Observations by Anne Bahr Thompson
They say honesty is the best policy… so I’ll be frank. Having written a book Do Good and advocating for the merits of Brand Citizenship for the past 10 years, I’m not necessarily a Facebook fan. Over the course of the research that led to my model of Brand Citizenship virtually no participants named the company a good corporate citizen – and a significant number identified it as an irresponsible one.
Yet, brands do evolve over time, and the optimist in me hopes that something will change, and Facebook will redeem itself as it morphs into Meta. That one day it will be counted among the top Brand Citizens, using its tech know-how, influence and ability to mobilize people to do good and positively progress society.
Rebrands are often booed
Whether I’m a fan or not, when it comes to Facebook’s rebrand to Meta, I’m less of a naysayer than most. While high profile rebrands are rare, history demonstrates they often are targets for the pundits. Consider…
- While today Accenture is a household name, back in October 2000 when Anderson Consulting announced it would become Accenture on New Year’s Day 2001 the company was mocked. Hard to pronounce, many initially referred to the brand to as “Ace Ventura” after Jim Carrey’s amateurish movie pet detective.
- Later that year, the Post Office in the UK rebranded to Consignia. Critics mistakenly believed the name had replaced the beloved Royal Mail and the Post Office as the group’s consumer brands. Fueled by pundits and the BBC news, the UK public’s disapproval of the new corporate brand grew so strong that the organization reverted to its original name a little more than one year and £1.5M later.
- Kraft became Mondelez in 2012 when it spun off its Oreo and Nabisco cookies and crackers businesses. Despite the company’s effort to explain exactly how to pronounce the new name and stating the new name evoked a “delicious world” (“monde” is Latin for world and “delez” a “fanciful expression of delicious”), many denounced the non-consumer facing name. Activist investor Nelson Peltz went as far as to state the name sounded “like a disease.”
- In 2015, Google became Alphabet, a holding company. Sundar Pichai became CEO of Google, the largest subsidiary of Alphabet, and companies that were “further afield” were spun off as subsidiaries of Alphabet, reporting results separately. Many in the media criticized the name change as reminiscent of a plot from the HBO comedy series Silicon Valley. Yet, a year later research demonstrated that most users of Google had never heard of Alphabet.
- And in 2017, when Coach announced its name change to Tapestry to emphasize its goals of becoming an American fashion house, fans said the new name sounded “old” driving the company’s share price down 2%. A year later shares were up 11%.
So even if Facebook had announced a strong new name with an iconic identity, I suspect critics likely still would abound.
To brand or rebrand—is that the question?
Well, at least it’s the one many experts and pundits have been asking. Good corporate brand strategy sets an ambition for the future while brand positioning is temporal, telling the story of your value proposition today. Many experts have critiqued the new name Meta as representing a vision for the company rather than the reality of what it offers or even owns today. They have focused their remarks on the company’s well-known social media platforms, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, and ignored that over the years, Facebook, or I should probably now say Meta, has acquired more than 90 companies. Brands such as Onavo, Oculus, CTRL-labs, Live Rail, ShareGrove, Caffeinatedmind, Kustomer, among others, are less well-known and not necessarily consumer-facing.
Facebook reframing itself as Meta is a declaration to the public, tech community and, perhaps most importantly, investors that the company is more than a holding company of disparate brands. It is an organization that has grown well beyond its origins of Facebook, the social media platform, which has a clear ambition for the future. As Mark Zuckerberg announced, “Today we are seen as a social media company, but in our DNA we are a company that builds technology to connect people, and the metaverse is the next frontier just like social networking was when we got started.” And although the metaverse in its fullest expression is five to 10 years away, Zuckerberg’s vision of building this is already underway at the company.
Data scientists I know have told me Facebook already is an AI and VR tech company. Their acquisitions include emotion detection app, facial recognition software and even a solar-powered drone maker to name a few. And Facebook has put an emphasis on using a variety of new technologies to advance their brand and expand far beyond being just a social media network that shares photos, videos, and likes.
Ultimately, for pundits, activists, politicians and even the general public, the debate is not about what Facebook calls itself or even its value proposition of the metaverse. Rather it centers on how the company conducts business and what it truly values. And on Facebook’s relentless focus on keeping users engaged on its platforms so that advertisers, who are the brand’s customers, continue to invest their media expenditures there, at a high cost to individuals, society and democracy.
Timing is everything
Certainly, Facebook would not be the first company to rebrand to keep investors on board as the government took action against the business. Remember Philip Morris? In 2001, the brand had grown so synonymous with cigarettes, disease and death it cautiously renamed itself Altria. Although the company positioned its name change as a means to protect its other universal, mainstream brands such as Kraft from the negative associations with tobacco, many judged it to be a diversionary tactic or ploy as compared to a genuine action.
While timing of the Meta launch is equally questionable, experience would say Facebook’s journey to find a name and visual identity for its corporate brand didn’t happen overnight. Several weeks, perhaps, especially now that we know that as part of trademark due diligence representatives contacted Nate Skulic, founder of Meta Company in Chicago, three months before the announcement to buy the name. The live trademark was filed in 2016. Interestingly, a quick search of Meta in the USPTO database generates 1880 records!
Typically, the realities of finding a trademarkable name that is available globally in multiple trademark classes, more or less having corporate signage replaced on the day of the announcement, would suggest the company’s been working on this branding project for longer than three months. Yet, that doesn’t necessarily exempt the name change from being a form of risk management. While the name change comes on the heels of whistleblower Frances Haugen’s trove of internal documents, the company has been fielding news reports and government inquiries for months, if not years.
Love it, like it or leave it, Meta is a corporate brand, a signal to the investment community of a shift for the future. Meta is not a Facebook platform “rebrand” despite many in the media’s insistence (and the brand “experts” who’ve provided compelling—and sometimes inaccurate—commentary) on framing it as such. Certainly, becoming Meta was not a signal that Facebook is becoming more ethical, changing its privacy policies, curbing hate speech, etc., no matter how much we may all wish it will. But we’ll always have hope…