From Wall Street to Main Street to Capitol Hill, everyone is mad at Facebook. The company has been under fire since a trove of leaked internal documents shed light on its struggles to prevent real-world harm, from political unrest to teen suicides. Everyone has something to say about Facebook, and almost none of it is good. So now Mark Zuckerberg would like you to talk about something else.
“Today, we're seen as a social media company, but in our DNA we are a company that builds technology to connect people,” Zuckerberg said at the company's Connect conference on Thursday morning, where he unveiled a series of new products and ambitions around the metaverse. “It is time for us to adopt a new company brand to encompass everything that we do, to reflect who we are, and what we hope to build.” Then he announced a new name for the company: not Facebook, but Meta.
Facebook is one of the most iconic brands in the world, and that used to suit Zuckerberg just fine. In 2019, he slapped the Facebook name on his company’s other products—Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger, and Oculus—to remind people that Facebook is not just Facebook, but “a family of apps.” But now, Zuckerberg said on Thursday, “our brand is so tightly linked to one product that it can't possibly represent everything we're doing today, let alone in the future.” The new name is meant to signal that future: one beyond social media, and beyond all the bad news.
Companies tend to rename themselves for a select few reasons. Sometimes a name change reflects new business ambitions, as when Apple released the iPhone and stopped calling itself Apple Computer. Other times, it signals a corporate restructuring, as when Google renamed itself Alphabet; Larry Page became the CEO of Alphabet, not Google, clarifying his leadership beyond just search. Other times, a company seeks to distance itself from a sullied brand, as when cigarette-maker Philip Morris renamed itself Altria in 2001.
Facebook’s rechristening as Meta has some elements of all three. The company wants to define itself as a “metaverse” company, not just a maker of social media products. And Zuckerberg wants more of a hand in those new pursuits, rather than overseeing the Facebook app. The company also seeks a way out of the past few years of everyone dunking on Facebook, a name that’s become synonymous with mistrust and skepticism (not to mention conspiracy theories and genocide).
But if the company wants to move beyond years of Facebook backlash, it will need to do more than give itself a new name. “A brand is a sum total of decisions and behaviors expressed in words, actions, naming, graphical elements, digital interactions, and many other elements—not just talk,” says Anaezi Modu, the founder and CEO of Rebrand, which advises companies on brand transformations. If Meta still looks like Facebook, sounds like Facebook, and runs its business like Facebook, then people are going to see it as Facebook.
For Facebook, which hopes to bring a billion people into the metaverse, this brand perception matters. The company is in a crisis of trust. People don’t support Facebook’s policies, don’t trust Facebook to protect their data, and try to use the platform less in light of various scandals. People certainly don’t like Mark Zuckerberg. Activists called on advertisers to boycott the company last summer, after Zuckerberg’s decision not to censor Donald Trump. The so-called Facebook Papers have only deepened a sense that Facebook’s own employees have lost faith in the company’s ability to make good decisions or prioritize users’ well-being on its platforms. None of these problems can be swept away by calling the company something else.
While billions of people still use Facebook’s products, the brand is riddled with negative associations, says Mario Natarelli, managing partner at the strategy agency MBLM. Natarelli’s agency specializes in “brand intimacy,” the emotional connection between brands and their customers, and it puts out an annual report on how various brands rank. (Facebook ranks very low—even below telecom companies like AT&T.) “The more intimate you are with a brand, the more you’re willing to pay, and the less you’re willing to live without it,” says Natarelli. “The more intimate brands outperform the Fortune 500 in profit and revenue, so there’s also business and ROI importance to intimacy.”
Facebook’s poor showing hasn’t affected the bottom line very much because it has such a dominant position in the social media space. “Facebook’s market power has nothing to do with its brand. It has to do with its monopoly power,” says Justin Angle, who teaches marketing at the University of Montana. (The company, which is currently facing an antitrust lawsuit from the FTC, has repeatedly denied that it’s a monopoly.) But as Facebook builds new products, including a suite of AR and VR tools for the metaverse, it may lose that advantage—especially for products that cost money.
If the Meta name does anything for Facebook, it might be creating confusion around who runs the show. Angle offered the example of Philip Morris-turned-Altria. Executives said at the time that the company was looking for a fresh start after public perception over cigarettes plummeted. Now, Angle says, “nobody really knows what Altria is,” which is precisely the point. “When you read a story about Altria buying a stake in Juul, the e-cigarette company, it doesn’t grab your eye.”
Meta could benefit from a similar move. As the company plans to roll out more and more products, distancing itself from the Facebook name could help build trust with its users. During the Cambridge Analytica scandal, hundreds of people ditched Facebook, asking their friends to find them on Instagram instead—without realizing that the same company owns both apps. Changing the name could also be an effective diversion, or a way to shift Zuckerberg’s role within the company. As its vision expands, Zuckerberg could move into a role as the CEO of Meta, giving someone else the task of defending Facebook and the other social media properties.
Still, renaming can be risky, especially at a time when public sentiment is so low. “I would tell them to shelve it for 12 months,” says Natarelli. Between the leaked documents, the uncertainties in the market, and the general negative sentiment toward the company, he says a rebrand is likely to backfire rather than earn the company more trust. “Brands are promises, and they perform against those promises. So why make a claim at this moment when there’s so much negativity and skepticism?”
But the new name has already been successful at one thing: changing the narrative. “There will be a whole news cycle about the new name: Is it a good name, is it a bad name?” says Angle. That conversation is already very different from speculation about whether Facebook has destroyed democracy or eroded the self-esteem of teenagers. As for the name itself, Angle does not love it. “It feels a bit silly or uncomfortable to say, which could be good for keeping Meta out of the news.”