How Airbnb use brand purpose to build the business: brandgym book post 3

In this third post inspired by our new bookthe brandgym: A Practical Workout to Grow Your Brand in a Digital Age, we look at how to use brand purpose to sell more stuff, using Airbnb as an example. We will also learn how to avoid ‘brand ego tripping’, where you focus so much on emotion or social good that you loose touch with business reality.

But first up, lets quickly clarify what the bloody hell a brand purpose is. We define it simply as, ‘The positive and distinctive role a brand plays in improving everyday life’. Brand purpose has an emotional component that goes beyond the merely functional. But it is still focused on improving everyday life.

To note, your brand purpose can have a social dimension, but it doesn’t have to. “Marketers see purpose as the bigger picture, but people see it as what you do in daily life,” observed Stephan Loerke, MD of the World Federation of Advertisers. “Purpose isn’t necessarily about saving the planet. It doesn’t have to be worthy per se; it can be about taking small and meaningful actions.

1. The problem with purpose: laddering too high

The risk with purpose is that brand teams get carried away and ‘ladder’ up so high into the emotional stratosphere that they disappear up their own arses, as Tom Fishburne’s classic cartoon brilliantly illustrates.

This is what happened with Airbnb back in 2014. The company defined its purpose as, ‘To make people around the world feel like they can “belong anywhere.”’

This higher-order purpose led to a marketing campaign that celebrated the human kindness of #Mankind. In a TV ad we see a baby taking steps to look out at the world beyond the front door. The voiceover announces how we can “sleep in their (the hosts’) beds to see their dreams”, which is just creepy. Its all emotional ‘sizzle’, with no link back to the product. Posters were cryptic, featuring the phrase “Mankind” and not much more.

The activation flowing from the purpose was also obscure, with ideas such as “The daily kindness bulletin”. Huh?

2. Building on the ‘triangle of truth’

Fortunately, Airbnb got back in touch with reality in 2015. They refined their brand purpose by building on three different sources of truth, including one about the reality of the brand and product:

  • Cultural truth: people have an increasing desire to travel the world, as shown by the popularity of magazines, books and TV shows on this. When millennials were asked what they would do with all the money in the world, the top answer with 47% was travel
  • Human truth: research with employees, guests, and hosts revealed 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
  • Brand truth: Airbnb talk about “three H’s” that make the product distinctive – real homes with space to live, play and cook in the heart of local hoods (neighbourhoods) with hosts who welcome you and teach you about the area

3. Inspiring brand building communication

The global campaign idea flowing from the refined purpose was, ‘Don’t go there. Live there’. This tells a product story in an emotionally compelling way and rooted in the brand truth. Films opened with an imploring provocation to travellers – “Don’t go to Paris. Don’t go to LA. Don’t go to Tokyo.” Opening shots were full of scenes of conventional tourist activities, with the following scenes showing how you can live like a local if you stay in an Airbnb.

The campaign was effective and a great example of how a big brand idea can travel the globe. Brand imagery improved on key measures such as ‘Makes me feel I’m part of a community’ (+13%), ‘Helps me feel like a local’ (+13%) and ‘Allows me to feel at home’ (+11%). Aided awareness amongst people with kids increased across markets (April to July 16):

  • France + 15%
  • South Korea +13%
  • US +13%

An interesting side point is the use of TV as a key part of the marketing mix, with spots in engaging environments including the UEFA Euro finals, the NBA playoffs and the season finale of Modern Family. As CMO Jonathan Mildenhall commented in Campaign, “Building reach was vital to increasing awareness.

4. Inspiring the wider business 

The great thing about the ‘Don’t go there. Live there’ idea is the how it has inspired the whole business, not just communication. For example, the brand has stretched into offering travel services with ‘Airbnb Trips’’: travel-related services such as skateboarding lessons and recommendations on cool places to hang out from 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, Airbnb is a great example of how to create a brand purpose that builds the business, by basing it on truths about people, culture and the product. This sort of purpose inspires brand building communication but also ideas for product and service innovation.

There’s more info on examples of work on brand vision, positioning and purpose here.