At ESPN's annual ESPY Awards on July 15th, Caitlyn Jenner will be presented with the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage. During the first commercial break after that happens, Airbnb will unveil its newest ad campaign with a spot specifically tailored for that moment.
The ad, created by agency TBWA/Chiat/Day LA and directed by Lance Acord, shows a toddler, waddling down a hallway towards a sun-drenched doorway. A soft, string-heavy score plays in the background as the voiceover intones, "Is man kind? Are we good? Go see. Go look through their windows so you can understand their views. Sit at their tables so you can share their tastes. Sleep in their beds so you may know their dreams. Go see and find out just how kind the he’s and she’s of this mankind are."
During the ESPYs, it will run just as it will online and elsewhere afterwards, with one exception—the end tagline will read "mankind, womankind, transkind, humankind." It's the kind of anthem ad that, timed to a moment in pop culture, aims to define a brand. And that's exactly what Airbnb chief marketing officer Jonathan Mildenhall hopes it will do.
Mildenhall says the company chose to launch the ad at that ESPYs moment because Airbnb is "a provocative brand." "And the reason it’s provocative is because we believe in humanity and we’re putting that humanity and truth into the soul of our marketing," says Mildenhall. "That version will run just during that portion of the show and my whole purpose in doing that is to provoke a conversation that will hopefully earn Airbnb a disproportionate share of popular culture."
Airbnb's previous campaign "Never A Stranger" largely focused on the diversity and differentiation of its offerings, compared to other travel and accommodation services. Mildenhall says this is a more values-driven marketing platform than that campaign's more product-driven slant, but that a strategic mix of both are required for a brand to truly break through.
"Those who know how to swing from product-benefit-driven marketing platforms to values-driven marketing platforms are the ones that seem to endure and seem to build the most amount of equity into the brand," says Mildenhall. "People have to understand what the product does for them and how they might feel when they’re using it, but they also have to be inspired by the type of person that that behavior suggests that they are. This piece of work is all about the values and curiosity, and the next generation of explorers who are invited, motivated and excited about going into the world and being curious about other cultures, people and homes."
That last bit is key because Mildenhall is all too aware of the brand's biggest obstacle in winning over new consumers. Just ask a certain pair of Airbnb hosts in Calgary, who came home to a scene the police described as a "drug-induced orgy."
"The uncomfortable truth that is absolutely part of Airbnb’s DNA is that people are suspicious of strangers—Why would I let a stranger into my home, and why would I stay in a stranger’s home?" says Mildenhall. "But actually, what happens when you go into an Airbnb and meet one of our hosts, or meet the guests, you realize that kindness—opening your door, welcoming someone in, allowing them to sleep in your bed, these are acts of kindness. That act of kindness actually helps reduce the world of strangers. We took kindness as something that is transformational about staying with an Airbnb host, and working with our agency tried to build a campaign around the value of kindness. That led to the question, is man really kind? That led to this beautiful platform asking that question, are we kind as a human race? And can we be kinder to each other?"
The new campaign is going to run in the U.S., UK and Australia across TV, online, cinema, outdoor, with the potential to expand out to China, Korea and Germany, and the brand is working on social activation with Instagram, Comedy Central, and other media partners.
Mildenhall says the tone of the campaign will allow it to put it in a real-world context. "Obviously the power of this message means we can use contextual media planning to our advantage," he says. "So if there is a news story that breaks that suggests racial tensions or groups of people being persecuted or bullied, we can address that conversation and ask ourselves and our audience 'Is man kind?' to address both unacceptable situations, and positive stories as well."