Earlier this week, Elon Musk announced that the Twitter name and logo would be replaced by X. The change was nearly immediate, though as of July 28, the domain is still twitter.com, the interface looks exactly the same—other than the name and logo change, and the corporate page still has the blue bird and Twitter name (the brand toolkit link just takes you to twitter.com and the last company news post was July 12).
Musk explained that the name Twitter made sense when the app offered only short messages that went back and forth like birds tweeting at each other, but doesn’t fit his grand vision of turning Twitter into a so-called super-app—a unified location for audio, video, messaging, payments, and banking.
Reactions to the move have been negative across the branding community. That’s not unusual for rebrands, which are often greeted with derision by marketing professionals as well as the public. For example: when SunTrust merged with BB&T and became Truist, critics panned the name and the decision to drop the existing brands, which both had solid equity. Yet the new name was still quickly accepted, and the company is doing fine.
X may be a different story. In the days following the change, the rebrand slapdown went well beyond the usual eyerolls. Several of our esteemed colleagues weighed in on social media, calling the new mark “a meaningless symbol” that replaced “a powerful icon” and summing up the situation as “a waste of a good brand.”
A restart for the tarnished Twitter brand?
Musk paid $44 billion for Twitter last year, but the company’s value has crashed since then. More than a million users have fled the platform, and advertisers spooked by Musk’s embrace of controversy have left as well. Overall, ad revenue is down more than 50%.
A completely fresh start might look like the logical move to anyone facing brand collapse, but Musk isn’t someone who always prioritizes logic, and Twitter sure seemed too big to fail. Plus, even struggling companies typically retain their best assets in times of crisis. Take Altria Group, formerly the much-despised Philip Morris, which kept Marlboro and other consumer brands even after changing the name of the parent company. Also consider Meta and Facebook.
Fortune estimates Musk has thrown away $4-20 billion in brand value by canning Twitter. That’s a high price for a clean slate.
The Twitter brand has, of course, been tanking since Musk’s purchase, due to business decisions but also because of his personal brand. This is a man who has used his vast wealth and influence in spectacular but also puerile ways—like turning his own Tesla Roadster into a satellite or naming four generations of Tesla models all with an eye to making a “S3XY” joke.
His behavior inevitably raises the question of whether this transformation is an actual business plan—solid as the new-super-app idea may be—or a more narcissistic venture. It may well be both. Musk has had a lengthy love affair with the letter X. Consider: how much he prizes X.com, the domain of his pre-PayPal online banking company;* the name SpaceX; the Tesla Model X; the name of his umbrella company, X Corp; and even his first child, whom he calls simply “X.” Plus, X has the potential to be the throughline for a family of products, much as i is for Apple.
But even if we give him the benefit of the doubt and consider this a serious strategy, does X work—both for the social app it is now and the planned evolution?
X as a name
Two complaints about X are that it’s too common and so broad as to be meaningless. Neither are great brand name attributes.
The letter does signify a ton of different, and sometimes contradictory, ideas. X can stand in for the number ten (the Roman numeral), “cross” (xing), “executive” (XO), or kisses (Xs and Os). It can refer to a human chromosome or to Jesus Christ (as in Xmas, from the Greek letter chi). It can signify that material is inappropriate for kids (Rated X). We use it both to refer to the unknown (algebra variable, X factor) and the specific (“X marks the spot,” x-axis, your mark if you can’t sign your name).
Its personality can be mysterious (X-Files, Racer X of Speed Racer), rebellious (LA punk band X, Gen X), political (Malcolm X, Latinx), extreme (X Games, the Triple X action film series), or all of the above. X feels active, definite, assertive (you “x” a checkbox or show your choice). It can also be negative (Control-X to cut, x out of an application, x out a mistake, big X for a wrong answer a la Family Feud or to say ‘don’t do it’ on a traffic signal, Xs on the eyes of a cartoon to indicate death).
But mostly, X is cool—rather generic, but cool—which is likely what attracts Musk to it and why it could work as a brand name for an everything app.
That said, the “cons” column is long here. For one thing, folks will likely find it challenging to get comfortable using it in conversation. “Follow me, I’m on X” sounds like you’ve taken ecstasy. “I’m an X user” sounds like you’ve left the platform. Apparently, a tweet will also be called an “X,” which will cause even more confusion. “Did you see her X yesterday?”
Brand tone and personality are also expressed by a company’s logo, of course. But X’s new look is generic, basic, apparently designed by a fan over last weekend. Compare that with the instantly recognizable Twitter bluebird, evolved over seven years, and emblazoned on sites around the world. Some have also joked that the X logo is pretty porny. Others that it evokes images of authoritarian regimes such as the Z Russians invaders used in Ukraine or the most hated symbol on the planet, the swastika.** (Musk stated that the X logo will be refined later.)
The name’s connection with porn is definitely a problem. Back when Musk was CEO of the merged X.com and Confinity, he pushed for phasing out the PayPal name in favor of X, but was overruled at least in part because focus groups showed that X.com “conjured up visions of a seedy site you would not talk about in polite company.” Musk was ousted by a coup later that year.
Another problem is SEO. Getting such a common and short ‘word’ to the top of search results will be a big challenge, though millions of dollars may be able to fix that.
Perhaps the most concerning issue with X is its ownability and protectability, both as a name and a visual mark. According to at least one trademark attorney, there’s a 100% chance that Twitter is going to be sued over this. There are almost 900 active US trademark registrations for X in various industries. Among them is Microsoft, which has owned an X trademark relating to its Xbox video game system since 2003, and Facebook parent Meta, which registered a mark for X in 2019 for software and social media (!). Even if big companies don’t sue, at least a few opportunistic suits from small companies seem inevitable. And these can be quite costly in both legal fees and delays.
So is the rebrand being handled efficiently and effectively? Definitely not.
Is the rebrand good brand strategy? Maybe. After all, one thing even the critics agree on is that no one is talking about Threads this week.
Does the rebrand make sense for a gazillionaire entrepreneur, would-be visionary, and lover of the letter X? Absolutely.
What letter grade do we give this rebrand? A big, Elon-ated X is tempting, but we rate it a D-. Not a complete fail given the name’s possibilities, but the long list of challenges for both the name and visual identity, as well as the reckless casting aside of monumental brand equity, make this move look pretty D-esperate.
*In 2000, Musk’s X.com online bank merged with Confinity, which operated PayPal. The next year, the whole company was rebranded as PayPal, and a year after that Musk left, but ownership of the X.com domain stayed. In 2017, Musk bought it back for an undisclosed amount (estimated in the 8-figure range) because it had “great sentimental value” to him.
**The 1998 American History X tells the story of two neo-Nazi brothers, and though the film clearly condemns white supremacy, the poster is a medium shot of star Edward Norton with a big black swastika tattoo over his heart.