Two decades ago, tobacco behemoth Philip Morris announced its intention to change its name to the Altria Group. It comes from the Latin word altus, meaning “high,” and according to company execs at the time was meant to suggest high performance. “When people say ‘Philip Morris,’ people don’t know which company you’re talking about,'” Steven C. Parrish, the company’s senior vice president for corporate affairs at the time, told The New York Times. “We’re more than a tobacco company, obviously, but there are a lot of people who don’t understand that.” Count among those people the estimated 3 million American women who died prematurely between 1980 and 2000 from smoking-related diseases.
No one was exactly fooled by the news of its proposed name change. “They are running away from tobacco,” David A. Kessler, Yale University medical school dean and former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said at the time. Matthew L. Myers, then-president of the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids, said, “Instead of changing its business practices, Philip Morris has chosen a public relations campaign to divert attention away from what it does.” Philip Morris, which made and marketed such cigarette brands as Marlboro, Parliament, and Virginia Slims, may have also been the largest packaged goods company, but to consumers, Philip Morris meant tobacco. And tobacco increasingly meant death.
Does any of this sound familiar?
On Tuesday night, The Verge reported that Facebook is planning to rebrand the company with a new name, to signal its ambition to be known for more than social media, likely positioning the blue Facebook app as just one of many products under a parent company alongside Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus, and more. Rumors are that the change will come by the end of the month, and potentially as early as October 25, when Facebook reports its third-quarter earnings. For a company that bristles at references to its services being akin to cigarettes, taking a page from the Big Tobacco playbook is a stunner.
Facebook has experienced a wave of bad news about the negative effects of its social media platforms—and what the company has known about it and what it has and hasn’t done in response—going back to mid-September when The Wall Street Journal started publishing what it dubbed The Facebook Files, leaked documents from a whistleblower. Of course, one could say that Facebook has been living under a cloud of negative, brand-tarnishing news since November 2016 and the results of the U.S. presidential election.
A couple of years ago, when regulators started to make noise about breaking up Facebook, the company initially took a defiant stance, adding Facebook branding to all of its products, as if to suggest that they could not be separated. It used “custom typography and capitalization to create visual distinction between the company and app.” Loosely translated, this means that it popped in all caps and slapped the Facebook name under all of its apps in their corresponding colors. The only thing missing was a voice-over that would sing “By Facebook!” every time you opened Instagram.
Then-CMO Antonio Lucio wrote in a company blog post that appending the parent brand to all the company’s products was “a way to better communicate our ownership structure to the people and businesses who use our services to connect, share, build community, and grow their audiences.” At the time, people believed that Facebook would diminish the value of Instagram and WhatsApp, given that the majority of their user bases did not know that Facebook owned them.
Now it has taken the opposite approach, de-emphasizing Facebook and putting an entirely new name out front on all of its properties. So what changed?
A rebrand is a lot of things, but it can’t fix the body-image issues of one in three teen girls on Instagram or obviate the blame teens apportion the platform for increased anxiety and depression. Nor will it erase whistleblower Frances Haugen’s appearance on 60 Minutes and before a Congressional committee, testifying that Facebook always chooses what’s best for its bottom line over public health and safety. What Facebook needs, at minimum, is real, difficult, foundational change. But that’s hard compared to a transparent, superficial PR move.
Facebook wanting to change its name but none of its evil practices is like The Cheesecake Factory rebranding itself as The Salad Farm but keeping the same menu.
— Chris Jones (@EnswellJones) October 20, 2021
Prashant Malaviya, a marketing professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, says that if Facebook’s decision is an attempt to step away from all the negative perception, imagery, and vitriol that the company has been attracting over the last few months, it’s shortsighted and misguided. “Unless this rebranding exercise is accompanied by a true internal change in culture, values, and vision, it’s not going to be a successful PR exercise,” Malaviya says. “And it will be even more difficult to overcome the brand negativity if the brand Facebook still exists in any shape or form. If people are still using an app called Facebook, then the brand hasn’t gone away, and all the negativity it has created will continue to swirl.”
I don't know how far along @Facebook is with coming up with their new name but I would recommend AMORL.
— DJ Scratch N' Sniff (@brittontaylor) October 20, 2021
The challenge in being a global platform with billions of users is that you’ve reached a point of cultural saturation that no amount of rebrand fluff can redirect. It’d be like if Philip Morris also tried to rebrand Marlboro as Altria. “A strong brand image can only be developed on a strong platform and foundation,” Malaviya says. “And if the foundation of the business currently called Facebook is what we see—weak, misguided culture, a reported lack of morality and ethics—if that is the foundation, no matter what name you put on it, it will still crumble eventually.”
In other words, Philip Morris at least had some food products that were not killing customers. (At least not as directly: Subsequent investigative reporting would reveal that the company used salt, sugar, and fat to create products as addictive as nicotine and tar.) Facebook’s products—from Instagram to WhatsApp to Groups—have all been shown to propagate disinformation or create some form of societal harm.
Name changes aren’t uncommon in Big Tech, as Google’s Alphabet and Snapchat’s Snap Inc. can attest. Yet most people still refer to those companies as . . . you guessed it . . . Google and Snapchat.
Facebook can run, but it can’t hide. New name, same problems.