7 Magical Branding Lessons from Airbnb

Every now and then you come across a brand that breaks every known convention, in all the right ways. The teams behind such brands strive for delight, amusement, and that mystic mind-reading effect that makes customers go “wait, how did they know I needed this?”. These brands have somehow plugged their business plans with real-time customer predictions: they seem to know what we want, when we want it, and how we’d like it served. They anticipate our desires and proceed to surpass them in incredibly creative ways. Simply put, they create magical brand experiences. Airbnb is one such brand, and we’ll take a closer look at its strategy this week in Brandicians, a blog series on magical branding lessons and the talented teams behind them.

Airbnb’s Brand Strategy

Airbnb is an online marketplace where hosts around the world offer their properties and services for travelers looking for unique local experiences. The site started with accommodation listings (homes) and has now incorporated experiences and curated restaurants as part of its effort to help users book something larger than a trip: a culturally-rich adventure. They now have over 3 million listings, more than 1,400 castles (that’s right!), and have accommodated over 200 million guests.

When in Rome, for instance, you’ll now be able to learn how to cook real Italian pasta:

An Airbnb experience in Rome

An Airbnb experience in Rome

7 Branding Lessons from Airbnb

Now that we’ve looked at the brand’s overall strategy and business model, let’s learn from some of its best contributions to the world of brand experience design.

1. Never underestimate the impact of compelling photography & design

It is well documented that when Airbnb started to get traction in New York, back in 2009, the one tactic that helped them triple the number of bookings was high-quality photography.  After they rented an expensive camera and went door-to-door taking stellar photos, the company’s revenue in the city doubled. Seeing that impactful photography played a crucial role in consumer perception and intention to purchase (book), founders Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky launched the Airbnb Photography Program, where hosts can book custom photography sessions for their properties.

2. Fulfill your brand promise with smart content formats

I could have said “innovative content formats”, but didn’t. Know why? It’s not always about pursuing the latest, shiniest technological advance. Content formats don’t move consumers per se, stories do. And sometimes those stories are better told using convenient channels that get the job done in the right context. Like an actual print magazine, for instance. Why is a physical magazine a great content vehicle for Airbnb in 2017? Because unlike a laptop or tablet, leaving a promotional paper publication on your coffee table for anyone to grab is an incredible idea. And that is exactly what the new Airbnbmag is all about.

3. Feature your community front and center

Airbnb features host and guest stories on almost every digital channel available. They produce interview videos and upload them to YouTube, design short stories and share them on Instagram, and even maintain a blog where the same type of content is provided in written form. If you don’t have the ability to produce the amount of content that such a presence would require, take another page from Airbnb’s marketing book and leverage user-generated content. As an example, they invite guests to submit stories about their travel experiences using the hashtag #Airbnb on Instagram.

4. Connect with higher, more meaningful values and stay true to them

At its core, Airbnb offers accommodations, but so do a million other websites. The key to build a unique position in the marketplace, and differentiate their offer, has been their pronounced emphasis on deep-rooted values like multiculturalism, diversity, and the love of travel. These ideas are universal and appeal to human beings on a basic level regardless of who they are or where they live. Associating the Airbnb brand with such higher values, and sticking to their commitment to uphold them, has truly helped the team secure a distinguishable position in their customers’ minds. A position that is different from any other travel company’s, and that even goes as far as to create a new category where Airbnb is first, second, and third. This category, that of mindful glocal travel, belongs to the Airbnb brand by virtue of having created it.

5. Share the rules of the game clearly and early

You know what nobody likes? Surprises. Surprises where you are scolded for doing something wrong without knowing it was wrong are the worst kind. It’s like getting a parking ticket when there was no sign to warn you that the spot was banned in the first place. Awful, unexpected, and a quick way to ruin anyone’s day.

That is why consumer learning is at the core of business success. Brands must become great teachers so that customers know what to expect and what is expected of them. If there is a behavior contract, and there always is, it should be made clear so that all parties involved are treated fairly and predictably.

Communicate the rules of the game early and often to avoid disappointment. Airbnb allows hosts to upload “House Rules” that guests must follow, and they also provide a set of guidelines for hosts to ensure that the level of hospitality quality is maintained. There are always rules of engagement, so make sure you articulate them clearly.

6. Be there every step of the way

Never forget to see your business with a fresh pair of eyes. How does it feel to experience your product from the very first time? Is it confusing? Frustrating? Slow? Airbnb reminds us that creating guides, sending thoughtful emails, and offering guarantees for great service are essential building blocks of trust. Brand trust. The kind that gets you repeat business, recommendations, and loyalty.

7. Every now and then, just do something unexpected

You’ve probably heard of many marketing stunts throughout your life. Brands hosting big events, Super Bowl commercial jokes, random April Fool’s campaigns to grab consumer attention. However, Airbnb teaches us how to design surprising brand moments that still feel relevant. They are totally unexpected, but certainly still aligned with the brand’s core message. Take their recent campaign to allow lucky fans to stay at the Lego House in Denmark: impressive media coverage, raging fan engagement, and one effective giveaway for sure. Follow their “Night At” events to win, in their words, “the sleepover of your dreams”.

Over to you!

Have you learned any other #brandinglessons from Airbnb? Feel free to share them in the comments section below.

Day 1 | Barcelona, Spain • View of the Casa Milà from the terrace of my Airbnb. This is one of the many buildings designed by Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, and I can’t wait to explore more. Not a bad view, if I do say so myself. I arrived in Barcelona this a” by Lauren_Hannah is licensed under CC BY

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