What’s in a name? For tech companies, quite a lot.
Most companies in tech are named for their first product, whether it’s a social network, a shopping website, a search engine or a messaging service. But as big tech companies grow, their ambitions tend to sprawl, and their founding names often can’t keep up. So in recent years, tech giants like Meta, Block and Alphabet shifted from the names of their flagship products to something all-encompassing. But companies taking on a sleek new name isn’t just a marketing play. Brands often take new names to create distance between themselves and their flagship product.
“When one brand is too big a part of your main product, like Facebook, it becomes dangerous,” said Fabian Geyrhalter, principal at branding consultancy Finien. “If you have five products, and you name your main brand after one product, you might end up having a difficulty when that one product gets bad press.”
Take Meta: As the parent company of Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and several other subsidiaries, the social media behemoth may have taken a new name to signal its metaverse ambitions both to the world and to its employees, but also to separate itself and its other products from any bad blowback that one may get (and we all know Facebook can get quite a bit of bad press).
Brentos Fernandez, partner and head of creative at brand-focused venture capital firm Listen, called this the “house of brands” strategy. Alphabet is the classic example: It became the umbrella for dozens of other properties when Larry Page and Sergey Brin changed the company’s name from Google in 2015. A similar situation occurred with travel technology company Bookings Holdings, formerly known as The Priceline Group. These companies’ iconic (and previously eponymous) products, like Google, Facebook and Priceline, still exist. Now, they’re just no longer the main event.
“Tech, in particular, is prone to this recalibration as their product changes with innovations in computing and user needs,” Fernandez said in an email. “Meta and Block are the latest examples of companies looking to signal a shift in product strategy. Both of which have grown beyond their initial product into a broad suite of products.”
Shorter names in particular are also a status symbol often reserved for tech giants looking to make their brands memorable. And as companies have started to grow out of what Fernandez calls their “word smash era,” startups naming themselves things like “thisbook and that-ly” will lose popularity, he said. Adding on an interesting top-level domain to a url, such as Block and Alphabet’s websites ending in “.xyz,” also gives a tech company some clout.
“It’s easy to score a domain like scoootr.com,” Fernandez said. “Shorter names are desirable as they can be easier to tap into your browser. A common short word is often more of a luxury for large tech companies who have the cash on hand to purchase those short URLs.”
New names represent a company’s aspirations, said Geyrhalter. Facebook likely chose to take on Meta as the company makes it a goal to practically be synonymous with the emerging metaverse. Even Square becoming Block makes sense as Jack Dorsey, in his newly full-time role as CEO, forges ahead with ambition of taking the crypto world by storm. Fernandez said name changes are a common occurrence in tech because of the constantly evolving nature of the industry.
“You usually want to change your name because your old name just did not grow with the new product,” Geyrhalter said. “The product vision and the brand vision need to align.”
Though new names sometimes come from mergers and acquisitions, such as Warner Bros. Discovery, they can also represent a change in direction, such as new product offerings or a change in business strategy. In 2013, Research in Motion rebranded as BlackBerry amid the release of a new phone, to which the company’s then-CEO Thorsten Heins said: "We have reinvented the company, and we want to represent this in our brand.” And Netflix spun off its video-rental service from its streaming business in 2011, naming it Qwikster. (That one didn’t go so well.)
“Rebranding, at its core, is a chance to create news, excitement, sometimes public bewilderment,” Fernandez said. “When handled correctly, it is a realignment of your promise to the consumer. It is the chance to get it right. It can re-introduce a company to the world, and with the right kit of parts, help users connect more emotionally with a company.”
Of course, sometimes it’s much simpler than that: Amazon is only called Amazon because people kept confusing “Cadabra,” its original name, with the word “cadaver.” Jeff Bezos reportedly named the company Amazon after the world's largest river, as he then had the goal of creating the world's largest bookstore. Now, it’s just the world's largest store, period.
Though it may not seem like anything has changed with Meta or Block, their new names signify that change is on the horizon. New names give companies distance from their first ideas, giving them the opportunity to reinvent themselves and the space to try new things. As sleek names and holding companies gain popularity, new names and new strategies might be in the cards for other tech giants.
Update: This story has been updated to more accurately describe Listen’s status as a VC firm. Updated Dec. 7.