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WhatsApp is Facebook’s global brand ambassador

October 8, 2021, 6:39 PM UTC

Earlier this week I was planning to interview Lia Machado de Matos, chief strategy officer of StoneCo, a fintech company sometimes described as the Square of Brazil. When I tried to ring her, I discovered we wouldn’t be able to connect. Facebook had gone dark—knocking WhatsApp, and the rest of Facebook’s services—offline for six hours.

De Matos and I were supposed to be prepping for a panel discussion at CB Insights’ Future of Fintech event this past Tuesday—a session titled (ironically, given the WhatsApp downtime), “Super Apps: Where to Next?” When I later asked de Matos about the impact of the outage on stage, she described it as effectively grounding life to a halt in Brazil.

The other panelist confirmed her point. Juan Pablo Ortega, cofounder of Rappi, a Latin American food-delivery service, said the effect of the Facebook outage was crippling. The blackout disconnected Rappi’s WhatsApp-based customer service line—and it threw workers for a loop. While Rappi ostensibly uses Slack for office communications, everyone really uses WhatsApp, Ortega said.

WhatsApp, with more than 2 billion users, has become an essential utility for people in many parts of the world. That’s true in Latin America, where de Matos and Ortega are based, but also across vast stretches of Asia and Africa. The app became an even more crucial conduit for communications during the COVID-19 pandemic. Facebook, meanwhile, continues to ramp up WhatsApp’s commercial capabilities with shopping and other features that cater to small businesses, embedding it even more deeply in people’s day-to-day lives.

Unlike in the U.S., where people increasingly view Facebook skeptically or even outright negatively (see these recent survey findings or whistleblower Frances Haughen’s many data leaks and Congressional testimony), many people worldwide view WhatsApp positively. It’s reputation for low-cost connectivity stands in stark contrast to historically entrenched, monopolistic telecom companies. As Facebook adds networking infrastructure globally—subsea cables, fiber optic line-laying robots, “last mile” wireless transmitters, and other advanced communications tech it demoed this week—it is relying on WhatsApp’s aura of goodwill, a global brand ambassador.

At the mothership, Facebook’s trust-breaking, spiraling public sentiment, and bad press are contributing, oppositely, to a branding crisis. The company is shying away from its own name. Facebook is calling its new “smart” glasses Ray-Ban Stories, leaning into the luxury eyewear brand of Luxottica instead of Mark Zuckerberg’s embattled app, as I noted here last month. Similar considerations are no doubt at play in Facebook’s recent decision to rebrand its virtual reality service “Horizon Worlds,” instead of “Facebook Horizon.”

If Facebook can keep its media empire together in the face of all this heated antitrust action, WhatsApp could be the crown jewel of its global growth ambitions. That is, if it can keep the lights on.

Robert Hackett


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