Meta, Block, Alphabet: Why some companies outgrow their old names

When tech becomes Big Tech, sometimes the names feel too small.

Block's logo on a teal background.

What do you do when your company becomes many companies? You might have to rebrand.

Image: Block

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.

Fintech

Apple's new payments tech won't kill Square

It could be used in place of the Square dongle, but it's far short of a full-fledged payments service.

The Apple system would reportedly only handle contactless payments.

Photo: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

Apple is preparing a product to enable merchants to accept contactless payments via iPhones without additional hardware, according to Bloomberg.

While this may seem like a move to compete with Block and its Square merchant unit in point-of-sale payments, that’s unlikely. The Apple service is using technology from its acquisition of Mobeewave in 2020 that enables contactless payments using NFC technology.

Keep Reading Show less
Tomio Geron

Tomio Geron ( @tomiogeron) is a San Francisco-based reporter covering fintech. He was previously a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, covering venture capital and startups. Before that, he worked as a staff writer at Forbes, covering social media and venture capital, and also edited the Midas List of top tech investors. He has also worked at newspapers covering crime, courts, health and other topics. He can be reached at tgeron@protocol.com or tgeron@protonmail.com.

Sponsored Content

A CCO’s viewpoint on top enterprise priorities in 2022

The 2022 non-predictions guide to what your enterprise is working on starting this week

As Honeywell’s global chief commercial officer, I am privileged to have the vantage point of seeing the demands, challenges and dynamics that customers across the many sectors we cater to are experiencing and sharing.

This past year has brought upon all businesses and enterprises an unparalleled change and challenge. This was the case at Honeywell, for example, a company with a legacy in innovation and technology for over a century. When I joined the company just months before the pandemic hit we were already in the midst of an intense transformation under the leadership of CEO Darius Adamczyk. This transformation spanned our portfolio and business units. We were already actively working on products and solutions in advanced phases of rollouts that the world has shown a need and demand for pre-pandemic. Those included solutions in edge intelligence, remote operations, quantum computing, warehouse automation, building technologies, safety and health monitoring and of course ESG and climate tech which was based on our exceptional success over the previous decade.

Keep Reading Show less
Jeff Kimbell
Jeff Kimbell is Senior Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer at Honeywell. In this role, he has broad responsibilities to drive organic growth by enhancing global sales and marketing capabilities. Jeff has nearly three decades of leadership experience. Prior to joining Honeywell in 2019, Jeff served as a Partner in the Transformation Practice at McKinsey & Company, where he worked with companies facing operational and financial challenges and undergoing “good to great” transformations. Before that, he was an Operating Partner at Silver Lake Partners, a global leader in technology and held a similar position at Cerberus Capital LP. Jeff started his career as a Manufacturing Team Manager and Engineering Project Manager at Procter & Gamble before becoming a strategy consultant at Bain & Company and holding executive roles at Dell EMC and Transamerica Corporation. Jeff earned a B.S. in electrical engineering at Kansas State University and an M.B.A. at Dartmouth College.
China

Why does China's '996' overtime culture persist?

A Tencent worker’s open criticism shows why this work schedule is hard to change in Chinese tech.

Excessive overtime is one of the plights Chinese workers are grappling with across sectors.

Photo: VCG/VCG via Getty Images

Workers were skeptical when Chinese Big Tech called off its notorious and prevalent overtime policy: “996,” a 12-hour, six-day work schedule. They were right to be: A recent incident at gaming and social media giant Tencent proves that a deep-rooted overtime culture is hard to change, new policy or not.

Defiant Tencent worker Zhang Yifei, who openly challenged the company’s overtime culture, reignited wide discussion of the touchy topic this week. What triggered Zhang's criticism, according to his own account, was his team’s positive attitude toward overtime. His team, which falls under WeCom — a business communication and office collaboration tool similar to Slack — announced its in-house Breakthrough Awards. The judges’ comments to one winner highly praised them for logging “over 20 hours of intense work nonstop,” to help meet the deadline for launching a marketing page.

Keep Reading Show less
Shen Lu

Shen Lu covers China's tech industry.

Boost 2

Can Matt Mullenweg save the internet?

He's turning Automattic into a different kind of tech giant. But can he take on the trillion-dollar walled gardens and give the internet back to the people?

Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic and founder of WordPress, poses for Protocol at his home in Houston, Texas.
Photo: Arturo Olmos for Protocol

In the early days of the pandemic, Matt Mullenweg didn't move to a compound in Hawaii, bug out to a bunker in New Zealand or head to Miami and start shilling for crypto. No, in the early days of the pandemic, Mullenweg bought an RV. He drove it all over the country, bouncing between Houston and San Francisco and Jackson Hole with plenty of stops in national parks. In between, he started doing some tinkering.

The tinkering is a part-time gig: Most of Mullenweg’s time is spent as CEO of Automattic, one of the web’s largest platforms. It’s best known as the company that runs WordPress.com, the hosted version of the blogging platform that powers about 43% of the websites on the internet. Since WordPress is open-source software, no company technically owns it, but Automattic provides tools and services and oversees most of the WordPress-powered internet. It’s also the owner of the booming ecommerce platform WooCommerce, Day One, the analytics tool Parse.ly and the podcast app Pocket Casts. Oh, and Tumblr. And Simplenote. And many others. That makes Mullenweg one of the most powerful CEOs in tech, and one of the most important voices in the debate over the future of the internet.

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Entertainment

Spoiler alert: We’re already in the beta-metaverse

300 million people use metaverse-like platforms — Fortnite, Roblox and Minecraft — every month. That equals the total user base of the internet in 1999.

A lot of us are using platforms that can be considered metaverse prototypes.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

What does it take to build the metaverse? What building blocks do we need, how can companies ensure that the metaverse is going to be inclusive, and how do we know that we have arrived in the 'verse?

This week, we convened a panel of experts for Protocol Entertainment’s first virtual live event, including Epic Games Unreal Engine VP and GM Marc Petit, Oasis Consortium co-founder and President Tiffany Xingyu Wang and Emerge co-founder and CEO Sly Lee.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Enterprise

Lyin’ AI: OpenAI launches new language model despite toxic tendencies

Research company OpenAI says this year’s language model is less toxic than GPT-3. But the new default, InstructGPT, still has tendencies to make discriminatory comments and generate false information.

The new default, called InstructGPT, still has tendencies to make discriminatory comments and generate false information.

Illustration: Pixabay; Protocol

OpenAI knows its text generators have had their fair share of problems. Now the research company has shifted to a new deep-learning model it says works better to produce “fewer toxic outputs” than GPT-3, its flawed but widely-used system.

Starting Thursday, a new model called InstructGPT will be the default technology served up through OpenAI’s API, which delivers foundational AI into all sorts of chatbots, automatic writing tools and other text-based applications. Consider the new system, which has been in beta testing for the past year, to be a work in progress toward an automatic text generator that OpenAI hopes is closer to what humans actually want.

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories
Bulletins