Facebook Chief Marketing Officer Alex Schultz knows what you’re thinking: Is Facebook’s decision to rebrand itself as “Meta” an attempt to distract the public from weeks of blistering whistle-blower revelations about its alleged handling of misinformation, hate speech and research indicating a negative impact on young users?
His answer, of course, is not at all. “The fact that we’re doing the rebrand this week shows that we’re not running from anything,” Schultz—who is now CMO of Meta—told Forbes in an interview about the rebrand. “It’s the worst week to run away from anything.”
The announcement on October 28 by Meta CEO and Facebook cofounder Mark Zuckerberg came during a time of tumult for the company, which has been in the headlines for weeks with stories based on leaked files from former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen.
Facebook’s sudden move is leaving many to wonder whether it’s an attempt to reset the Meta narrative while also distancing its future visions from its current problems. The move to Meta is also just two years after the company’s 2019 brand refresh that featured a new corporate logo that doubled down on Facebook as the flagship. However, the decision to make Meta the parent company for Facebook and its subsidiary apps, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger, is not without precedent.
According to Schultz, Facebook began the naming process in March, which took a month or two before they developed a short list in May and in July finalized Meta. Although Facebook chose to do the majority of the naming internally to keep it confidential, it still worked with other partners on marketing.
To go along with the Meta rollout, the company created a high-production presentation to give people a glimpse of everything that the company is building for the Metaverse—a term derived from the 1992 hit sci-fi novel Snow Crash that lately has become somewhat of a catch-all term for everything from VR and augmented reality to NFTs and cryptocurrency. And on Friday, Facebook removed its famous thumbs-up sign from in front of its Silicon Valley headquarters, replacing it with a new logo that looks more like infinity symbol.
“To Mark, it was important, and to my predecessors, we’re not going to run away, we’re proud of our history,” Schultz said. “We’re super proud of what we’ve done with social, and it’s critical to our next phase as well. So we don’t want to run away from anything, and three years ago we didn’t have something clear to run toward. It was all social media.”
The news came a week after Facebook announced plans to invest $50 million to hire 10,000 employees in Europe over the next five years to work on technologies such as VR headsets, neural wristbands and the recently announced augmented reality glasses made with Ray-Ban.
“This is, I think, a successful rebrand if we’re clearly running toward something,” he said. “And I think two years ago—well, so the two years ago rebrand was really three years ago—our investment in VR really wasn’t what it is today. We didn’t have the hit that we do now with Quest that has good product market fit, millions of people using it.”
Meta is already building out its marketing strategy. On Tuesday, it announced Spark Foundry—a subsidiary of the advertising giant Publicis Groupe—as Meta’s new global planning and buying partner to market Meta and its subsidiaries. (According to some estimates, Facebook spent more than a half billion on advertising last year, which others say could top $1 billion this next year.)
According to Facebook’s third-quarter earnings, the company spent $3.6 billion on marketing and sales compared to $3.3 billion in the previous quarter and $2.7 billion during third-quarter 2020. An upcoming Meta campaign was made by the advertising agency Droga5, which also worked on Facebook’s Olympics ads over the summer. Schultz said it was also because “it’s a very personal thing, so we’re not trying to come up with some classic corporate name.”
“We’re not trying to run away from anything. This isn’t that kind of a rebrand.”
Facebook isn’t the first company to rebrand during a time of crisis. Two decades ago, British Petroleum famously rebranded itself as BP as the company attempted to pivot more into renewable energies despite revenues still leaning heavily on the product it was named after. And in 2003, Tobacco giant Phillip Morris changed its name to Altria as evidence mounted for the harms caused by cigarettes. That same year, Blackwater—a private military company—changed its name to Xe Services to mitigate some of the bad press it was getting while working in Iraq.
There are other examples of tech rebrands, too. Countless startups have undergone rebrands after being acquired or as a way to reposition the company. However, the most notable major company to change its name is Google, which in 2015 restructured the company to become Alphabet—with Google remaining as a subsidiary and its main revenue driver—as the company began facing questions about antitrust issues.
Asked about other comparisons like BP, Altria and Alphabet, Schultz said the company was trying to reflect the level of investment it’s making in the metaverse and “not be in a place where we’re trying to do a paint job.”
“I think the key thing is clear is brand names—you can’t change a company’s reputation with a brand name,” he said. “Brand names have to represent something. And I think a lot of those didn’t necessarily represent something substantive and so even some were mocked.”
So why not wait until the headlines die down? Schultz said going forward with the announcement amid all the controversy makes it “very clear” that the company isn’t trying to use the Meta news as a distraction. He added that the Facebook Connect was already planned and the company didn’t want to reschedule it.
“Every single story mentions what’s been going on in the last few weeks pretty much, and you know, that’s okay,” he said. “We’re not trying to run away from anything. This isn’t that kind of a rebrand. The second thing is we had planned out this week a long time in advance, and I think it’s really important that this is heard with the substance it is supposed to back up.”
Many question the name itself. Some think it’s far too different while others feel like it hits a little too close to home. For example, is it fair to call itself “Meta” when everyone else is using “metaverse”?
Shultz said it’s a “nod and a wink” to the metaverse, adding that others like Epic, Roblox, Unity and Minecraft have been using the term all the time already. Instead, he said it’ll bring more investment to the overall sector. (Schultz said he had advocated for the distinction three years ago, but would have been more subtle with it, suggesting perhaps going with “FB” or “Facebook Corp.”)
Is the Meta name a nod, or a head fake? While Schultz points out that the name isn’t exactly metaverse, the company is going public on December 1 under the new stock ticker MVRS—which sounds a whole lot like another word people are using lately.
The new name also helps to differentiate various existing platforms, Schultz said, explaining that saying “Instagram by Facebook” is a lot more confusing than saying it’s by some other entity. The goal is also to take Facebook Reality Labs—which the company’s VR efforts have fit until now—and more closely associate it with the parent company.
“We have to category make,” he said. “We have to bring the metaverse concept to global awareness and to be in people’s minds and have them asking what this is.”
To market the metaverse, Schultz said the company will focus major promotional campaigns around games to draw people in. However, he said the majority of people are already using its VR platform primarily for social gatherings.
“When they have friends, they use it more,” Schultz said. “It was our thesis that the metaverse would be a social place, but the data is now backing us up, which gives me more confident to lean into the marketing that this is going to be a social place and that it is the future of social interaction.”
So why focus on VR right now when critics and evangelists have said for years that it’s still too early for mainstream adoption? While spending time years ago with analytics teams at Oculus to better understand various VR headsets like Rift and its predecessors, Gear and Go, Schultz said it was clear that Rift didn’t have a product market fit because it was too expensive. However, other cheaper and simpler headsets like Gear and Go were things that people wanted to try, but that didn’t gain traction because there weren’t enough features.
Whether the rebrand actually changes the way an increasingly skeptical public views one of the world’s largest social networks remains to be seen. However, a recent Forrester survey of more than 700 people—conducted before the Meta name was announced—found that 86% of respondents in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. didn’t think a rebrand would affect Facebook’s reputation. Meanwhile, 45% reported feeling neutral about Facebook’s plans to become a metaverse company.
“Even if the new Meta brand is met with wildly positive reviews, the controversy and issues related to the Facebook brand will continue to persist.”
As Gartner analyst Chris Ross noted, a name change alone is unlikely to make much impact on overall brand issues. “Even if the new Meta brand is met with wildly positive reviews, the controversy and issues related to the Facebook brand will continue to persist,” he said. “The negative media coverage and social, security and privacy problems that plague the company will still continue to be front and center. It seems unlikely the rebrand is going to create any distance between Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook leaders and the litany of high-profile PR problems.”
When asked whether Meta is building the future instead of fixing the present, Schultz said the company is trying to approach the metaverse in a different way than it did with the original Facebook developer platform in 2007. He cited newly announced plans to work with experts along with lawmakers and others to make sure Meta doesn’t repeat the same mistakes as Facebook.
Meta will also have to convince not just consumers but also VR developers of its vision. While some are already getting on board: Last week it acquired Within, a VR company founded by VR pioneer Chris Milk that’s already made hit VR fitness app Supernatural. However, others are already are worried whether Meta might also open the door for people to be even concerned about surveillance, hate speech and whether the giant will will have too much control over society’s virtual future. One VR/AR startup founder called it “an aggressive land grab over a nascent and exciting new space,” while another said Meta is “the new printing press. . . . There’s no stopping it.”
“Nobody should own or lay claim to the metaverse,” said Gabo Arora, who’s made VR and AR projects with the United Nations, the Nobel Peace Prize committee and the Shoah Foundation, which tells the stories of Holocaust survivors. “And Facebook just fired the first shot in what will be ‘the great game’ of the 21st century. Whoever controls the metaverse will control us. And we should all be horrified that Facebook has this ambition.”