I can recall no other brand strategy so empowering, beautiful and meaningful, nor any which enlarges the circle of trust beyond national borders, as Airbnb’s. I joined Airbnb as a host in 2014.
A new way to discover the world
It was 2014, and everything was going well for Airbnb. Many people have already travelled and stayed at their beautiful properties (ok, not technically theirs) all around the world. Not just apartments and houses, but bungalows, villas, even castles.
However, the start-up world is a treacherous one: the newest billion-dollar unicorn today becomes yet another cautionary tale tomorrow. This is especially true when a start-up picks up enough momentum to pivot into the mainstream. Many great ideas are great precisely because they are alien and unusual, but this means they do not survive the transition from early adopters to early majority. Nine out of ten startups fail within a year, so how could Airbnb join instead the one-out-of-ten club?
"I Stayed in Provance in a castle. It was like a dream"
Review from airbnb.com, 2012
A unicorn vs the city of New York
Airbnb continued to grow, hosting millions of travellers. This meant that it attracted attention from more and more places, including the governments of major tourist destinations like New York and San Francisco. And they did not like the company, claiming that 75% of listings were illegal and violated state occupancy and rental laws. Airbnb tried to address this by launching an advertising campaign featuring a host whose husband had died. In her time of need, Airbnb provided the way for her to survive, and to eventually pursue divinity school. New York authorities were not moved by this.
75% of all listings in NYC were ILLEGAL in 2014
New York Times
People need people
Airbnb then came upon a major insight: we can’t control every problem, and certainly not every problem caused by other people (such as legal regulations). Instead, focus on what the company really believes in, and work towards the accomplishment of its vision. After all, Airbnb was here to redefine how people travel, not how local laws are written. If it could achieve that vision, the benefits would outweigh these problems, eventually making them insignificant, irrelevant.
Ultimately, branding is a strategy that aims to accomplish a long-term vision, not to patch up short-term breakdowns. Focus on the tasks and problems that the company can do anything about, and don’t sweat the things beyond that. For Airbnb, this meant centering the truth that people need people to enjoy their time traveling to new places. No one wants to be “the other” in the land on unknown.
No one wants to be “the other” in the land on unknown.
Empower your host to be superhosts. Empower humans to be superhumans
Setting aside the legal fine print, it came time for Airbnb to fully embrace the pivot from niche to mainstream, to evolve from a hero to superhero. Their new vision? Belong anywhere. Now they would be the ones who saved millions from a paralyzing fear of the unknown (“am I being ripped off for being a tourist again?”) Airbnb would protect travellers by building a global community that empowers visitors to be bolder to explore. It’s much easier to dare when you know there is a host who will be there to answer your call in the middle of the night (or from the middle of who-knows-where).
Airbnb empowers communities
Live the dream
I find the brand activations of Airbnb very elegant. Their brand does not foster the brand archetype of “explorer,” which would be too expected of a travel industry startup. Instead, it cultivates the archetype of “lover”, which disturbs the typical architectural framework by evoking “travelling with people” rather than “travelling to places.” “Belong anywhere” was embodied in a famous Bélo, which changed the conversation of a travelling and lodging industry ever since. The symbol belongs to both host and traveller, serving as a beacon for the doors leading to rich and exciting experiences. Numbers reflected it as well. Can't hide how much I love it.
You go, Airbnb!