Airbnb’s Co-Founder Brian Chesky – on brand building

Airbnb does not settle for just putting guests in contact with hosts; it dreams of a world where anyone can belong anywhere. A world without strangers, now that’s a promising purpose. A little bit of utopia can’t do any harm. Jean-Marie Dru explains that, for a company that doesn’t own its main tangible asset – rooms for rent – the ad campaigns have added value to what does constitute its most valuable intangible asset: its brand

When Brian Chesky first met venture capitalists in the summer of 2008, none believed for an instant in his project. Chesky recalls: ‘People did not think strangers would stay with other strangers. They thought it was crazy.’

According to Lincoln Emerson in his 2018 book Brian Chesky: The Life & Mind of the Airbnb Founder from Debt to Darling, one of the investors even went  as   far as  saying: ‘Brian, I  hope  that’s  not  the  only  idea you’re working on.’

 These doubts did not stop Airbnb from launching the first peer-to-peer accommodation platform and becoming the huge success we know today. To summarize Chesky, in Emerson’s book, this was accomplished by ‘bringing the world back to the place where it feels like a village again.’

Since 2008, 150 million travelers have stayed in three million different hosts’ homes in nearly 200 countries. The company is now present in 34,000 cities.

It took Chesky great resilience to achieve this. He needed to overcome the tempestuous opposition of numerous towns, involving legal battles against all sorts of prohibition. And it looks as if this will be a never-ending struggle. Following a series of incidents, he had to completely change his strategy in just a few days and, contrary to what he said previously, he declared himself partially responsible for what happens in hosts’ homes.

Finally, after a case of racial discrimination in North Carolina, he quickly established company policies, some of which went much further than federal law requires. The company always tries to tackle complaints head on, whatever sort they may be. The future of its business model depends on it.

I chose to talk about Chesky for two reasons. First, he is the very archetype of the disruptive thinker. His home-sharing company has shaken the hospitality business from top to bottom. Second, in Silicon Valley, where the word marketing does not always get good press, he has managed, in a few years, to build an iconic brand, one that was reportedly valued at $31 billion as of March 2017.

Shaping an Iconic Brand

At the beginning, adopting a brand-building approach may not have been the obvious route for Chesky. As Fast Company explains: ‘There is a belief in much of Silicon Valley that you don’t need to invest in brand marketing because your product itself is the brand.’

And yet, after initial success with early adopters and word of mouth, the time came to scale up the business. To accomplish this, Airbnb had to evolve from appealing almost exclusively to metropolitan hipsters—people who think it’s cool to use the brand—to more lucrative audiences like young families or baby boomers. These groups still needed to be convinced.

In Fast Company Neil Barrie, co-founder and managing partner at 21st Century Brands, comments: ‘You need a whole different set of tactics and tools to do that. Every brand faces that moment when they have to cross the chasm.’

This is a vital step for brands, like Airbnb, that are not protected by any patented technological IP. Having a strong brand helped the company to outperform competitors such as Expedia or Priceline, and to protect itself from the many start-ups trying hard to invade its market space.

For a few years now, Airbnb has been using advertising to illustrate the mission it has adopted: ‘Create a world where any- one can belong anywhere.’

The brand’s campaigns told travelers they could act as locals. In one of its 2016 commercials, the voiceover gives visitors this advice: ‘Don’t go to Paris. Don’t tour Paris. And please don’t do Paris.’

After a montage of selfies and of the city’s most famous landmarks, the ad concludes by encouraging viewers to ‘Live in Paris.’

That Airbnb campaign was the first time the company was able to describe what it actually does in a simple and appealing way. As Nancy King, its director of brand strategy, pointed out in Fast Company: ‘That was the first example of product and marketing, two sides of the business, working together against a shared idea.’

To further substantiate its brand idea, and to continue capturing the attention of young generations, Airbnb is always pursuing novel initiatives.

For example, in July 2015, when Cuba and the United States restored diplomatic relations after 54 years, the company launched its ‘No Borders’ campaign. It announced that 1,000 Cuban homes were available for booking and it published a full-page ad in leading newspapers like The New York Times comparing this significant moment to another historical one, when mankind first set foot on the moon.

The ad, which features America’s and Cuba’s respective flags side by side, read: ‘One giant leap for man’s kindness.’ Former US President Barack Obama’s endorsement helped turn Airbnb’s initiative into a great business opportunity. The number of Cuban hosts grew from 1,000 to 4,000 within a year.

More recently, Airbnb initiated another very promising marketing idea. It rolled out new in-app features, which help travelers get a real taste of what day-to-day life is like for people who actually inhabit the cities they will be visiting. Airbnb guidebooks are fueled and filled by locals, not tourists. Unlike TripAdvisor, where clients rate the hotels, in Airbnb’s guides, locals help users discover what there is to know about their neighborhoods. This creates a second-to-none experience and gives Airbnb a broader role, going well beyond just connecting hosts and guests.

Airbnb has thus joined the ranks of iconic brands such as Coca-Cola, Nike, Starbucks, and Disney, to mention just a few, which are admired both as businesses and social phenomena. They have become cults, because each, in its own way and at a moment in time, has impacted popular culture. They have known how to be in sync with their times. Today, it’s up to other brands to have a chance of becoming legends. Apple, which ruled the start of the century, comes to mind first, but Facebook, Google, and Airbnb are close behind.

Airbnb’s business model is so disruptive and appreciated by its users that you might say the brand was already iconic before it started advertising. That’s possible, but I believe that the advertising the brand created helped accelerate its path toward iconic status. For a company that doesn’t own its main tangible asset—rooms for rent—the ad campaigns have added value to what does constitute its most valuable intangible asset: its brand.

This is an edited extract from Thank You For Disrupting: The Disruptive Business Philosophies of the World’s Great Entrepreneurs by Jean-Marie Dru (Wiley, 2019).

AMBA members are able to receive a discount on Thank You For Disrupting, as part of the Book Club. Please click here for details.

Chairman of TBWA Worldwide, Jean-Marie Dru is a renowned global advertising veteran and bestselling author of six previous business books. In the early 1990s, he was the first person to use the term ‘disruption’ in a business context, giving the word a positive meaning. In its simplest form, Disruption is a catalyst for creative thinking and ideas that change the marketplace, creating business-building ideas for brands, companies and industries by upturning and challenging the conventions of that business and finding room to grow in the market.

Dru began his career in advertising in 1971. In 1984, he co-founded BDDP, which was acquired by Omnicom and merged with TBWA in 1998. He was named CEO of TBWA in January 2001 and Chairman in 2008. He has previously published Le Saut Créatif, Disruption, How Disruption Brought Order, Beyond Disruption, Jet Lag, and The Ways to New. Dru is also President of UNICEF France and President of the French Academy of Medicine Foundation.

You may also like...

Business Schools

Covid-era alumni show greater engagement with business schools

Business school alumni who experienced study disruptions due to the Covid-19 pandemic are more engaged with their alma mater compared to those who studied under normal circumstances, according to the latest Alumni Matters study by Carrington Crisp in association with EFMD

Read More »
MBA success stories

MBA success stories: Marc van Tongeren

Marc van Tongeren studied for an MBA at Nyenrode Business University. Here, he relates how it helped him to understand the importance of good governance to the corporate sector – as well as gaining valuable insights into his own leadership style

Read More »