To non-moguls, Elon Musk’s (perhaps temporary) rebrand of Twitter to “X” may seem high risk, amateurish, or even capricious. But it is likely doing exactly what he intended: generating enormous global interest, pushing Twitter closer to his other X brands (SpaceX, Tesla Model X, xAI), and clearing the way for a profitable merging of technologies. In case you missed it, last weekend, Musk began making changes by renaming the Twitter platform X on its website and replacing the iconic blue bird logo with a crowdsourced “interim” white “X” on a black background. Later, he posted an image of the character projected on the firm’s San Francisco headquarters and tweeted that x.com now redirects to twitter.com.
The X bears a strong resemblance to the Unicode character “mathematical double-struck capital X,” derived from the way bold characters are usually written on blackboards in math lectures. The logo is still undergoing iterations, with a short-lived thickening of the lines going live on July 26, before Musk announced he did not like it and would revert. Linda Yaccarino, Twitter’s CEO and potential scapegoat if the rebrand goes wrong, also confirmed the launch on Sunday, tweeting, “X is here! Let’s do this.”
Has a radical rebrand ever succeeded?
Branding experts around the globe have been quick to condemn the Twitter shakeup as too sudden and destructive to the company’s existing brand capital. That is perhaps because even slight name changes are known to be risky. Kentucky Fried Chicken officially rebranded to KFC, for example, and Pepsi was once Pepsi-Cola, but these successful adjustments took time and careful management, as the dramatic rebranding of a household name has basically never worked. And there is no doubt a black “X” replacing “Twitter” is dramatic.
With a new X logo smashing the metaphor of birds in an idyllic blue-sky ecosystem, sentimental fans holding out for a return to the good old days have now gotten the memo: Twitter is not for you. But perhaps that is the point. To me, X seems like a probe to perturb and test the market, and Musk’s progressive alienation of Twitter’s traditional users could be an attempt to refresh the platform’s demographic – to draw in those true to his other brands, while shaking off unprofitable sceptics. This would certainly fit with the push X gives towards Musk’s other X brands.
Most commentators have latched onto the idea the change is sudden, irreversible, and complete in one day. But Musk’s past business endeavors suggest he is a strategist. The change will take time to play out and can likely be revised, reversed, and/or adjusted as feedback is generated.
All the while, it is worth noting that unlike KFC and Pepsi, Musk is not renaming fast food or soft drinks. Instead, Twitter is in the hyper-dynamic business of information. And Musk is agile and well-armed, which could mean that new branding rules are being forged.
Doesn’t someone else own the “X” trademark?
Amassing trademark registrations of the stylized “X” that will now serve as a source-indicator for Twitter is probably not pivotal to the Twitter rebrand, but achieving limited ownership in the single letter mark is not as preposterous as it sounds. Trademarks rights are gained based on their ability to identify the source of the associated goods or services. This means X can function as a trademark if it clearly indicates a single source of goods/services in the minds of the public. And famous brands have advantages: Musk has arguably already garnered enough media attention to ensure X is now a globally-recognized indicator of his company.
As for whether the Twitter “X” is a generic mark, and thereby, incapable of functioning as (and being registered as) a trademark? My own research argues that trademarks used by tech firms involved in consumer search and decision-making (like Twitter) are inherently generic. However, under the 77-year-old Lanham Act, which governs trademarks in the U.S., X would have to be a common generic name for all services like Twitter to be refused. It is not. It is mostly just a generic term for the 24th letter of the alphabet.
Speculation about the legality of X as a trademark is one thing; my time writing about trademarks has taught me the reality in courts and tribunals is another. Both Microsoft and Meta (and many others) have laid claims to X in the past for various goods and services, which means that lawsuits over Twitter’s X mark very well may be filed. But final determinations could be years in the courts, and if things go badly, Musk has just shown his willingness to pivot.
What is Musk trying to achieve?
Tech commentators are intrigued by the idea the X rebrand is part of Musk’s plan to create a WeChat-style “everything app” that would converge messaging, search, online shopping and mobile payment. Twitter CEO, Yaccarino, has said as much.
But that analysis may too simplistic, especially given the ongoing focus on antitrust in the era of big tech. Musk is arguably in a position to survey (and reshape) the landscape of not just “town square” discourse but space travel, artificial intelligence (“AI)”, transportation, and even politics. The X rebrand could relate to AI (Musk had a role in a data drought this year by restricting Twitter data access). Or it could be testing the waters for a different pivot later in the year. Or it could be an attempt to distract from some other move. There is no way to know. Even the phrase “time will tell” is no help. How can we know if an unknown plan succeeds or not? Does Musk care if Twitter disappears? Does he care if he is worth two hundred billion or three hundred billion?
Welcome to the inscrutable world of X.
Cameron Shackell is a Sessional Academic at the Queensland University of Technology. (This article was initially published by The Conervsation.)