Jonathan Mildenhall will speak about leveraging cultural ideology to create a super-brand in travel at the Skift Global Forum on October 14 and 15 in Brooklyn, New York. See the complete list of amazing speakers and topics at this year’s event.
We recently caught up with Mildenhall to get his perspective on what authentic travel experiences actually mean in a world where virtually every brand claims to offer them. As CMO of Airbnb —one of the world’s largest home-sharing sites — the company built itself on the promise that its guests would receive authentic, local experiences in hosts’ homes that hotels don’t have the power to replicate.
It’s becoming more difficult to find a hospitality brand that doesn’t promise guests some kind of authentic experience during their stay, and with that the definition of authenticity has become somewhat convoluted, Mildenhall argues. A guest attending a wedding at a hotel in New York City will get the authentic experience for that particular hotel but that doesn’t mean the hotel is helping guests discover the local culture and people, he says.
Mildenhall joined Airbnb in June 2014 and was tasked with making the company into the world’s first community-driven super-brand. He has more than 20 years experience working in creative ad agencies on high profile brands such as Audi, General Motors, Guinness and PlayStation. When Airbnb hired him, Mildenhall was vice president of global advertising strategy and creative at Coca Cola, where he oversaw the creation of Coke’s most awarded marketing platform in its history.
An edited version of the conversation follows:
Skift: There have been other huge companies that tried to create a super-brand but failed. How will Airbnb be different?
Jonathan Mildenhall: Let me first talk about Mary Meeker’s Internet report that was published two months ago and shows that there is only one brand that occupies a position on both lists of most valued tech brands in 1995 and 2015 and that is Apple. The technology industry doesn’t really understand how to use marketing to build a long-term super-brand that has purpose at its heart and people that care about it, but Apple has had luck here.
The tech industry creates these huge companies and create massive shareholder value while changing the way consumers connect or behave with each other. But when another piece of technology comes out, consumers flock to that brand and other brands disappear. The Mary Meeker report this year was startling with how much long-term value has been left on the table because there isn’t an investment in brand culture in these tech companies.
When I first met with [Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky] I asked him if the brand would become another Internet company that would rise and fall very very quickly. But Brian Chesky’s creative and cultural ambition for Airbnb was so significant that he really convinced me that we’re going to create the first community-driven super-brand. This is what really excites me because we have this wonderful community and brand ambition and the super-brand agenda will make this practice famous all over the world.
Skift: Have we overdone authenticity in travel? Aren’t we all looking for manufactured experiences, away from our daily lives, when we travel?
Mildenhall: There is a truth that when you travel you have the ability to connect with the innocent explorer that is in everybody. Because you have the time you don’t necessarily have in your regular life, you’re looking to really connect with the true and authentic individual that is inside you. When we’re not traveling our ability to connect with our authentic self is somewhat compromised because we’re too busy.
This can be illustrated by the creativity and the amount of social sharing that goes on when people travel. People are much more likely to use platforms like Facebook and Instagram when they travel and are also more likely to wear clothes that reflect their true sense of style. But are the places that they’re going and how they’re traveling also helping unlock a sense of self?
The travel industry has overused the claim of authentic travel experiences and consumers are quite jaded and confused about what an authentic experience means. If you travel to Las Vegas, is that an authentic travel experience? Well it is for Las Vegas. I understand that people are looking for a way to connect with their authentic self but the way you actually do that when you’re traveling around the world can be reflected in many different ways. At Airbnb we’re very clear that our authentic experiences are local experiences that you can’t get anywhere else and brands need to think what their definition of authenticity really is.
Skift: If globalization is bringing sameness around the world, what authenticity is left? When foreign landscapes are decorated with familiar brands, travelers might wonder why they bothered to travel in the first place.
Mildenhall: It’s true and I don’t make a judgement of whether or not that’s bad. With Airbnb, globalization has created a fantastic market for us. Now you have people, particularly the millennial generation, and increasingly the baby boomers, who actively avoid the places where these global brands are present. Take, for example, someone who’s going to San Francisco for the first time but they’re an experienced traveler.
They don’t want to be bombarded with these huge global brands so they’ll actively not stay downtown, they’ll stay in neighborhoods. They’ll actively try not to go to the main tourist destinations and instead find subcultures. Globalization has lead to a massive standardization of experiences and more informed and experienced travelers are actually working out ways to avoid that.
[Airbnb] will never ever try to standardize the Airbnb experience. We have guidelines for how someone should behave as a host and as a guest. But diversity of experience is what makes Airbnb so compelling to an increasingly large group of travelers.
One counter to that: Coca Cola created one of the world’s most valuable brands worth billions and billions of dollars. Coca Cola did that through standardization, up until three years ago when brands like Coke realized standardization is what makes brands unattractive to particularly a millennial audience. The world’s biggest manufacturer of standardized products found a way to put names on cans in Australia, 150 of the top names in Australia. Coke knew personalization was a way to get millennials interested, so the world’s biggest standardized brand went personal.
Skift: Should we worry that “authentic” Cuba will be overrun by Americans and Americanism and be ruined? Why/why not? And who are we to judge what the locals want?
Mildenhall: The economic impact of Cuba opening up to American tourists is only fair to Cubans. Cubans deserve ways to build their own infrastructure and the American tourist dollar will be an important factor in the development of Cuba. The thing I’m really proud of and confident of is that already the best way to experience Cuba is staying at what’s called casa particulares. You have hundreds of thousands of homes like these all across the island that open themselves up to travelers.
This is helping our Airbnb community in Cuba to develop their expertise for how to host people from all over the world. We’re showing the local community how to prepare themselves for more American tourists without actually feeling like they have to offer American brands or standardization in order to succeed. I do genuinely believe that Airbnb will help protect Cuba’s beautiful, unique culture and sense of hospitality because we’ll grow our business more rapidly than other hospitality brands that might be able to go in there with a more standardized offering.
Skift: Isn’t seeking authenticity a very western concept? The emerging economy travelers want those brand/cocooned experiences they’ve never had before.
Mildenhall: When I first got to Airbnb, my colleagues were talking about how there was an increasing number of Japanese tourists coming to Paris. Those tourists were disappointed how they were being shepherded around Paris and not having any local experiences. There was a number of Japanese travel companies who started to respond to this and Paris is a huge market for us.
It was really interesting that travel companies in Japan started to address this concern when they realized how Japanese tourists were feeling insulated. As you start to become more confident with traveling and with your place in the world authentic experiences become more expected and needed so that people can tap into their own authentic self.
Skift: If visuals are the language of digital marketing now, are we buying too much into a manufactured, curated image of the world while we travel?
Mildenhall: Visual storytelling in travel is only going to increase as people continue sharing photos more so than words. I know this personally since when I write something and share it on my social media I’m really only able to communicate with my English-speaking friends. But when I share photos I’m able to reach people I know in Japan, Brazil, and Russia and the engagement is much greater with photos versus words.
Photographing iconic landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, and Golden Gate Bridge will never go away because it’s your sense of validation to your social communities that you’ve been to these wonderful places. But what I think you’ll increasingly see is: what’s the best angle to take a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge? What’s the best architectural story that might support my photo of the Eiffel Tower? People are always going to use photography to tell people what they’re experiencing but they will have a more informed position on what they’re photographing so that they’re not perceived as a tourist. They’ll be perceived as people using their creativity and sense of awareness.
See the complete list of speakers and topics at the Skift Global Forum.