Airbnb is going to rule the travel world someday as it expands its consumer base, host locations, and volume of digital products, because it’s evolving into a full-scale global movement.
That’s Airbnb’s plan anyway, or so it seems for anyone who attended the annual Airbnb Open 2015 conference last week in Paris.
Brands become a movement when they transcend the product/consumer relationship by establishing a platform with a higher purpose, whatever that may be. Customers become devout followers, in the biblical sense of the word, with a shared sense of purpose and aligned vision toward a collective goal.
If that sounds a little too fervent, then you weren’t at Airbnb Open 2015.
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Jonathan Mildenhall, chief marketing officer at Airbnb, evangelized about the future of the room sharing company in no uncertain terms during his keynote. He began by rallying the audience into frothy exuberance with a request for everyone to get up and dance to Whitney Houston.
— Airbnb (@Airbnb) November 13, 2015
The upwards of 5,000 Airbnb hosts in the big tent were only too happy to comply. So this isn’t a case of Airbnb trying to ram home its agenda on a naive and unsuspecting flock. The zealous belief in the Airbnb phenomenon is being driven by the hosts themselves who want to spread the word to as many travelers as possible about what “Belong Anywhere”—Airbnb’s new tagline this year—truly stands for.
That passion is based on both commercial and lifestyle interests. First, naturally, there is the drive to make money as self-employed contractors. Second, there’s a powerful desire to be part of a highly engaged community on the right side of history that values travel as a vehicle for transformation, education, tolerance, inclusivity, and self-actualization.
In the hosts’ view, Airbnb isn’t a company. It’s a road to a better life, somewhat similar to the way that Apple emphasizes Steve Jobs’ dictum to “change the world.”
“Over the next few years, we’re going to do what Coca-Cola did in the 80s, what Nike did in the 90s, and what Apple has done in the 2000s,” propheted Mildenhall. “We are going to become the brand that defines this generation.”
However, Mildenhall admits there’s a lot of work to do to make Airbnb into an “iconic, community-driven superbrand,” because the company doesn’t have nearly the global brand awareness as those other lifestyle brands.
He said that only 18% of the U.S. population can explain what Airbnb is. In France, China and Japan, the level of brand recognition is 22%, 9% and 3%, respectively.
That’s serious growth opportunity for a company that already has over 60,000,000 total guests and 2,000,000 listings in 34,000 cities.
Mildenhall asserted that all superbrands have three things in common: “They’re instantly recognizable globally, they have a universal ideology, and they promote positive human values where they do business.”
So two out of three revolve around creating and delivering on a sense of purpose. Airbnb has shifted gears into that realm in 2015 with its rebranding, including the new Belo logo and the Belong Anywhere mantra, which was emphasized at every possible opportunity during the Open.
Belong Anywhere is about freedom more than anything else, which is like manna for millennials. On a higher plane, it’s about creating a better world through a community embracing diversity and equality. Airbnb can deliver that better than anyone in tourism because of its unique guest experience, global scale, price point, and evolving communication platforms.
To drive his point home, Mildenhall recounted Airbnb’s strategy around Caitlyn Jenner accepting the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at ESPN’s ESPYS Awards in July. Directly following Jenner’s speech, Airbnb premiered its “Is Mankind” television commercial promoting tolerance and inclusivity.
“This was incredibly controversial in the U.S., not least in the marketing community where advertisers, some of the advertisers I’ve been particularly close to in my career, chose to walk away with the program,” said Mildenhall. “They didn’t want their brand to be associated with such a controversial moment. But not Airbnb. We decided that we were going to take a 60-second spot straight after Caitlyn Jenner had given her speech to introduce our values that I know that you all hold incredibly dear.”
Then Mildenhall showed a 60-second clip of Jenner’s speech and the Is Mankind video back-to-back, just as they appeared on TV.
The juxtaposition between Jenner’s deep voice and floor-length white dress, followed by Airbnb’s advertisement showing a baby in diapers tentatively walking toward the glass front door of a house to see the outside world had the desired impact.
The crowd stood to its feet and roared. Mildenhall fell to his knees and said it was the highlight moment of his career, and everyone in the building was viscerally aware of exactly where Airbnb is taking them.
The next iconic, community-driven superbrand is forming. Yes, there’s a lot of work to do in terms of brand awareness, regulation, liability, taxes and public advocacy. Airbnb has come around significantly of late to begin acknowledging that changes need to be made in the short term.
Airbnb Open 2015, however, provided a glimpse for the first time into Airbnb’s long play.
The conversation is moving beyond the affordable, authentic, local travel experience. That’s just the product. The brand mission is about bringing the world closer together, like Coca-Cola sang about in the 1970s. It’s also about spreading education across the globe, like Apple and Google are promoting today.
At the end of his keynote, Mildenhall showed a letter on the big screen that he received from Caitlyn Jenner thanking Airbnb for its leadership on transgender issues. Mildenhall said he carries that letter with him all the time, “because it reminds me of the power of the human values that you put into our product each and every day.”
And with that, and the crowd’s thunderous applause, Airbnb pivoted toward destiny.