Jan 13, 2019 - Economy & Business

The corporate world's rush to "de-brand"

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

This week brought news from WeWork, the co-working unicorn, that it has decided to downgrade its main business to a mere subsidiary. WeWork has a famously complex corporate structure, but lift your eyes above the newly demoted WeWork to the very apex and behold — The We. (I am not making this up.)

The big picture: WeWork is not the only company to demote its flagship brand and name the holding company something silly, or worse.

  • Google is now just one part of a company called Alphabet.
  • Snapchat is just one of the brands operated by Snap.
  • Aol and Yahoo both found themselves part of something called Oath, before Oath was renamed Verizon Media Group.
  • And who can forget the Tribune Company, named after the 170-year-old Chicago Tribune newspaper, renaming itself Tronc.

Historically, companies were proud to name themselves after brands they had managed to elevate to a place of global name recognition. If you had a weird non-brand name like Gulf & Western or MacAndrews & Forbes, that was a sign that you were mostly in the business of buying and selling companies — that ultimately you weren't committed to your brands.

  • The new un-brands aren't conglomerateurs; neither are they corporate raiders. They're just distancing their investor-facing corporate selves from their consumer-facing identities.
  • There are many reasons for doing such a thing, but it does tend to look as though the CEO is a bit ashamed of the main product. Google, Snapchat, Yahoo and Tribune all have connotations of being either problematic or outdated.

The bottom line: This kind of move is generally presented as a way of telegraphing ambitions much greater than owning a single consumer-facing brand, no matter how successful that product might be. But it often comes across as a signifier of ambivalence and shame. In some ways, it's the modern-day equivalent of the rentier distancing himself from his coal mines.

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