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Twitter’s Transition to X: A Case Study on How Not to Rebrand

November 14, 2023

From the desk of Dan Stone

In today’s marketing environment, there are many reasons why a company may want to rebrand. They may need transformation: perhaps they have faced past issues from which they want to distance themselves; they may have gained new leadership who want to make their mark; or they may just want to change up some colors and styles to keep up with design trends.

Brand Equity

An established brand has what we call “brand equity,” meaning that awareness and perception of the mission and visual identity (fonts, colors, logo mark) has a built value that increases over time. Any change to that brand is a potential risk for losing brand equity and should be made with care.

Twitter’s recent transition to being renamed X has gone full throttle on taking on risk for what seems to be little return. Twitter had built a reputation and awareness about their brand for nearly 20 years as one of the top-used social media sites, and that reputation had value. Let’s take a closer look at some of the ramifications of Twitter’s change to X.

gold twitter logo

The Problem with the Letter X

Elon Musk has had a lifelong obsession with the letter X. We’ve seen it in the startup SpaceX, the Tesla Model X and he even nicknamed his son X. Ok, we get it – it’s a cool letter. But it presents a lot of challenges for branding.

Trademarking Issues

X is a letter that is trademarked by many companies for use in many different ways. In fact, it’s been trademarked by nearly 900 companies for different uses, so the likelihood of the newly renamed social media player being sued over their new name is high. If they are somehow able to get legal rights to trademark X, their legal team will have their work cut out for them when having to challenge others who use X for their logo in the same space.

Cultural Associations With the Letter X

There’s also the issue of X being used for things that Twitter might not necessarily want to be known for. The letter X is associated with lots of different meanings. X can mark an unknown (Agent X, Brand X); it can imply treasure on a map (X Marks the Spot); it can stand in place of a kiss in a letter (XOXO); it can signify unknown origin (Malcolm X); or, most commonly online, it can signify a place where one might find pornography (XXX).

Searchability: X is an SEO Nightmare

If you search X on your computer you’re going to come up with a lot of items. X (formerly Twitter), unsurprisingly, is not the first. For me, the top result was an A24 film called X and all the related pages (Wikipedia, IMDB) before it got to Twitter/X at position five in the search results. One of the largest social media companies in the US went from a number one search spot to a number five spot. Over 25% of searchers click on the first result that comes up in Google, and that number dwindles to 7% when a result is in the fifth result position. We also have to consider app downloads, which plummeted when users became confused about the naming.

Ideal Communications for a Brand Rollout

When we work with clients on a new brand rollout, we develop a specific communications plan detailing who will be informed when. The process is tailored to each client, but it usually follows this outline:

  1. Inventory all of the places your brand assets are located. This can be anything from digital places, like your website and social media channels, to physical locations like on letterhead, business cards and signage. Make a plan for what gets replaced first (usually the digital items) and when more expensive changes happen (creating new signage).
  2. Launch the new brand to internal audiences (your employees). Train them on the new brand so they can become familiar with the new mission, uphold the new look on the materials they create and be brand ambassadors for the organization.
  3. Launch the brand to external audiences with announcements, a clear new branding guide for public use and press releases.

Twitter’s Rollout to X: Less Than Ideal

Twitter’s rebrand to X seemed to occur overnight with the sudden appearance of a new logo. However, the site still referenced its brand as Twitter throughout the site content.

No Brand Usage Guidelines

As of the writing of this article, X’s published branding kit offers logos but comes with a legal disclaimer, “By using the X trademarks and resources on this site, you agree to follow the X Trademark Guidelines in our Brand Guidelines — as well as our Terms of Service and all other X rules and policies. If you have any questions, contact us at trademarks@x.com.” Not having those brand guidelines readily available and well-defined means that the logo usage could be open to anyone’s interpretation and it could end up being used in ways that they don’t intend.

No Guidance on How to Talk About It

We need some help as a culture to transition; we haven’t been able to start referring to Twitter as X overnight. The stopgap measure has been to identify the organization as “X, formerly Twitter.” This helps people who were aware of the old brand name gain some recognition.

Was it Intentional?

I am left to wonder if Musk was intentional about the sudden shift to X. Perhaps he wanted to distance the brand from the many mishaps of 2022 since his purchase of the company. Headlines abounded as Musk changed the way Twitter operated (e.g., the purchasable blue check, lack of site moderation after mass layoffs, allowing formerly banned users back on the platform, etc.).

The sudden rebrand to X may have been an attempt to move away from the negative press Twitter was receiving in recent months. In my opinion, that drastic change was shortsighted – the bad press from one year doesn’t necessarily cancel the equity built over the previous 19. We’ll grab some popcorn, enjoy a few memes and continue to watch how this plays out.

Need Branding Help?

Speaking of branding, we help with that. Check out some of our recent branding case studies below – and get in touch if you need support enhancing your brand equity, refreshing your image or building a brand from the ground up.