest change Twitter users endured since Tesla CEO Elon Musk bought the 17-year-old social media company in 2022 for $44 billion. Although Twitter has seen turmoil since the deal was finalized, Musk announced he changed the company name to reflect an expanded business model.
It’s unclear how Twitter users, who weathered a ton of changes since Musk took over, will respond to the rebranding, said Tari Dagogo-Jack, a professor of marketing at the University of Georgia Terry College of Business who specializes in branding and consumer relationships with brands. Many times rebranding chases off loyal brand followers, but if a brand is in a tough enough crisis, it can help them ride out the storm, he said.
1. What are the benefits to the company of changing Twitter to X?
The main benefit is signaling that the company formerly known as Twitter is now expanding into categories beyond social media. According to Elon Musk, they plan to make an “everything app,” but consumers have a very strong association between the name Twitter and social media, so they may be apprehensive to use products or services unrelated to social media but still under the “Twitter” brand. For example, a financial services product or e-retail product branded as Twitter could seem very puzzling to consumers. By adopting a new name, they can more easily enter new categories not traditionally associated with the Twitter brand.
2. What part of Twitter’s value was in the brand? Was the company worth a lot because of its user base or because it was a known commodity?
Twitter has massive brand equity. It is one of the most recognizable social media companies, and most people can identify what the logo represents, regardless of whether they use the app. Moreover, the brand gets a lot of free promotion as most organizations have some Twitter presence and organizations’ websites typically have a link depicting the Twitter logo and a message prompting consumers to follow them on Twitter.
While Twitter the product has certainly seen better days, the brand itself was still pretty strong. The company was worth a lot because it’s a known commodity, but it’s a known commodity because it had a sizable user base. It seems quite shortsighted to throw away decades worth of brand equity.
3. What is the history of companies changing their brand names for a fresh start?
Rebranding for a fresh start — especially in the midst of a crisis — is nothing new. This is a timeworn tactic we have seen used by companies in all sorts of industries, from ValuJet rebranding as AirTran just a year after a fatal 1996 plane crash to BP changing their name from “British Petroleum” to “Beyond Petroleum” back in 2000 after decades of corporate pollution, to Philip Morris rebranding as Altria amidst countless lawsuits in 2001, to Facebook rebranding as Meta more recently following years of missteps and bad press.
When rebranding signals a strategic shift in a company, it can often be executed with minimal backlash; however, consumers can typically detect when rebrands are desperate attempts to deflect attention from bad public relations.
4. What are the drawbacks of changing a brand name versus trying to rehab it? Do you feel it makes the company look more chaotic?
Rebranding is not a trivial decision that should be made hastily, especially in the case of well-established brands with substantial brand equity (like Twitter). Consumers typically do not like change: even minor changes to a logo that do not involve altering the name of a brand can be met with major backlash. In the best of times, rebranding can quickly become a scandal; in the worst of times (e.g., in the midst of various corporate crises), it stinks of desperation and a ham-fisted attempt to paper over more serious problems that warrant measured consideration.
Beyond the often-substantial cost involved in creating new logos and updating the brand’s various touchpoints, there is a considerable amount of learning that consumers have to do to build new associations between the existing company and the new brand. This, too, can cost money — i.e., the costs of marketing communications — and can also take a lot of time, as brand associations are not formed overnight, and recognition typically requires repeated exposure.
In the case of Twitter, the brand was one of the few good things it still had going for it. Much of the recent displeasure with Twitter stemmed from avoidable — and more importantly, reversible — changes to the product itself, as well as leadership and management decisions. Of course, Twitter also faced the perennial challenge of “toxicity” on the platform, but that is realistically common across most social media platforms, from Reddit to Facebook, so it’s not exactly a dealbreaker. To me, these are not exactly “branding” issues and did not call for an overhaul of the brand identity. In the context of all the existing chaos at X/Twitter, this rebrand certainly just makes matters worse and further undermines confidence in the organization.
5. This seemed very sudden. Is that how a brand should be changed, or do you think there should have been a bigger rollout — like when Facebook became Meta?
In X’s defense, Elon Musk did announce his intentions of turning Twitter into an “everything app” several months ago (at least as early as October 2022), so this is perhaps not as sudden as it seems. However, the name change did seem to appear overnight, as focus on — or at least discussion of — this “everything app” seemed to be overshadowed by other issues in recent months (e.g., firing employees, making questionable changes to the app’s functionality).
One critical difference between the Twitter rebrand and Facebook’s rebrand, or even Google rebranding as Alphabet, is that the latter two were corporate rebrands, but the consumer-facing products remained the same. Facebook is still Facebook, even if the parent company is Meta. Google search is still Google search, even if the parent company is Alphabet. Where Twitter appears to have erred is in changing the name of the beloved, albeit embattled, social media app rather than changing the name of the parent company itself. A company called X could easily have several new sub-brands and still retain the existing Twitter name for their social media platform — it is not necessary to completely abandon a name that countless people recognize and take no issue with.
6. What does the name change mean for the company’s future? Does this mean that Threads really did kill Twitter?
The optimist in me thinks this perhaps does herald a major shift in Twitter’s strategic direction. Elon Musk has admittedly built some truly iconic brands and is no slouch when it comes to brand strategy, so I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps X will indeed become the “everything app” and the social media element will play a more minor role.
The cynic in me thinks this could be the death knell for Twitter. It may be an overstatement to say that Threads “killed” Twitter, but Twitter certainly made it easy for Threads to move in and eat its lunch.