By Paul Sears
Like every other brand marketer, I woke up July 24 to Twitter becoming X. Like many, I sat there in my pajamas, legs dangling over the edge of the bed, one hand holding my phone, the other scratching my head. Two large cups of coffee later, I was still processing. I can only imagine being a fly on the wall during the calls with investors – and perhaps a few from advertisers as well.
With the announcement, a feeling of shock reverberated on the web. Not just for the visceral loss of a beloved brand mark (we all remember Gap’s misadventures in 2010). But even more so from what was another unexpected, unilateral move by billionaire owner Elon Musk. One that is likely to further devalue the platform he paid billions for, just last year.
To be fair, I’ve seen a bit of pro-rebrand commentary, and I see merit in the arguments. Twitter had lost money before and after the acquisition. It had reputational issues in several vectors. The product will eventually do so much more. I don’t disagree in principle that prior brand equity was not optimal and a rebrand could, potentially, be value-adding… if done the right way. However, it wasn’t, and here are my two cents as to why.
At Allison, we say: “Brand is a team sport – it only works when all the players believe.” Players are customers, consumers, users, employees, partners, suppliers, investors – and in X’s case, advertisers. To understand players’ belief in the brand, we use a five-point research, strategy and planning framework called V.I.T.A.L. I’ll share my take through that lens.
V – Vision. We measure the market’s belief that the vision is clear, differentiated and inventive. My take: this move communicates ambition, but it fails to communicate a clear roadmap. In fact, given its mercurial nature, I wager many will see it as exactly the opposite: absence of clarity. ABC News referenced financial analysts’ commentary at the time of Musk’s purchase, comparing the “everything app” concept to China’s WeChat, and predicting only a 20% chance of success due to stiff competition on key features. Failing on clarity, I believe X also stumbles on differentiation and inventiveness.
I – Inspiration. We measure the market’s emotional affinity for the brand. My take: the X is a delete button for any lingering emotional attachment that would have helped users remain loyal. The stark, pragmatic X replaces what was an approachable icon of connection with new feels: bold ambition, grim futurism and technology over humanity.
T – Trust. Does the market believe the brand’s promises are sincere and credible? Is its delivery consistent? My take: the X rebrand is the biggest breach of customer trust since Twitter went private. Bigger than laying off thousands or failing to pay rent. Bigger than all the stumbles with checkmarks, content moderation and brand safety. Rebranding is charting a whole new course for the enterprise. Appearing to decide to do so on a Sunday, crowdsourcing a new logo (for free?) that same evening, and launching haphazardly the next day…who could deeply trust such a brand with one’s social content, let alone one’s bank details?
A – Alignment. Does the market see its own values in the brand’s behavior? My take: clearly not. Twitter’s About Us page is still live as of this writing, featuring language such as “Life’s not about a job. It’s about purpose. We believe real change starts with conversation. Here, your voice matters. Come as you are and together we’ll do what’s right (not what’s easy) to serve the public conversation.” Yet the rebrand was not so much a conversation as a one-way broadcast. While new purpose, mission, vision and values statements have not yet been published, NBC News reported “Musk said the idea of changing the logo to ‘X’ was to ‘embody the imperfections in us all that make us unique.’” Values, and people’s belief in them, accrue slowly over time. Here, there’s just very little to grab onto.
L – Leadership. This allows us to measure whether the brand demonstrates its promises in ways that are remarkable, responsible and engaged with the communities around it. My take: the haphazard roll-out is proof enough. X has a long way to go before it would be considered a leader. An essential part of leadership is flawless execution, yet on the day of launch it’s a hodge-podge of birds and X’s anywhere one looks. The newly-named X Corp. doesn’t seem to have control of its own website domain, nor does the new platform appear to own the trademark to its name. The hasty rebrand seems to be a proof point not of a leader, but of a company in chaos.
Brand is one of the most powerful assets a company can own. At the risk of sounding too conservative, I believe it’s crucial to play it safe with reputation, treating the brand, and the customer love it represents, with reverence. When it’s time to change, it’s time to change – just do it thoughtfully. Twitter may not have been the world’s foremost power brand. But it carried meaning and value for stakeholders, many of whom can financially impact the business. Time will tell, but I believe X will pay a hefty price for not honoring those stakeholders in its rapid decision-making.
As somebody who transforms brands for a living, I’m a huge fan of taking big, bold swings. But I also believe in taking them with precision and intention. I would have advocated a more inclusive process of co-creation, involving stakeholders from many corners to foster buy-in. I would recommend top-to-bottom nomenclature and semiotics be sorted in advance to create clarity for users. I’d recommend fully preparing the app, website, emails, signage and so on to ensure the final “button-push” was seamless.
Brand has tremendous financial power, and it just isn’t the kind of thing that really can, or should, be changed overnight. At the end of the day, I think there’s a lot we can learn from X. And who knows, maybe some of it will eventually prove to be good.
Learn more about our Brand + Engagement Strategy: https://allisonbrand.agency
Paul Sears is Managing Director, Brand & Engagement Strategy. With 20 years in advertising, brand and marketing strategy, Paul spends his time helping clients sharpen their strategic focus – at the brand level or for individual products and campaigns.