Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard that Mark Zuckerberg has announced Facebook will now be called Meta Platforms—Meta for short.
Now, if this were a review of Facebook’s business practices or ethics, or even the decision to become a company centered around the “metaverse” (and all the Big Brother-Matrix-Ready Player One dystopia suggested by handing that kind of control to a company that’s helping destroy democracy) it would be eviscerating. But this is not that. It’s a review of a name in the context of business strategy.
So let’s take a deep breath and focus on the name.
For those of you who haven’t heard of the metaverse, it’s a portmanteau of meta and universe. Meta is Ancient Greek for, among other things, “after” and “concerning change in position or condition,” and a common prefix in English meaning “beyond” (metaphysics) or “pertaining to a level above in a self-referential way (metalanguage, metadata). More recently, it’s come to stand on its own as shorthand for this latter meaning to denote “transcending a category or medium in a self-aware way.” (“That’s so meta” we say of a meme about memes.)
Metaverse was coined by Neal Stephenson is his 1992 cyberpunk novel Snow Crash to refer to a futuristic iteration of the internet where people use digital avatars to explore virtual reality environments (often as a means of escape).
Apparently, none of the Facebook team has approached Stephenson, so one hopes the dark reality of his metaverse isn’t what Zuckerberg has in mind. In his speech, he described it as an “even more immersive and embodied internet where you’re in the experience not just looking at it.” A place where “You’re going to be able to do almost anything you can imagine—get together with friends and family, work, learn, play, shop, create—as well as entirely new categories that don’t really fit how we think about computers or phones today.” He reassured his audience that “This isn’t about spending more time on screens. It’s about making the time that we already spend better.” Hmm, like Facebook did.
OK, so we don’t really know what Meta’s metaverse will look like. We could be riding unicorns over rainbows or choosing the blue pill. But what about the name?
We believe changing the company name to Meta is, in general, a smart move. Facebook has been migrating to the metaverse for a while now, and in May, Zuckerberg spoke with CNET and said of the metaverse, “We want to get as many people as possible to be able to … jump into the metaverse and … have these social experiences within that. That’s really where our bread and butter as a company is ….”
Meta has multiple business lines (mostly acquired companies), including well-known brands such as WhatsApp, Instagram, Oculus, and of course Facebook. Like other companies whose interests span brands, they want a parent brand name that can encompass everything they do and grow as they do. The move is very similar to the Google –> Alphabet change in 2015.
In 2019, the company shifted to FACEBOOK the parent brand for all the businesses, distinct from facebook the app. For all but a few copyeditors and lawyers, that distinction was pointless. So now they are making a clean break.
As a parent brand name for the stated business strategy and family of brands, we give Meta high marks.
The name has some nerd cool self-awareness, is short, and familiar. Its consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel construction (a pattern that’s easy to say in most languages) and Greek origin make it super-international.
Plus, the company secured the URL meta.com (which currently redirects to about.facebook.com/meta, but will undoubtedly become the new company address)—a four-letter, real-word domain name. No small feat, even for an 800-pound gorilla, and further indication that this plan has been in the works for some time, long before the most recent round of Facebook criticism.
Meta really is the quintessential name for a parent company given the prefix’s meaning. It’s metafacebook, metawhatsapp, metainstagram, and more.
The name evokes aspirations to something more, something transcendent and of course recalls the metaverse, yet is nearly a blank slate, which gives it great power and flexibility. From a strategic perspective, a suggestive but vague name leaves the door wide open for the company to move into nearly anything. And, even though we are definitely not fans of Meta the company right now, the name is smart and solid.
Now to tackle some of its drawbacks.
The largest elephant in the room is Frances Haugen’s ongoing testimony against the company, the Wall Street Journal’s “The Facebook Files,” and other disturbing information coming to light about the company’s destructive practices. By choosing this moment, the name change comes across as a cynical PR maneuver rather than a well-thought-out business move. It’s impossible not to eye it as a manipulative attempt to reassure concerned investors, pacify pissed-off users, and win back a world that’s moving on to other platforms.
If we graded solely on timing, Meta would get an F.
And will the name even stick? Again, besides copyeditors and lawyers, no one has made the change from Google to Alphabet. This name change is making a much bigger splash, however, so the jury’s definitely out on Meta’s long-term acceptance.
There’s also the little matter that an Arizona company already filed a trademark for Meta this past August, though almost no one has deeper pockets to buy a mark than Mark.
Over the years, many famous companies have attempted to whitewash tarnished brands by renaming their company or subsuming one company into another. When Bayer acquired Monsanto, it dropped this name so reviled by environmentalists and small farmers. ValuJet became AirTran after a deadly crash that killed more than 100. But changing your name does not change your company.
The name Philip Morris became synonymous with Big Tobacco and its vile coverup of the fatal effects of smoking, predatory marketing practices, and strategy of nicotine addiction. In 2003, the company rebranded as Altria in the hopes of separating itself from this past rather than as a signal of a new business strategy. Altria now claims to be both the brand whose companies are “undisputed market leaders in the U.S. tobacco industry for decades” and the company that’s “moving beyond smoking” from “tobacco company to tobacco harm reduction company.”
Will Meta attempting a similar paradoxical brand positioning? Has it been all along? Given that meta suggests self-parody as well as self-awareness, this new name may be truly perfect.