Airbnb: turning brand purpose into action

I came across an interesting inside view of Airbnb whilst researching the brand for our new bookthe brandgym: Rebooted for a Digital Age (out in September). The article from Fortune shows that even though many things have changed in marketing, a clear, purposeful and insightful positioning remains the foundation for brand and business growth.

1. Match a human need with a brand truth

Airbnb started work on better defining their brand purpose in 2013 “to better articulate the elements that made using its platform so unique”: a process we call ‘bottling the magic’. The com­pany’s new global head of community, Douglas Atkin, posed some probing questions about Airbnb, such as “Why does Airbnb exist?” and “What’s its role in the world?

To answer the questions interviews were carried out with 480 employees, guests, and hosts around the world. A key finding that popped up consistently was that “the last thing guests wanted to be is tourists.” Rather, Airbnb customers wanted to be “insiders” who were engaged with the people and cultures of the places they were visiting. And this human need was matched with a brand truth about having ‘hosts’ who opened up their homes, rather than just physical houses or apartments to rent. The idea of ‘belonging’ began to emerge, and by mid-2014 a new mission statement was finalised: ‘To make people around the world feel like they could “belong anywhere.”’

2. Refresh your identity 

The company refreshed its brand identity following the work on the brand purpose. This change was a bit over-played at the time in my view, with a whole load of intellectual explanation about the new logo (below right) and its deeper meaning (e.g. “The ‘Bélo’ itself was carefully conceived to resemble a heart, a location pin, and the “A” in Airbnb”). But, it did do a good job of updating Airbnb and making it look more ‘polished’ and trustworthy compared to the original one: more a global hospitality brand than a cheeky start-up. If you’re like me, you won’t even recognise the original logo, which looks dated in comparison.

Importantly, the re-design was not just a change to the logo. The whole online customer experience was improved, both in desktop and mobile versions.

3.Renovate your core 

Key to delivering the brand purpose was upgrading the core product: the hospitality experience. To help deliver this, CEO Brian Chesky persuaded Chip Conley, founder of the Joie de Vivre boutique-hotel chain, to join Airbnb as global head of hospitality and strategy. Conley traveled to 25 cities, giving talks and tips to help raise the game of Airbnb hosts. He also sought to capture and codify best practice, so that the brand wasn’t relying on what we call ‘random acts of kindness’: great service that relies on one-off, special gestures by people but is hard to replicate at scale.

Conley “centralized hospitality-education efforts, created a set of standards, and started a blog, a newsletter, and an online community center where hosts could learn and share best practices”, according to the article. Amongst the best practice guidelines were concrete suggestions including:

  • respond to booking queries within 24 hours
  • try to ensure guests’ ideas for their trip match your ‘hosting style’;
  • Communicate often and provide detailed directions
  • Clearly establish any “house rules” (e.g. if you’d like travellers to take their shoes off or not smoke)
  • Clean every room thoroughly, especially the bathroom and kitchen
  • Go beyond the basics: e.g. spruce up the room with fresh flowers or provide a treat upon check-in, like a glass of wine

4.Combine ’sausage & sizzle’

I posted here about how, for me, Airbnb’s first attempt to communicate the purpose ‘laddered’ so high that it lost touch with the product. The campaign celebrated the human kindness of #Mankind. In the TV ad we see a baby taking steps to look out at the world beyond the front door. Huh? And the idea that I would “sleep in their (the hosts’) beds to see their dreams” was just a bit creepy. This was all emotional sizzle, with no product sausage.

However, Airbnb learnt and came back with a much stronger campaign, based on the insight that we don’t just want to stay in a city we visit, we want to live in it like a local. The campaign idea, ‘Don’t go there. Live there’ tells a product story in an emotionally compelling way. It was rooted in the brand truth.

5.Brand-led business

The great thing about the ‘Don’t go there. Live there’ idea is the way it inspires the whole business, not just communication. For example, the brand has stretched into offering travel services with ‘Airbnb Trips’’, where hosts offer travel-related services such as skateboarding lessons and recommendations on cool places to hang out from well-known and interesting locals (design bloggers, salsa dancers, fitness gurus etc.). This creates additional revenue for hosts and for Airbnb, but also strengthens the core, by making the home rental offering even more attractive.

In conclusion, the Airbnb story is a great example of creating a brand purpose that is driven through the whole business, from identity through communication into the core product and beyond into brand stretch. It also shows that success doesn’t always happen immediately; you often need to refine the mix to get it right.

Looking to innovate your brand? Find out about brand vision and positioning services at thebrandgym.

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