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Why is Facebook changing its name?

Facebook is changing its corporate name to Meta as part of a major rebrand. At the company’s annual Connect conference, CEO Mark Zuckerberg confirmed the name change, which will apply to the parent company that owns Facebook (as well as platforms such as Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus). What is the motivation for this name change, and is it likely to succeed?

   Ostensibly, the reason for this proposed change is the company’s focus on building the metaverse – roughly, the idea of a future Internet made up of persistent, shared, 3D virtual spaces linked into a virtual universe. Facebook already has more than 10,000 employees building consumer hardware such as AR glasses, which Zuckerberg believes will eventually be as ubiquitous as smartphones. In July 2021, he told The Verge that, over the next several years, “we will effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company”.

   In this way, it seems the firm running Facebook has essentially outgrown the social network launched by Zuckerberg 17 years ago – as the CEO said, the existing brand could not “possibly represent everything that we’re doing today, let alone in the future”. At the conference, he confirmed: “Over time, I hope that we are seen as a metaverse company and I want to anchor our work and our identity on what we’re building towards. We’re now looking at and reporting on our business as two different segments, one for our family of apps, and one for our work on future platforms. And as part of this, 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.”

The reason for this proposed change is the company’s focus on building the metaverse

   It’s certainly also the case, however, that brand Facebook is undergoing a lot of negative press at the moment, and a new name may be one way of moving past that. Recently, employee-turned-whistle-blower Frances Haugen leaked internal documents about the company, and she testified before Congress, stating that Facebook prioritises profits over people’s safety, a claim supported by the papers. The company has come under fire by all sides of the political aisle for the way that content on the platform is governed (or, in some cases, seemingly not governed), and no amount of rebranding will resolve issues like the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

   Anne Oldergo, senior partner at consulting firm Vivaldi, has 20 years of brand strategy experience, and she noted: “We’ve already seen this since the day of the cigarette companies, with Altria and company rebranding themselves trying to get away from toxicity. This is exactly what Facebook is trying to do right now.” Similarly, if the company is moving from Facebook to a metaverse product, the name change could be about containing the bad reception. Ashley Cooksley, managing director for North America at The Social Element, said: “If it’s only the holding company that changes its name, it’s presumably more about distancing the parent company from the Facebook product so that any toxicity in Facebook stays within that one product, rather than ‘infecting’ other brands under the parent banner.”

   If these plans sound familiar, it may be because Facebook is not the first tech company to try this. In 2015, Google formed its parent company Alphabet – its public rationale was to emphasise Google’s non-search business interests, but it was facing similar governmental scrutiny that has hit the brand too. Obviously, from a public point of view, we all still refer to ‘Google’ rather than ‘Alphabet’, but the rebrand helped shore up the company’s stock prices, which have nearly quintupled since the change.

   Nick Vivion, founder at tech PR firm Ghost Works Communications, said: “The real challenge is to repair the image of Facebook itself. If the company doesn’t use any of the past few years as a learning lesson, it likely will just replicate the mistakes it’s made in the past.” His views are shared by Adam Hanft, global brand strategist and strategic adviser to Conduit, who said: “For Facebook, whose brand is already sullied by perceptions of callous capitalism, the risk of opportunism is amplified. Changing a name is a marketing solution to a reputation crisis; the problem is far more profound than the solution… People will focus on the superficiality of a marketing fix when the company is seen by many as a threat to democracy and individual well-being. Tone-deaf is a kind description.”

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