Facebook rebrand could be huge risk

By Parmy Olson and Ben Schott

Facebook Inc. may be preparing a fresh coat of paint for itself. A report in technology news site The Verge, citing a source with direct knowledge, says that the company is planning to change its name next week to reflect its new focus on building the metaverse ― a new digital network for connecting to others through augmented reality and virtual reality, whose future success is by no means a given.

Facebook has not commented on the story, but if it's true, it would be the kind of pivot that public relations managers dream about, deflecting attention away from a series of damning exposes about human harm caused on the social media network. Rebranding after a series of missteps or bad press can be a Hail Mary attempt to change public perceptions.

You do this as a last resort. Cigarette-maker Philip Morris Companies Inc. rebranded as Altria Group in 2003 and private military company Blackwater USA renamed itself as Xe Services and then Academi Training Center Inc. Both firms engaged in unhealthy things, and both attempted to use anodyne names to shift attention from their darker pasts.

Another classic example is BP plc. After damaging safety reports in 2001, the company took on the name Beyond Petroleum and a new logo resembling the open petals of a flower ― a world away from the dangerous and polluting business of oil extraction. British American Tobacco plc meanwhile created a new tagline, "a better tomorrow," which looks like a subtle rebrand of its abbreviated name.

A rebranding could work in Facebook's favor if it involves some kind of structural change, and isn't like the brandwashing attempted by Philip Morris and Blackwater. That would make it look like Google's move to rename itself as Alphabet Inc. in 2015, which turned Google into a wholly-owned subsidiary along with several other businesses. From an ethical point of view, Facebook ought to focus on more urgent issues, like cleaning up the swathe of medical and political misinformation on its sites, rather than building a new platform destined to host similar harms.

There was a hint of a rebrand four months ago when Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg told The Verge in July that Facebook would shift from being seen as a social media company "to being a metaverse company." He appears to have shifted his priority to building the new-reality platform. He's posted videos of himself wearing virtual-reality headsets on his Facebook page.

If a makeover is indeed in the offing, Facebook will likely have started preparing much earlier than July. Rebranding a conglomerate the size of Facebook can't sensibly be done in a couple of weeks. A vast array of legal and logistical factors need to be taken into consideration ― from trademarks and copyright to URLs and SEO ― even before potential new names get tested internally or among focus groups.

It would also have to investigate what any new name might imply in a variety of languages. To create a new, fully-fledged brand ― and not simply a new legal entity ― it has to explore typefaces, colors, logos, sounds and taglines. Companies much smaller than Facebook take many months and spend millions of dollars defining these features before anything is seen by the public.

Even then, and with the finest design minds at work, there is no guarantee the final result won't be a car crash. Just ask Gap Inc., Tropicana Products Inc., and the U.K.'s Royal Mail service. Gap and Tropicana were much-loved brands that went for bold, "clean" rebrands that were instantly panned by the public, and then reversed. In 2001, Royal Mail became "Consignia" at a cost of 2 million pounds ($2.8 million) ― abandoning 500 years of history, which then took 16 months to reverse.

If Facebook does unveil a new name next week, it's bound to initially spark a firestorm of outrage and mockery. But Zuckerberg and the rest of the company's senior team will expect this as a rite-of-passage. The Verge's report suggested Facebook would make the metaverse integral to its new branding. That would be a shrewd move. If people are reminded of the metaverse every time the company is mentioned, that would be a step toward owning the space ― and maybe even forgetting the past.

Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. She previously reported for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes and is the author of "We Are Anonymous." Ben Schott is Bloomberg Opinion's advertising and brands columnist. This article was distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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