Learning from Twitter’s X-periment: 5 rebranding successes and failures

Twitter’s name change to X has been largely derided but it is not the first to make such a switch. How can other businesses avoid Elon Musk’s rebranding failure?

Elon Musk Rebrands Twitter As X

Twitter’s rebranding as X has been the talk of the virtual town square this week. On Monday the blue bird, which had appeared at the top of the social media site since 2006, was forcefully removed and replaced with the letter ‘X’ on a black background.

It’s not uncommon for companies to undergo a renaming exercise to reposition the company, signal a change in strategy or distance itself from prior mistakes. Elon Musk has a penchant for renaming things – he made attempts to call Paypal X.com earlier in his career – but he’s not got the best track record: just ask his son, X Æ A-12.

Mike Proulx, research director at market research firm Forrester, describes the Twitter rebrand as an “extremely risky move” – especially when you consider Meta, a major rival in the social media space, recently released the competitor Threads.

The rebrand has gone down particularly badly with consumers. A snap poll from Forrester revealed that 43% of people thought the Twitter name change to X was a mistake. Meanwhile, YouGov reported that 67% of Twitter users had a negative reaction to the rebrand.

“This is far from a position of strength from which to attempt what is essentially an app relaunch,” Proulx adds. “It’s a move that will only alienate more users and more advertisers.”

Your brand is your most valuable asset

In addition to the timing, there are a number of other things that companies should consider before undergoing a rebrand. According to Caroline Wiertz, professor of marketing at Bayes Business School, the first question should always be, why are we doing this? “You should determine whether it is really necessary because a rebrand is always difficult,” she adds. “If you can avoid it, you probably should.”

A rebrand is always difficult. If you can avoid it, you probably should

In the case of Twitter, the name change carries a considerable risk. “Elon Musk will have single-handedly wiped out over 15 years of brand building and removed a name that has secured its place in our cultural lexicon,” Proulx adds.

Another stumbling block that Musk will come across is the challenge of trademarking the letter ‘X’. The letter is already widely cited in trademarks, meaning that it will be difficult to defend the brand if any legal challenges arise. “Trademarking is not a particularly sexy thing to think about but it’s extremely important for businesses to be able to legally protect their brand names,” Wiertz says. 

Additional considerations include website domain names, social media handles (unfortunately for Musk, @x was already claimed) and the ability to trademark the name in international territories. She adds: “Trademark law is different in every geographic region, so it can be incredibly difficult to trademark anything internationally.”

All this means that there are very few instances where a name change is a good idea, as Ellie Bamford, chief strategy officer at Wunderman Thompson North America, notes: “Your brand is your most valuable asset and you should only mess with it if you absolutely have to.”

5 rebranding successes and failures

Standard Life Aberdeen drops the vowels

Standard Life Aberdeen’s rebrand to Abrdn perhaps proves this point. In 2021 its CEO, Stephen Bird, seemingly developed a distaste for vowels and attempted to modernise the company with a new logo and snappy name. At the time, Abrdn claimed the rebrand reflected a more “modern, agile, digitally enabled brand”. But it was not well received. Critics pointed out the new challenges with pronunciation, while others thought the new name looked like a typo. Despite criticisms of the name, Abrdn’s rebrand was still well executed, according to Wiertz. “People will always be upset initially, because no one likes change,” she says. “But Abrdn produced a proper rebranding announcement, communicated it consistently and marketed it more widely than it had done before. You can still have opinions about whether the new name is good or not, though.”

Facebook enters the metaverse

Mark Zuckerberg’s infatuation with the metaverse led to another rebranding exercise in 2021, as Facebook was renamed Meta. This differs slightly from the Twitter example in the fact that Meta only succeeded Facebook as the name of the parent company – the social media network and app retained the Facebook branding. There are, however, some similarities in what Musk and Zuckerberg are attempting to achieve with their companies’ new names. At the time, Zuckerberg said: “Our brand is so tightly linked to one product that it can’t possibly represent everything that we’re doing today, let alone in the future. Over time, I hope that we are seen as a metaverse company, and I want to anchor our work and identity on what we’re building toward.” Similarly Musk has ambitions transitioning X to an “everything app”, which users visit to make payments, purchase products and read articles, in addition to its current format as a social media platform. “Musk wants X to be seen as something different than a short messaging service,” Wiertz says. “So it’s a bit more than just a rebrand, they want to change the actual underlying product.” Bamford believes that these types of product changes can be a suitable time for a rebrand. “If you are making significant updates or shifting into a different category, then it could be time,” she says. “Remember, it shouldn’t be a surface-level change, such as a new logo or typeface, but a meaningful rebrand fully integrated into your product and the experience.” But, so far, Meta’s pivot to a metaverse-focused company is yet to win over investors.

Dunkin’ Donuts loses the Donuts

Dunkin’ Donuts’ rebrand to just Dunkin’ was a u0022masterclassu0022 in this, according to Bamford. By dropping the “Donuts” from its name, the company aimed to reposition itself as a “beverage-led, on-the go-brand”. And, by preserving the “Dunkin’”, it was able to retain some of the brand equity it already held. “The goal of this rebranding was clear – to preserve the legacy and expand the brand’s potential and growth. It is now simpler and modernised, and, most importantly, there is no longer the possibility that a new customer might confuse it for a specialised brand that only serves donuts,” Bamford explains.

Royal Mail changes to Consignia… and back again

In 2001, Royal Mail CEO John Roberts proudly announced that the postal service company would now be known as Consignia. His attempted explanation was that the new name “describes the full scope of what the Post Office does in a way that the words ‘post’ and ‘office’ cannot”. The rebrand was partly an attempt to allow Consignia to expand into new markets and give the company a refresh as its products were modernised. But consumers didn’t agree and the name was switched back to Royal Mail a mere 16 months later.

Petco Animal Supplies shifts focus

One business that did find success in rebranding to meet changing consumer demands was Petco Animal supplies. The new name of Petco Health and Wellness was revealed alongside the businesses announcement that it would be ending the sale of its electric shock pet collars, with the aim of repositioning as a company that was concerned with the wellbeing of people’s pets. Bamford says: “In today’s world, pet owners view their furry companions as integral members of their families. Petco’s rebranding strategy proved immensely successful, primarily because it focused on understanding and adapting to consumers’ evolving lifestyles and values.”