A rebrand has great power. Will Musk make the most of it?

Words by Claire Huxley
Date 2023-08-02

Another week, another Elon Musk headline that launches a thousand memes.

After months of speculation, Elon Musk’s move to finally rebrand Twitter to “X” has set the internet alight. Reactions range from amused to deeply sceptical. Many are criticising the execution, from the announcement itself which people have likened to a word salad worthy of Succession’s Kendall Roy, to the logo, which has been described as “pure comic book,” and “empty”. Some have questioned the need to rebrand at all, asking if it just another example of Elon Musk’s talent for trolling the internet and grabbing the spotlight at a time when Twitter is haemorrhaging users to Threads.

It’s clear that public opinion is anti-“X”. But is this justified? Although some details of the new identity bear the hallmarks of Musk’s taste for controversy (such as his absurd claim that tweets will now be called impossible-to-pronounce “Xs” not everything about the decision to rebrand is ridiculous. In fact, there could be strategic merit in the move. And, if executed to correctly, it could have the potential to unlock the company’s future.

The power of a rebrand

Brand is the way that businesses tell the world who they are; rebrands are one of the most powerful tools businesses have to signal change. Done well, a rebrand can communicate a new business strategy in the way a PR releases can never quite achieve.

The extent to which a brand changes directly correlates to the level of the change required within a business, with most shifts being classified as either an evolution or revolution. Launching a new product, becoming more relevant in a changing world, boosting talent attraction can require an evolution in the brand: be that a refreshed look and feel, a modernised logo, or a new set of messages for a campaign. But when businesses wish to change categories entirely, overwrite deeply embedded perceptions, or rally a workforce around a new mission, they look for a brand revolution: a new logo, new name, new tagline, new visual identity are all up for grabs.

Twitter’s times of change

When viewed through this lens, a logic starts to emerge around the Twitter’s shift to “X”. It is well-documented that there has been an enormous level of change at Twitter since Musk’s takeover: Over 80% of the workforce are said to have left in the space of months; there has been an overhaul in the way the app functions and is monetized and, most controversially at all, the removal of many pre-existing moderation policies have redrawn the nature of the debate on the platform, driving away (and, in some cases, drawing in users in their droves.

And still more change is yet to come. Musk has been vocal about his intent to transition Twitter into a “super-app” offering payments shopping and more, like China’s WeChat and India’s PayTM. The new Twitter would, in the words of CEO Linda Yaccarino, “transform the world’s town square”.

In many ways, Twitter is unrecognisable from the app it was twelve months ago. And yet, until now, the dramatic shift in the business had not made it through to the brand. But should it? Does the existing brand have the sufficient stretch to reflect the business’s new reality and achieve its future ambitions? Do the existing brand assets – the hand-drawn bird, the whimsical name “Twitter”, the friendly shade of blue – reflect the lofty ambition of a company set on taking over the world? And if not, how do they need to change?

Taking notes from Google and Meta: evolution vs revolution

Of course, there is an argument that Twitter could have taken the evolution route, and gradually build new associations into its brand over time. This shift isn’t impossible – look at Google, which over the years has continually tweaked its brand around the edges to evolve from quirky homespun search engine into trusted expert in software, hardware, and payments. (To highlight the extent to which Google’s transformation has been successful, consider this: would you trust Yahoo! with your passwords, payment details, location data? Would you buy a Yahoo! smartphone?)

However, the name and logo change to “X” indicates that Musk has decided to go full revolution. And he’s not the only tech mogul to make this choice in recent years: when Mark Zuckerberg rebranded the Facebook Company to Meta in 2018, he signalled a decisive shift away from the history of the Facebook app, and communicated the business’s bet on the metaverse as the future of the internet. While much critiqued at the time, Zuckerberg stood firm with the rebrand, doubling down on its usage in communications, PR and across the Meta ecosystem of apps. 5 years later, Meta now commands significant brand awareness, and significantly outranks the Facebook app for attributes such as “innovative”, “visionary” and “progressive”, demonstrating the extent to which a well-embedded rebrand can shift perceptions.

The “X” ecosystem

Initial signs are that Musk is similarly committed to making “X” stick. The name itself has a history: at the time of acquiring Twitter Musk described the social media platform as “an accelerant to creating X, the everything app”, and post-purchase he folded the company into an entity called X Corp, parent X Holdings Corp. Just days ago, Musk also announced a newly-created artificial intelligence company called xAI. These moves come in addition to SpaceX, arguably Musk’s most admired endeavour with considerable brand equity. Could this be the beginnings of a longer-term plan to build up the X portfolio and make the super-app a reality? (Musk detractors might argue that it is just because he likes the sound of the letter, and it should be admitted that his penchant for “x” is not limited to business: he famously named one of his children X AE A-XII Musk. An indication that he understands the value of consistency in branding, if nothing else).

Where neXt?

Twitter is going through a revolution on all fronts, meaning that a dramatic brand shift is to be expected. Whether the “X” rebrand succeeds will rely on a few things: on whether the team at the helm have the discipline to cohesively embed the new brand, the sense to rein in Musk’s more outlandish impulses and the vision to ensure that the change felt is more than skin-deep. There’s also the question of due diligence: reports this week circulated that Meta, Microsoft already have intellectual property rights to the letter X. If these pitfalls can be navigated, the X could signal the start of a new era for the app. Only time will tell.