The Twitter to ‘X’ Case Study: The IP Implications of Rebranding

As of 23 July 2023, Elon Musk rebranded the social media platform Twitter to X. The brand change is suggested to be a reflection of Musk’s change management strategy and upheaval of previous Twitter processes since his takeover in October 2022.1 This article discusses the implications this will have on the social media platform’s brand equity, and the challenges it’s likely to face as a commonplace trade mark.

While X may mark the spot, and a single letter may be capable of registration as a trade mark, the registration process is likely to be difficult in most countries - including in New Zealand, Australia and the US.2 This is due to the lack of distinctiveness and simplistic design of single letter marks.  Competing with over 900 active US trade mark registration using the letter across a multitude of industries, it is likely to face opposition from all angles.

Other tech companies already have IP rights in the letter X in the USA, such as Meta and Microsoft. Microsoft’s X has been registered in association with Xbox communications since 2003. As of 2019, Meta (formerly Facebook) registered a blue and white X as a federal trade mark in relation to software and social media. Nevertheless, tech giants are only likely to sue if they feel their brand equity is being threatened by the possibility of deception and confusion.3

On the other side of the coin, it is inevitable that future applicants will want to register X for their own companies. Musk will have to be vigilant in protecting his new mark and its associated identity, particularly where it is a common symbol in the shared tech industry. However, the scope of protection for Musk’s new logo will likely be confined, without leaving much room for variation in the company’s future related trade marks.

It is no secret that Musk’s acquisition has seen Twitter user satisfaction levels drop. Under his leadership, the company has suffered a loss of half of its top employees, declining user traffic, and $13 billion in debt.4 Due to the loyal relationship users have had with the blue and white bird logo Twitter has had since 2003, it is reported that this X rebranding may be the final straw for some users.5 It is an example of the crucial effect trade marks have in helping consumers identify and create relationships with brands.

The awkwardness of referring to the social media platform as X is reminiscent of Prince’s change to “symbol” which morphed into “The artist formerly known as Prince” before The Purple One returned to using the name Prince. After 17 years of using Twitter, it will take some time for users to adapt to using X. It could be a dangerous period of time for “the platform formerly known as Twitter” with Threads now a major competitor. 

Similar overhauls are being felt in the New Zealand food sector, with the announcement of Countdown’s rebrand to Woolworths. It will see $400 million spent over the next three years on the change, with the rebrand being part of a wider strategy to improve business practices.6 The supermarket chain aims to strengthen its trans-Tasman position by appealing to its roots in the Australian parent company Woolworths.

Protecting and making the most of your trade mark is how consumers relate emotionally to your brand, and without it, your goods or services are arguably more substitutable. Where Twitter’s rebranding to X causes disassociation in consumers, we may see many users move to other platforms. As such, the value attributed to each individual trade mark is decided by consumers.

Thus, the implications of this rebrand are tenfold, and it is arguable whether the benefits outweigh the costs.

Gracie Scragg - August 2023

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