When Airbnb hired Jonathan Mildenhall as CMO in early 2014, he was VP integrated marketing communication and design excellence for Coca-Cola North America, a role that would hitherto have been considered one of the best in marketing, perhaps the pinnacle of a career. He chose to move to Airbnb. The reasons he did so crystallize the fundamental shifts in marketing caused by the digital revolution.
Mildenhall says he was writing a book and his intention was, having had a stellar seven years at Coca-Cola, to take a sabbatical and slowly "fade out" at the company, perhaps taking on consultancy work later. Then Airbnb called. He describes his first meeting with CEO Brian Chesky. "I was really compelled to get on a flight to meet Brian but I was also cautious. If you look at Mary Meeker’s 2015 report she showed the world’s top 15 most valuable technology brands in both 1995 and 2015 and, in that 20-year period, 14 of them had disappeared. There is only Apple that is still around. It really is a graveyard of brands."
Coming as he did from a brand that is more than 120 years old with an entire system that understands the value of marketing excellence and of branding, Mildenhall's fear was that if Airbnb approached marketing and branding like so many other technology companies in the history of Silicon Valley, then it was unlikely to be a long-term proposition.
His fears were dispelled. "I asked Brian, "How serious are you about brand and how serious are you about marketing?" Mildenhall says. "He painted a vision for Airbnb, which wasn't just Airbnb in the next five years but a multi-generational vision. He was seeing horizons that I hadn’t even thought of. Within seven minutes (I remember that quite clearly) I had made my mind up to leave Coke and join Airbnb because we are going to create a brand that defines a generation and make a company that is multi-generational."
"It really was a huge disruption to my life plans," he adds, only half-joking.
Mildenhall relates how Chesky told him that through Airbnb he genuinely believes they can create a world where everybody is opening up their homes, where everybody gets a greater sense of belonging. "Brian said: "We’re already in 32,000 cities, so that’s belonging anywhere." I stopped him and said: "Belong anywhere? That’s huge, you’re exciting every single fiber of my marketing brain," he recalls.
In that simple exchange the central marketing pillar of Airbnb was identified. "Belonging is a fundamental driver of humankind," says Mildenhall. "Ever since we were cavemen, Neanderthals sitting round a fire, we’ve shared this wonderful sense of belonging. As human beings get more and more sophisticated—supposedly—as we get wealthier, embrace technology and all the other luxuries of modern day living, one thing that we struggle with is a genuine sense of belonging."
Mildenhall’s primary mission was now to communicate the notion of belonging, make people realize how important it is and how differentiating that makes the Airbnb proposition. Over the last year, Mildenhall says the brand has hit three major marketing milestones.
First, was the brand relaunch on July 16, 2014. Airbnb unveiled its new logo, the Bélo, along with the associated "Belong Anywhere" values. A blog post written at the time goes into great detail.
Mildenhall says, "This is when we went from a property listings company, which is what we were—a very successful property listings company—to a culturally driven brand."
He also relays how the Bélo—the first four letters of the word "belong"—got its name. "That was literally a back and forth between Brian and me. He emailed: 'Right, what are we going to call this symbol?' and I was like: 'Give me 20 minutes, let me think about it.' I went online and I researched ‘belonging’ and was playing around with it… Bélo sounds like halo, halos are the fantastic iconic rings that surround things that are really precious. So I sent it to Brian and said: 'How about Bélo?' and he said, "I don't know if I like the accent over the e." And I said, if we don't put the accent over the e then people will just pronounce it ‘bellow’ and I don't want it to be called bellow, I want it to be called Bélo because it sounds more international."
While this is a fun anecdote, it's also very telling. Consider the processes and numbers of people that are typically involved in creating or revising primary branding in a legacy organization. It could, and often does, take years.
Six months after the brand relaunch, Airbnb hit a second milestone, unveiling its first multi-national advertising campaign, "Never a Stranger." Mildenhall says the priority for the first piece was that it hit Airbnb’s "uncomfortable truth" head on. "What was important is that this single white female starts off incredibly apprehensive but ends up being embraced by this beautiful Brazilian family," says Mildenhall. "You can just see how she’s gone from solo to this wonderful sense of belonging. That migration towards belonging is a truth. We start off with the uncomfortable truth but we end up with this beautiful celebration of what our brand is."
The company invested a significant amount of money in that campaign, which, while laden with meaning, was first and foremost about the variety and differentiation of what is on offer. "It was a $35-million test in various different markets, which was huge for the company," says Mildenhall. "I was so grateful that the company made that bet, they’d never done that kind of advertising before so that was a huge leap of faith that they gave me. The results have been sensational in terms of brand awareness, site traffic and business impact. So there will be much more of that."
Airbnb recently hit a total of 50 million guests, 30 million in 2015 alone, leaping from the 20 million that had been achieved since the company was founded in 2008.
The third marketing milestone came in July, precisely one year after from the brand's relaunch. Airbnb unveiled a purely values-led spot, timed to debut during the ESPYs, after Caitlyn Jenner was presented with the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage. The ad's goal was to help define the brand in broader pop culture.
Mildenhall says this work wasn't about selling the experience of staying in an Airbnb, but instead promote the values of its community. "We genuinely believe they have a different approach," says Mildenhall. "They are more curious about humankind, more curious about the places that they go and the cultures they are embracing. We really wanted to put out a campaign that spoke to the people who are already on the platform saying: 'We all have these beautiful values. These values are really what mankind started with and where we believe mankind should go.'"
The exponential growth of people traveling on Airbnb in the last 12 months seems to indicate that renting properties is becoming a norm. Though, of course it's more popular in some markets than others, the task of convincing people to change traveling behavior appears to be well under way.
In part, this success brings with it the next challenge for the company and in particular, Mildenhall, in that if you have 50 million guests but only 1.5 million property listings, you’re going to need more properties. "I’ve got to get more and more people to want to put their homes on Airbnb," Mildenhall says. "This is a much, much greater commitment, a much bigger leap of faith than traveling on Airbnb. So what I'm working on right now is the communication, the marketing, the explanation, the motivation to not just help people form the opinion that they’d be comfortable putting their homes on Airbnb, but also help everybody understand the values and the benefits of hosting."
This is a significant juncture in Airbnb’s development. As a private concern it doesn't disclose much in the way of financials but a Wall Street Journal story in June claimed that during a recent funding effort Airbnb reps were predicting revenue of up to $900 million this year, which would be more than triple its $250 million revenue in 2013. It also cites a projection of $10 billion revenue by 2020. That funding round valued the company in the region of $24 billion.
Mildenhall has repeatedly said his mission is to create a "community-driven superbrand." He says that ambition manifests itself in the brand's creative output.
"The world understands superbrands, it understands the Apples, the Nikes, the Coca-Colas, the Disneys," says Mildenhall. "And the world kind of understands community-driven brands, football clubs, that kind of thing, but those are never has iconic as the superbrands. What we’re trying to do is bring these two things together in a way that has never been done before. Develop this iconic brand that is instantly recognizable but has also got a universal understanding. One that has this beautiful, universal ideology at its heart but is actually created and lived by the millions and millions of people who’ve got their fingerprints all over Airbnb."
All of those iconic brands, he says, became that way because the senior leadership and the marketers who created them in the first place seriously protected them. "We have to do things differently," he says.
He cites the short film film "Wall and Chain,"which the brand made to mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 2014. It tells the true story of two former Wall guards, one from the East side and one from the West, who meet again by chance through Airbnb. It is a remarkable and touching tale.
However, Mildenhall says this film took six or seven people more than six months to make. "We had to be really respectful with everyone involved because it was very sensitive and delicate," he says. So, while the opportunity is huge, there is a limited amount of this type of content that can be undertaken. The opportunity for storytelling and content creation in the community is clearly vast but turning that opportunity into a reality is another matter. The solutions may lie, in part, in evolving technology.
"We get overwhelmed by the opportunity that’s in the community alongside the sensitivity that’s in the community," Mildenhall says. "We don’t yet have an understanding of how technology can help us harness the stories, curate the very best of those stories and in so doing, inspire more of the stories to be told and be shared with the rest of the community."
Looking to the future, he says the new frontier for the brand is working to create emotional and compelling stories that make people feel like they're having a human experience as opposed to being sold something by a brand.
Airbnb is a flagship for what sometimes gets called the "sharing economy," a brand that embodies the democratic values of the digital revolution. It is often the case that established multinational companies are brilliant at marketing but less adept at integrating technology. At the same time, the younger technology companies are obviously great with tech but struggle with marketing and branding.
Mildenhall is confident that Airbnb is the rare organization that can do both. "The Airbnb founders—we do have two designers but we also have an engineer, so it’s like a three-legged stool that the company stands on," he says. "The leadership approaches everything through extreme analytics and extreme creative. The job of the entire marketing team is to sit somewhere on that spectrum but be able to flex to both extremes."
Asked if there is a formula for Airbnb's ultimate success, Mildenhall says, "It is harnessing the community, and then using extreme hardcore analytics and extreme creativity to project this brand into the future in a way that no other brand has done before."