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Twitter was the Holy Grail of branding. Then Elon Musk ditched it. Experts question why

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Published on July 26, 2023 with No Comments

Musk has been very vocal about transforming Twitter into X, the everything app Whatever problems Twitter has faced, it had the significant advantage of a global name that was clear, memorable, had huge awareness, and the kind of brand recognition only dreamed of by most companies.

Indeed — like Google, Xerox and Kleenex — Twitter had become an iconic brand, and the word “tweet” part of the public vernacular.

Which is why industry observers are scratching their heads over owner Elon Musk’s decision earlier this week to ditch the Twitter name, ditch the blue bird logo, and rebrand the social media platform as “X.”

“It is an unusual business move because it eradicates 17 years of brand value in the Twitter name,” said Mike Proulx, research director at the global market research company Forrester.

“It’s not just Twitter in a name. It’s Twitter as a verb, something that has become part of our cultural lexicon, and that is the Holy Grail for brands. So in doing this, [Musk] is essentially starting from scratch to build a new brand around X.”

On Monday, Musk and CEO Linda Yaccarino unveiled a logo for the company — a white “X” on a black background replacing the familiar blue bird symbol. It’s all part of Musk’s strategy to create what he’s dubbed an “everything app ” similar to China’s WeChat, which combines video chats, messaging, streaming and payments.
Musk, who is also CEO of Tesla, has long been fascinated with the letter X and had already changed Twitter’s corporate name to X Corp., after he bought the company in October for $44 billion US. In response to questions about what tweets would be called when the rebranding is done, Musk said they would be called Xs.

The move to rebrand should certainly come as no surprise as Musk has been very vocal about transforming Twitter ever since he purchased it, says Jasmine Enberg, an analyst at Insider Intelligence.

“Musk has expressed a lot of disdain for Twitter throughout the entire time when this purchase was going through and afterward,” she said. “He’s been very vocal about wanting to get rid of the name.”
Since its purchase, the site has lost users and struggled for advertising dollars, meaning the Twitter brand “was one of the last things that Twitter really had going for it,” Enberg said.

‘Only thing not broken’
Branding expert Allen Adamson agreed that the brand was “probably the only thing not broken.” No one was saying they didn’t use Twitter because they didn’t understand what the Twitter brand stood for, or because they didn’t like the name or didn’t like the bird.

“The branding was not the cause of advertisers deciding to spend their money elsewhere,” Adamson said.
The change, he says, shows Musk is focusing on “something superficial” and not a core problem.

While Musk clearly has a vision for the rebranded Twitter — something very far from a social media platform — the challenge is that he hasn’t built anything yet, Adamson says.

“It’s going to take a long time to do. And in the meantime, he’s decided to use Twitter as a ‘Watch this space. Something new is coming.'”

Kevin Keller, the senior associate dean for marketing and communications at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, who has consulted with dozens of companies, says it’s a general rule that companies don’t want to be changing their names unless there’s a scandal. But it certainly is questionable for a company like Twitter that has an established brand and unique brand equity, he said.
“When you build equity up in something — which you have in that name, that trademark, the logo, all of that — it’s something that’s very, very valuable. One of your most important intangible assets are your brands,” Keller said.

He also questioned the idea of changing the name to X — which doesn’t lend itself to some of the ways the Twitter name was leveraged, in terms of how people may use it in spoken language.
But Thomas Donohoe, author of The CEO’s Digital Marketing Playbook, says rebranding does make sense if it will align with what the company is or could be in the future.

“I think [X has] the potential to do exactly what the [new] brand means, which is it stands for potentially more than just a few hundred characters being typed across a social media platform,” Donohoe said.

“That’s why this rebrand is totally fine.”

But Keller also says Musk could have followed the lead of Google, which had become synonymous with “search” but was able expand its set of products, including Gmail and Google Pixel, while keeping its iconic name.

In Twitter’s case, “none of that’s happening. They’re walking away from Twitter,” he said. “So the reason it kind of gets a failing grade is it’s the one-two punch. Giving up on so much brand equity … and choosing a brand that seems to be so limited in its potential — just inherently as a brand.”


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