The Rebranding Playbook Elon Musk Threw Out
From his first day at Twitter when he walked in carrying a sink, saying “Let that sink in,”(the ultimate dad joke), Elon Musk has certainly mastered how to get people talking about him and his companies, and this week’s rebrand is no different. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, everyone is talking about X from Techcrunch to Sesame Street.
But making news isn’t why a company rebrands; public relations and media coverage are tools to share the news about the rebrand, but they are not the end in itself. I’ve led rebrands and worked with numerous companies to support their rebrands, and I’d like to share some of the reasons companies rebrand, and then how to make sure your rebrand is a success. And then I’ll talk a bit more about X’s rebrand if you feel like reading all the way to the end :).
4 Reasons Your Company May Want to Rebrand Itself
1. Your Brand is Outdated
Sometimes a company’s brand image appears outdated or no longer reflects its values, products, or services as well as it should. This may be due to a strategy change, focus on a new market, introducing a new product line, or simply the natural evolution of how people relate to your brand. An example of this is British Petroleum, which rebranded itself as BP in 2000, with the slogan “Beyond Petroleum” and a cheerful green and yellow sun as its logo, all designed to emphasize that the company had gone beyond its oil and gas roots to a more sustainable outlook in tune with the 21st century.
2. New Strategy, New Leadership, New Brand
It’s practically a cliche by now that new CEO brings in their people, their ideas, and often their new brand. This has happened with many companies I’ve worked with. It’s pretty common even when the company gets a new Chief Marketing Officer- often the first thing they want to do is put their stamp on the company, especially if it’s a startup. Is it right thing to do? Not always. Sometimes if your company is well-known for its brand, and the brand stands for something positive that reflects what you do, it may make sense to stay within your existing brand, and just refresh it, without revolutionizing it.
3. Your Company Has Merged with or Acquired Another One
When a company merges with or acquires another business, it might opt to rebrand to present a unified image that combines elements of both original brands. One of the biggest rebrands I ever worked on was when the global agrochemical company Makhteshim Agan rebranded itself as ADAMA Agricultural Solutions. The reason behind this rebrand was that its 40+ subsidiaries spread throughout the world all had different variations of the name Makhteshim Agan, and some had completely different names, due to historic reasons (for example, when a regional distributor was acquired). And lets face it, most people have no idea how to pronounce “Makhteshim”.
4. Your Company Needs to Improve its Reputation
If your company needs to distance itself from negative publicity or a crisis, a rebrand could help you start fresh. An example of this is Phillip Morris, the tobacco company, that rebranded the parent company as Altria, keeping the Phillip Morris name just for the cigarette subsidiary. But bear in mind that a mere name and logo change is not enough to change the entire trajectory of a company for the “company formerly known as…”
6 Key Steps to Ensure Your Rebrand is a Success
Now that we know some of the reasons a company may choose to rebrand (and trust me, there are more reasons than those I’ve listed above), let’s explore how to make that rebrand a success.
1. Clarify Your Reasons for Rebranding
If a company, and its people, doesn’t have a clear understanding of WHY it’s rebranding, the effort can lack focus and fail to resonate with customers. You need to establish a clear vision of what you want to achieve with the rebrand and how to communicate that effectively. Whenever I help companies with their brand messaging, we always do an exercise called “Why – What – How,” inspired by Simon Sinek’s classic “Start With Why.”
2. Gather Stakeholder Input
Your employees, customers, and other stakeholders will have valuable insights that can contribute to understanding your current brand, and where it needs to go. They will also be key in communicating the brand outward once it’s defined, so it’s important to get them on board early, listen to what they have to say, and incorporate them into your process. I recall that ADAMA had multiple committees and meetings throughout its global team over the course of more than a year in order to really understand where it was coming from and to clearly determine its new brand direction.
3. Research the Market, Trademarks, Domains
Make sure you have a good understanding of your market, the competition, and target audience, so you’ll be sure your selected brand name and logo will differentiate you, and be understandable for your audience.
You will want to make sure that your selected brand name won’t encounter trademark issues in your target markets – this has been an issue for Whole Foods which is trying to enter the Israeli market, and has experienced a trademark clash with the local department store Hamashbir, since they both use 365 in their logo and guess what, Hamashbir was here first.
You should also check that your selected name has a domain and social handles available, even if it’s “get[name]”; in the early years the social media scheduling company Buffer used the domain “getbuffer.com” since (I guess) buffer.com was unavailable or too expensive for them to buy. As they grew and became more successful, they were able to acquire the sleek buffer.com domain.
4. Give Yourself Enough Time
Rebranding takes a lot of time, money and people-power. How much? Well, that depends on how big the company is, how well-known your current brand is, how many customers and stakeholders need to be involved in the process and then informed of the change, how big of a change this new rebrand will be, and so on. I’ve seen startups rebrand in a matter of weeks, later stage companies in months, and big, multi-national companies like ADAMA can take much more than a year.
Whatever size your company is, build a plan, get internal feedback on the plan and leave time for unexpected things to happen along the way. You really don’t want to rush this, and there are so many elements involved that you may not even realize when you first get started.
5. Update EVERYTHING Quickly and Consistently
Rebranding is much more than just swapping in a new logo and color scheme – it touches everything a company does and communicates, both internally and externally. This is one of my pet peeves, and Twitter, or shall I say X, has already been called out for it by marketers around the world. You can see from the screenshot below – taken today – that even though the logo has been replaced, the domain is still twitter.com, and the call-to-action button still says “tweet” (click the image to enlarge).
When I explicitly type x.com into Google, I do get the “correct” result, but the meta title and description still say Twitter. This could be a Google indexing issue but honestly, with the haphazard way this was rolled out, I kind of doubt it. I’m guessing it will be fixed in the coming days or weeks, but typically updating the meta tags, calls to action, basically everything, would be on a giant to-do list of stuff that’s got to get done before the new brand goes live. And then, in a big reveal, usually handled during the company’s slowest time – a weekend for most enterprise companies – magically (ok, it’s a ton of work that just looks like magic) everything gets transferred over to the new brand, even the sign on the building, while you weren’t looking.
The inconsistent application of X undermines this rebrand and can confuse customers. Although it’s definitely giving people stuff to talk about, so there’s that.
6. Consult Rebrand Experts!
There are lots of people out there who have done rebrands before, marketers like myself, amazing design companies, your peers in other companies. Lean on them, consult with them, hire them.
I have a postcard propped up on my desk that says “it’s OK not to know everything,” and most companies and their executives need to acknowledge this when it comes to a rebrand: there are very few people inside your company that will have this expertise. And it’s a big deal, not something you want to leave to trial and error. So I encourage you to reach out to the people who can help you, and if you’re not sure who those are, ping me and I’ll do my best to help.
So is X’s Rebrand Going to be a Success?
If you’re good at reading between the lines you’ve probably noticed that most of the things I’ve mentioned here as part of a good rebranding process are things that Elon Musk didn’t do. The Twitter/X rebrand has the feeling of something done on whim, even though Musk has said he’s wanted to do this forever and was able to buy back his original x.com domain, the question is, how much planning did he and his team do for the day of the switchover? From the look of things, not much – even removing the Twitter sign from the building got them into a spot of trouble with the police.
Can you toss out the standard rebranding playbook and still be a success? Absolutely, unequivocally yes. Anyone who has worked in a startup knows that you will never have enough resources – especially time, our most limited resource – to do most things “right,” and you still have to get stuff done. So the fact that the rollout of X has had its hiccups does NOT mean it won’t succeed.
The name and logo are clear and recognizable – maybe not my taste but since when has the entire world agreed when it comes to taste? Musk has put an unambiguous stake in the ground that the new, bold X is not the old Twitter, and the X concept is vague enough that he can basically define whatever he wants and take the company into whatever direction he wants.
The name “X” has been criticized, but I have no problem with the idea of a company called X. Anyone who tells me that “Apple” is a better name is forgetting the decades of brand equity that has been poured into that name. Try to forget all that, and your obsession with your iPhone, and remember that an apple is just a fruit. If the company had been named after any other fruit, then that fruit name would have been the genius name.
I’ve seen criticisms that the logo is uninspired, but honestly, I think it’s fine. It definitely falls under the “good enough” category. X could have spent months with a design firm, hours and hours of meetings and deliberations, and come up with something only marginally better than what they chose. This way they saved all that time (remember – time is a finite resource & we never have enough of it) and have something they can use. The company will give the logo meaning and not the other way around. In case you’re wondering what the process was to select this logo, here’s a nice summary. For anyone who has been through a more traditional logo design process, you know that they saved probably hundreds of hours of executive time by selecting the X logo in this seemingly random way, and that’s time that could be spent on other, productive things.
Should You Do What Elon Musk Did? Probably Not
I’m sure if any of my designer friends have read this far, they are ready to kill me for what I’ve said about the X logo, but let me clarify. Design, logo, colors, a company’s overall look and feel are a crucial part of communicating the company’s brand. Twitter can get away with this because it’s Twitter (er, X), most companies that don’t have that kind of brand equity will just look inexperienced and unreliable if they tried to do what X is doing this week.
Keep the Playbook in Mind for Your Next Rebrand
Which brings me back to my main point, the key steps to doing a successful rebrand. If X’s rebrand is amazingly successful – and only time will tell – it still doesn’t demonstrate that the steps I outlined above can be ignored. When you throw out the standard playbook, it’s useful to at least know the playbook you’re throwing out. I’d hate to see a less experienced CEO decide to follow Musk’s example simply because Musk did it; my recommendation for the steps above still stand – and trust me, I’ve left out a bunch of steps, because you can write books about this stuff, not just blog posts.
Startups will always cut corners and won’t go through every aspect the way a multinational will, but start by knowing the right steps to take for your rebrand, and then you can decide which ones are relevant for your company, and which you can throw away. And if you need help figuring it all out, feel free to be in touch!