Airbnb’s marketing boss on polarising brands, mass tourism and why it wants to offer a ‘complete experiential proposition’

Airbnb is rapidly expanding its service away from just offering accommodation to provide a full travel service as it looks to lure holidaymakers away from “mass produced tourism”. The brand’s CMO Jonathan Mildenhall talks to Marketing Week about being a polarising brand, maintaining its “millennial cool” and its plans for the future.

The expansion kicks off with a relaunch of its app that puts personalisation at the heart. The updated app includes a matching system designed to understand travellers’ preferences and then match them with the homes, neighbourhoods and experiences that meet those needs.

A new ‘Guidebooks’ feature will unlock insights, giving travellers access to insider tips from Airbnb’s global community of hosts. The aim, says CMO Jonathan Mildenhall, is to offer a “complete experiential service proposition”.

“We see our future as offering travellers a whole lot more than just a home. Some of the best experiences when staying with Airbnb are not the homes but going to have experiences based on host recommendations,” he explained.

To promote this new strategy, Airbnb is running a global campaign, ‘Live there’, that aims to inspire people to live like a local and have “authentic” holiday experiences. It was created in response to brand research, which found that modern tourism does not satisfy most travelers. Respondents said they felt overwhelmed with the crowds at tourist attractions, with people finding it as stressful as going to the dentist (48%) or doing their taxes (52%).

The campaign is the brand’s “biggest yet” and features various TV spots, as well as digital, outdoor and print creative. The spots showcase the Airbnb community while contrasting standard tourism with the Airbnb experience. According to the brand, its campaign creative is the “most diverse yet”, targeting LGBT and same sex couples, millennials and, for the first time, families.

Marketing Week caught up with Mildenhall to talk about the new strategy, its attitudes to mass tourism and what is next for the disruptive travel brand.

Airbnb is launching a lot of new app features – what do they say about your strategy?

Ultimately, we are moving into a complete experiential service proposition. That means we see our future as offering travellers a whole lot more than just a home. We have been very successful over the last eight years by building a network business allowing people to rent out spare space. Over 80 million people have travelled on the platform, and there are two million homes available. 

Some of the best experiences when staying with Airbnb are not the homes but going to have experiences based on host recommendations. We’ll be increasing our experiential offering, based on host recommendations, into local neighbourhoods.

As the platform gets bigger and services get much broader, it’s really important that we develop sophisticated technology that can enable people to find the right home, host and neighbourhood based on their own preferences. That’s why we’re launching matching to make it easier for hosts and guests to find each other with like-minded interests. The neighbourhood will be the ultimate experiential space.

Had you found in user feedback that the experience was not personalised enough?

This idea of algorithms that understand your preferences so you can find what’s right for you as quickly as possible, that is just a big global notion that is driven by tech platforms. It’s not that we’re lacking consumer demand, but if you get more [technically] sophisticated and let people find homes easier, you get a boost in word of mouth, as consumers will talk about how clever the platform is. It also drives repeat business, as people have been able to find what they want. As soon as they get home, people are much more likely to book their second trip within 12 months.

The new guidebook feature on the app looks like an attempt to get more into content – why does the brand want that engagement with consumers?

The guidebooks give us an amazing content platform in the long term. Unlike competitors, it is built by hosts who live in the neighbourhoods and not by tourists. Over time, we’ll have three million hosts who will have contributed to the guidebooks, as we’re launching it in 600 different neighbourhoods. Ultimately it will become a content platform in its own right.

Is there a typical Airbnb user?

The typical user tends to be a millennial who is very confident when it comes to travelling and puts adventure and thrill-seeking as a high priority. But having local authentic cultural experiences are the decision-making factor. Because the platform has grown so rapidly, we have different products and type of accommodations.

We are now at a stage where we can segment through marketing and offer a different product offering depending on the needs of the audience segment. This is the broadest campaign in terms of overall budget, number of different communications, media outlets that we’re partnering with and also the breadth of content. We have specific content that’s targeting families as well as millennials.

The biggest challenge from a storytelling perspective is how we make sure we show up as relevant to families without losing that ‘millennial cool’ that we’ve built over the last eight years.

You call out ‘traditional tourism’, but doesn’t that mean the brand has a snobby approach to travel?

As a brand that stands for something, we are inevitably going to be polarising. When I look at a number of brands in the travel category, I don’t know if I can find a lot of brands that actually stand for something that’s relevant in culture. We believe that audiences all over the world, in all of our markets, are looking for brands that take a stand on something.

A lot of people believe the modern way of travelling is sick and not satisfying as it doesn’t enable people to learn, grow and be educated. So I don’t believe [the brand approach] is snobby, but it is polarising. Other people who want to have a different non-local experience, that’s also fine, but that’s not where Airbnb is best placed.

Airbnb - Guidebooks v1

The last couple of years Airbnb has come in for criticism in some markets and faced legal issues in places such as Berlin and Barcelona. Do they impact what consumers think of the brand?

Any narrative does impact consumer sentiment of the brand, that’s true. The good stories and the negative stories do have an impact on how the brand shows up in the hearts and minds of people. Our host community’s views are the most resilient, and the guest community is the second most resilient. Those who haven’t tried it yet, those are opinions that can shift.

Working with our communications, PR team and public policy team is really important as we continue to grow. We are only successful if we have a successful relationship with cities, so we’re really committed to working with them. Each will have a different set of considerations – our approach to cities is incredibly flexible. We’re working with them not against them.

What is the message of your new campaign?

When you look at travel right now, we travel to the same places, take the same pictures and post the same stories. But when we get back from these amazing places, can we really say that we met the locals and did we leave a human connection in the local neighbourhoods? The travel industry has grown outside local neighbourhoods, in down town areas and city centres, in places where the local environment can cope with mass tourism. All that we’re saying is that there’s a different way to travel. We are romancing this notion of living somewhere and through host recommendations, give you as a traveller a transformational travel experience.

With this campaign, we first and foremost want to build awareness, as we still lag behind all of our competitors in our major markets. We are also really keen on building popularity of the overall brand and our offering. Thirdly, it’s about driving conversion, which is why we’re using programmatic and different content genres to turn awareness into genuine consideration.

How does this campaign fit into the company’s wider brand strategy?

Last year, our marketing was pushing up against the cultural tension of strangers. But the company couldn’t have built its platform on that marketing message alone – it’s so much more than strangers [renting out their accommodation]. This year, our marketing platform is about living like a local, even if it’s for a night. From a corporate perspective, we’re working with cities, so cities can reassure their citizens that [the service] is good for neighbourhoods, as extra income is being driven into those communities.

What more can we expect from Airbnb?

We are moving towards this end-to-end experience proposition where the core of the Airbnb brand value proposition transcends accommodation. We are really developing our relationship with local business and hosts that offer more than just accommodation. You’ll start to see, particularly towards November this year, a much broader travel proposition from Airbnb that transcends space and accommodation. This campaign is a big step in that direction.

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