How Airbnb built its brand by telling the world not to travel

Airbnb chief marketer Jonathan Mildenhall reveals how the company created its marketing platform and grew it into a global brand.

In August 2015, Airbnb cofounder and chief executive Brian Chesky and I were in Shanghai with the intent of better understanding the Chinese market and, importantly, our core millennial Chinese traveller. Having completed some in-depth interviews, we were sitting in the back of a car when I turned to him and said:

"You know what, Brian? I don’t think it’s that complicated. Every single traveller we interview tells us the same thing – that travelling on Airbnb enables them to live like a local. I feel confident that ‘living like a local’ is the most fertile proposition for our brand." 

After a few moments looking out at the energetic and colourful streets of Shanghai, Brian turned to me and said:

"I don’t buy it. There has to be something bigger. Jonathan, how many places have you lived in your life?" 

"Well, that’s easy," I said. "Five places – Leeds, Manchester, London, Atlanta, and San Francisco." 

"Only five?" He asked. "And how many places have you visited?" 

"Oh, that’s harder to answer – I have easily been to more than 60 countries because I spent so much of my time at Coca-Cola travelling overseas." 

Brian looked at me with even more intensity than usual, the way he does when we are about to birth something big and important, and said:

"I truly believe that, if in all of those 60 countries, you had stayed in Airbnbs, you would have told me that you had lived in more than 60 places, not just five. If we get this right, we can inspire people to actually LIVE anywhere in the world, even if just or one night." 

And with that one exchange, the Airbnb Live There marketing platform was conceived. Once back in the U.S., led by our creative agency TBWA\Chiat\Day LA and our media agency Starcom, we launched our most effective campaign to date.

Leaning in to brand challenges

Leading marketing at Airbnb is like having a constant adrenaline high, and that’s because we are a disruptive tech and travel brand that makes cultural news daily. From stories about our product and marketing innovation to ongoing challenges around regulatory issues, Airbnb generates a lot of conversation. Sometimes the brand feels a whole lot larger than it really is.

In truth, we are still establishing Airbnb as a truly global brand. Our 2015 campaign, "Never a stranger," created big awareness gains globally. However, it didn’t run in key Asian or Latin American markets. So even as we set our global sights and ambitions higher, we had never taken on the challenge of creating a truly global campaign. As the new year began in 2016, we faced several key challenges: 

  • Awareness on the rise but still lagging behind the pack. After 2015’s push, global awareness averaged 43% across key investment markets versus 85% to 95% for our competitors. In South Korea and China, awareness stood at only 39% and 26%, respectively.1 However, we were starting to learn that not all awareness and consideration gains were created equal.
  • As global awareness grew, consideration wasn’t keeping up. Airbnb’s awareness gains are generally driven by positive news – but sometimes by not-so-positive news, as well. Even as awareness grew, consideration didn’t seem to be keeping pace.
  • Deep-pocketed competitors were trying to ‘out-Airbnb’ us. In 2016, we continued to see established online travel agents considerably outspending Airbnb, but now they were encroaching on our unique identity. Some, which were major competitors in the West and in China, tried to align themselves with local and passion-based travel, traits that are core to the Airbnb brand. In addition, our work to dissipate fears of homesharing had even proved beneficial to our competitors. Moreover, 2015 brought some major acquisitions that only strengthened the marketing war chests of our competitors.
  • Looking for global growth but with a limited global budget. Attracting new audiences and driving breakthrough in Asia would be critical to our continued growth, but true local thinking would be impossible with our production budgets. How could we drive massive global scale and deep local relevance? How could we craft messages that would resonate with wildly different cultures without being overly simplified? 

All of these challenges coalesced to form one of the most significant questions the Airbnb brand had faced to date: could Airbnb scale up without losing its soul? We had proved that we could capture people’s attention in 2015 but now that we faced the realities of global growth and competition, could we remain true to our pioneering and innovative spirit, while convincing travellers around the globe to take a chance on us?

Who do we talk to?

Airbnb has always defined its core audience, "head-first explorers," as a psychographic consumer segment that drives most of our business. These travellers consider new ways to travel and local experiences as a core part of their identity. An attitude once seen mainly in younger millennials, the tendency to value experiences over things had become a global mindset that crossed geographies and demographics. 

88% of global travellers list review sites as the most important influence on their travel decisions
Ipsos/TripAdvisor Trip Barometer Travel Trends 2016

This desire for authentic travel experiences was a unifier for our audience globally and would be key for creating a cohesive global campaign. However, for years we had been speaking to young, single adventurers with this mindset and hadn’t yet meaningfully addressed one key thing about our target audience: globally, more than half had kids. So to keep up with the pace of culture, increase awareness, and get more people to consider us, we needed to connect not only with our historical core but also with head-first explorers at more mature life stages. In the U.S., for example, 62% of Generation X head-first explorers have children2.

We focused our marketing objectives on creating an immediate increase in global aided awareness and brand consideration by ensuring the brand-awareness gains created a direct uplift in consideration, because consideration directly correlated with nights booked on Airbnb. People not only had to see our work but the work had to get them to put Airbnb on their travel shortlist.

Pushing against industry tension 

People love the idea of travel but the reality is often a letdown. Travel is the most aspirational thing in the world3: the importance of travel to head-first explorers and the world cannot be overstated. When asked what they would do with all the money in the world, 47% of millennials said they would travel, making it the top answer.

That’s why Airbnb clings to reviews and we all head to the same destinations. This pressure we put on ourselves to crack that perfect trip leads to a major flaw in the system: 88% of global travellers list review sites as the most important influence on their travel decisions4. The problem is, we end up in the same places, we stand in the same queues and take the same pictures; "going" and "doing" cities, rather than truly experiencing them. The result is heavily overcrowded tourist destinations and unhappy travellers.

In Japan, this misery has its own name. Rebelling against the stereotype of Japanese tourists being tour-group travellers, Japanese millennials displayed an outsized appetite for real, local experiences. Their disappointment at finding tourist traps in their dream destinations quite literally made them ill – a condition known as Paris Syndrome.

With Airbnb, it’s different. When you stay with Airbnb you’re free of conventional tourist areas because you’re staying in the heart of a real, local neighborhood. You’re grounded in the comfort of a real home, with space to play and cook. Welcoming, local hosts can teach you something new about the culture. When you stay with Airbnb, you don’t feel like you are visiting a place as a tourist, you feel like you live there.  

The core strategic insight

Airbnb lets you travel like you live there. "Homes, ’hoods, and hosts" are the core aspects of the Airbnb experience – these are the things that enable guests to travel like they live there. Individual markets needed to determine how open guests were to each of these "three Hs." This structure gave us the ability to adapt and adjust to meet market needs. 

In the U.S., guests were more likely to be open to host interaction. So were the French, who were always looking for new ways to have unique experiences without compromising the comfort of the familiar. Both markets would be open to all three Hs.

In China, guests were just getting used to the idea of local hosts, so our messaging would help introduce them in a non-threatening way. In South Korea, safety and security were key concerns that prevented people from trying something new, so getting them comfortable with "homes and ’hoods" would be a big step. 

The creative idea

Don’t go there. Live there. It was a global rallying cry that would challenge adventurous audiences the world over, families and non-families alike, to quit the tour groups and experience the world like locals, in a way that could be done only by staying on Airbnb. Films opened with an imploring provocation to travellers – "Don’t go to Paris," "Don’t go to LA," and "Don’t go to Tokyo." Opening shots were filled with scenes of conventional modern travel, including the crowds, selfie sticks, and monuments that were leaving our potential customers feeling unfulfilled. 

Don’t Go There. Live There.

We were a travel brand telling people not to travel – at least, not like they used to. We were urging them to actively re-evaluate the way they experienced travel.

The campaign instead encouraged people to "live there" – to stay in a house outside the traditional tourist zones and revel in the authentic experiences they unlocked: trying new foods, exploring local neighbouhoods, and meeting new host friends. It reinforced Airbnb’s benefit to families by giving them starring roles, balancing the adventure of a new experience with the experience of being in your very own home. "When you stay on Airbnb," spots told them, "you have your own home. Make your bed. Cook. You know, do the stuff you normally do." 

Across the markets, spots ran on TV in engaging environments, such as UEFA Euro 2016, the NBA Playoffs, and the season finale of Modern Family, to build awareness of the Airbnb name. Print and out-of-home advertising were used in each market to introduce the brand. The work featured real moments of living that happen only when you feel truly at home – including a father and child sleeping on a hammock, a mother and daughter reading together, and a same-sex couple preparing dinner. Social media helped to build additional understanding and created massive amounts of consumer-generated content.

While building reach was vital to increasing awareness, we also needed to break through the category to inspire a reimagination of travel. On Pinterest, animated pins read: "Don’t pin there. Live there." New, interactive, and immersive Canvas ad units in both Facebook and Instagram carousels were used to create first-of-their-kind guides that offered travellers tips from locals on how to "live there" in major tourist hotspots. 

Furthermore, a first-of-its-kind, split-screen 3D cinema technology juxtaposed "living there" with touring the U.S., U.K., and Australia. Viewers wearing 3D bifocal glasses could choose to look down and watch holidaymakers experience traditional tourist trips, or look up, and experience the sights and sounds of living there – on local side streets and with new friends.

Local innovation was encouraged. In South Korea, we took to social media, asking our community for photos of themselves and their families enjoying Airbnb homes. The resulting photography was featured at out-of-home sites across the country, creating a personal connection with families.

What we achieved

Our primary objective was to create a global increase in awareness and consideration with a single global message that would resonate with travellers from France to China. The results exceeded our expectations. Our single, resonant message allowed us to surpass our goals in France, the U.S., and South Korea – so much so that we broke through our annual goals by mid-year. That said, the celebration didn’t last long. Brian is a demanding boss. Upon hearing the news of the campaign’s impact, he turned to me and said: "Well done Jonathan. So what’s next?" 

This story first appeared on campaignlive.co.uk.


References

1 Benchmark Brand Tracker, Wave 3, April 2016.
2 MRI Doublebase 2015.
3 Airbnb/YouGov, April 2016. 
4 Ipsos/TripAdvisor Trip Barometer Travel Trends 2016.  

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