It seems like only yesterday that Elon Musk declared Twitter was a diamond in the rough and promised that he would soon “unlock” its vast potential. He’s not saying anything like that now.
Instead, he has become a full-on Twitter wrecking ball, lacing an ill-fated takeover bid with a steady beat of critiques that have left the company looking like an unsalvageable basket case. Seldom has one man done so much damage to an established brand.
And to a surprising extent, Twitter itself has basically conceded to—and at times even abetted—this reputation thrashing. Now that Musk has definitively switched course and declared that he wants no part of Twitter, the company has of course filed a lawsuit in an attempt to force him to make good on his $44 billion offer.
Among other things, the suit calls out “Musk’s repeated disparagement of Twitter and its personnel,” and argues Musk cannot “trash the company, disrupt its operations, destroy stockholder value, and walk away.” (Twitter’s share price has fallen more than 30% since Musk’s bid.)
So perhaps we are seeing evidence that Twitter is, finally, beginning to defend itself—not just in Delaware’s Court of Chancery, but in the court of public opinion.
If so, that defense is overdue. Whatever happens with Musk, the company has its work cut out for it. But Twitter badly needs to start thinking about how to tell its own story again—and what that story is going to be. Where, in short, does the Twitter brand go from here?
Yes, it’s hard to answer that question in such a volatile moment for the company. But that’s partly because Twitter has pretty much let Musk define its meaning since this saga began in early April. When news got out that the Tesla founder had amassed a 9.2% stake in Twitter, its share price spiked.
“[Musk’s] mere presence within Twitter’s ownership structure was enough to boost confidence in the power of not just the social platform’s product potential but even more so its brand,” Fast Company’s Jeff Beers pointed out at the time. (Of course, as Beers noted, it was really a coup for the brand called Musk—and his singular ability to attract attention and move markets seemingly at will. That has certainly held true.)
When Musk went on to make an unsolicited bid to buy Twitter for $54.20 per share, well above market price, the company resisted—briefly. That stance quickly gave way to not only agreeing to the deal but also to seemingly capitulating to the Musk rationale for it: namely, that Twitter was not well managed, flawed on a product level, and completely failing to live up to the endless potential that supposedly only Musk could really grok.
Among those who seemed to agree: Jack Dorsey, a Twitter cofounder and until recently its CEO. “Elon is the singular solution” for the challenge Twitter faces, he tweeted—not exactly a vote of confidence in his successor, Parag Agrawal, or the rest of the management team. Not long after, even Agrawal seemed to offer evidence of Twitter as a big problem for Musk to magically solve when he fired two of the company’s top growth and revenue executives in May.
The timing seemed odd given that Twitter was still mid-deal, underscoring the sense that the company knew it was adrift and had no plan of its own. Combined with a hiring freeze and subsequent layoffs, the move surely unnerved Twitter’s existing workforce. The company practically announced: “We are in a holding pattern, and all we’re sure of is that Twitter has problems.”
As for the future, both Agrawal and Dorsey essentially endorsed the somewhat hazy Musk vision, echoing his highfalutin promises about the service as a global town square and (profitable) haven for productive public discourse. (“None of the parties seems to care much about any of this rhetoric now,” Ina Fried of Axios noted the other day.)
Unfortunately, someone soon launched a thundering campaign against Musk’s vision of Twitter’s future: Elon Musk. Set aside whether Musk had a genuine change of heart, was trolling all along, or whatever other motive he may have. What matters is that he has essentially framed his new skepticism as resulting from looking under Twitter’s hood and finding it so thick with spam bots and other problems that it’s simply not worth the money (and is certainly not a diamond in the rough). That’s an accusation that of course gives advertisers pause, harming Twitter’s business.
“The real victim from all of the drama that’s going on right now is Twitter itself,” Forrester analyst Mike Proulx told Yahoo Finance. And for now Musk will simply keep assaulting Twitter’s public reputation—especially to his audience of more than 100 million Twitter followers.
It’s understandable that after conceding so much of Musk’s critique, Twitter wants him to follow through and somehow save the day (or at least absorb the blame when none of his rhetoric pans out). But maybe the opposite course makes more sense: Find the quickest way out of this mess and start owning the Twitter story again.
There is, after all, a Twitter story. While Twitter does not have the massive audience of Meta (which claims 2.8 million users across Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp), its user base has actually been growing. In its most recent quarterly results—announced after the Musk deal broke, when some observers assumed its numbers would disappoint—its revenue rose to $1.2 billion from $1.04 billion in the prior quarter; users rose to 229 million (better than analysts’ expectations) from 214 million last quarter, and 199 million a year ago.
For all the negative critiques of the platform, Twitter has fans. In fact, millions of devoted users clearly enjoy and/or rely on it, including major cultural influencers and media professionals.
So maybe instead of asking why Twitter isn’t as big as Facebook, it’s worth focusing on why so many such figures—like Elon Musk—apparently prefer Twitter anyway: It’s hard to ignore that for all his spam-bot complaints, Musk keeps on tweeting. Despite everything, Twitter arguably punches above its weight. It needs to focus on that story, not on its ongoing failure to be some kind of idealized anything-goes town square that it will likely never achieve.
Would shareholders scream bloody murder at accepting an exit that involved anything less than Musk’s original offer? Perhaps. But the protracted litigation and resulting strategic limbo that would entail will just further erode Twitter’s position—as a product, as an employer, as an entity.
That said, since we’re dealing with Musk here, it’s worth acknowledging that all sorts of outcomes are possible, including a renegotiated deal that puts Twitter in Musk’s hands after all, and his current brinkmanship may have factored in all of the above.
Maybe the game, at this point, is to acquire Twitter not only for a more modest price, but with more modest expectations. Just saving Twitter’s brand from the dysfunctional rep that Musk himself has been perpetuating would make Musk look like a genius. It’s a completely self-serving scenario—and thus, for Musk, completely on brand.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rob Walker writes Branded, a weekly column about marketing and branding. He also writes about design, business, and other subjects.