The Facebook name was such a drag that employees referred to it as a 'brand tax'

  • Employees have used the term "brand tax" to refer to the negative impact of Facebook on its other brands.
  • Since a rebranding in Nov. 2019 that tied Facebook's apps together, the association has hurt Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp in terms of gaining trust from younger users.
  • Under the new Meta name, the company has already begun removing the Facebook name from several units.

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With its name change to Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook is trying to eliminate what some employees have called a "brand tax" on apps like Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the rebranding on Thursday, following a brutal seven weeks of document dumps that showed Facebook knew of the harm its products cause and has refused to address them. But the brand tax dates as far back as the 2016 presidential election, when Facebook turned into a haven of hateful content and misinformation.

Facebook's other services, most notably Instagram and Messenger, have struggled to distance themselves from the constant embarrassment that's plagued their parent company over the past half-decade, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

Brand separation became particularly difficult in 2019, when Facebook announced it would tag all of its services with Facebook at the end of their names. Messenger became Messenger from Facebook, and the other apps turned into Instagram from Facebook and WhatsApp from Facebook.

Facebook said at the time that the rebranding was intended to provide clarity to users. The same was true for its Oculus virtual reality unit and business software offering Workplace, which also got the "from Facebook" label.

"This brand change is a way to better communicate our ownership structure to the people and businesses who use our services to connect, share, build community and grow their audiences," the company said in a press release on Nov. 4, 2019.

But behind closed doors, Facebook wasn't expressing concern about consumer confusion. Rather, the company was trying to restore the strength of its name after a series of public relations setbacks, most notably the Cambridge Analytica data hijacking scandal in 2018, several former employees told CNBC.

Facebook's own brand was in the dumps. Zuckerberg decided to consolidate the branding because he thought associating Facebook with the company's less-sullied services would help, said the former employees, who asked not to be named because the information was confidential. 

Some employees advised Zuckerberg to follow the path taken by Google, which created the parent company name Alphabet in 2015, rather than attaching Facebook to everything, sources said.

Zuckerberg's decision to instead showcase Facebook was not driven by data. On the contrary, he was presented with research showing that associating any of the company's products with the Facebook brand caused trust to drop, said one former executive.

Another employee said that was seen in research done for Facebook's video-calling device, Portal, announced in 2018. Data indicated that putting the name Facebook on it would reduce public trust. The company went with the name Facebook Portal anyway.

When asked for a comment for this story, a spokeswoman for the company directed CNBC to a Thursday post from Meta Chief Marketing Officer Alex Schultz.

"In 2019, we rolled out new branding that linked together all of our products, but still kept the Facebook name for both the company and our original app," Schultz wrote. "But over time it was clear that the shared Facebook name could cause confusion, not only with people using products such as WhatsApp or Instagram, but also with constituencies we work with. Helping people have clarity when something is coming from the company versus the Facebook app is an important reason for this change."

Instagram hurt the most

Instagram was hit particularly hard by the 2019 rebranding.

The photo app is used mostly by teens and young people, who have long had a negative view of Facebook. The "big blue app," as Facebook is known, was seen as the place where parents and weird uncles go to share stories and comment on their relatives' posts.

Instagram's marketing employees began seeing, through quarterly brand tracking results, that the new label was causing harm.

They tried to make the "from Facebook" font smaller, not use it at all or play with the colors in a way that would hide the Facebook name, ex-employees said. Ultimately, they were overruled, according to one former employee.

Zuckerberg insisted that Facebook had turned Instagram into a screaming success since acquiring it for $1 billion in 2012, and it was time for Instagram to give back, a former executive recalled. 

Instagram marketers would eventually be measured by how well they tied the brands together. It was mandated by Zuckerberg and non-negotiable.

Messenger, by contrast, was given permission to create some sense of separation, according to multiple employees. 

Unlike Instagram, Oculus and WhatsApp, which were all acquired, Messenger was homegrown. Facebook turned it into a separate app in 2014. To attract younger users, Messenger was given the "blessing" a year ago to take some steps to improve the brand, two former employees said.

Messenger rolled out a new logo last year with a gradient color, predominantly purple, similar to Instagram's logo. It was part of the Messenger team's effort to position the app for Millennials and Gen Z users, who have been flocking to other services like TikTok.

Removing the Facebook name

As Meta, there's no guarantee that Facebook's brand tax dissipates.

But Zuckerberg has at least changed his approach, less than two years after adding "from Facebook" to all of his company's main services.

The company has already started rebranding several of its units. The hardware division, previously known as Facebook Reality Labs, will now be called Reality Labs. The payments division, which was known as F2 (Facebook Financial), will now be Novi, the name of the company's cryptocurrency wallet product. 

Zuckerberg remains defiant following a series of document leaks by ex-employee Frances Haugen, the whistleblower, and the many stories that followed from the Wall Street Journal and other publications. One of the most notable stories showed that the company knew Instagram was detrimental to teenagers' mental health and was doing little about it. 

"My view is that what we are seeing is a coordinated effort to selectively use leaked documents to paint a false picture of our company," Zuckerberg said after the company's quarterly earnings report earlier this week.

Some of the documents released showed that the number of teenage users of the Facebook app in the U.S. has declined by 13% since 2019, with a projected drop of 45% over the next two years, according to The Verge. Additionally, Facebook researchers found that the company was not expecting people born after 2000 to join the social network until they were 24 or 25 years old, if they ever joined, Bloomberg reported.

Facebook addressed that issue on Monday in its earnings report. The company said it would begin pivoting both Instagram and Facebook to feature more videos from the Reels product in an effort to attract young users.

Zuckerberg said the company will try to make all of its services appealing to young adults, but he acknowledged that "this shift will take years, not months, to fully execute."

Moving away from the Facebook brand is the first big step.

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