Brands in the News

Making Sense of Airbnb’s New Campaign

18 Aug 2015  

I am just back from a trip to France with my family. It was a lovely expedition. One highlight was trying Airbnb for the first time; I used the website to book two different stays. 

So how did it go? Perfect. The first property was an old farm-house in the French countryside. Our hosts were a charming couple with small kids. I believe we were their first guests. We fit right in. The second property was a fabulous apartment in Paris; it was spacious and clean, close to all the sites and in a busy neighborhood. 

Airbnb is a compelling platform. It is easy to use and navigate. More important, the 360 degree review function builds confidence; it means that hosts are concerned about keeping guests happy, and guests are concerned about keeping hosts happy. I gave both properties top reviews and I was happy to receive good ratings in return.

The challenge for Airbnb is now to scale quickly; the service needs to attract more hosts and guests to build scale and create a powerful network. 

So I was interested to see Airbnb’s new advertising campaign. Here it is:


My assessment is that the campaigned is well-intentioned but misses the mark. 

Airbnb is focusing on a very high order benefit: kindness. The ad encourages us to use Airbnb to explore the world and see just how wonderful it is. This is inspirational and positive. 

The problem is that this isn’t why people use Airbnb. I suspect people use Airbnb to find a nice place to stay at a reasonable price. That was certainly my objective when booking places in France. Was I exploring the world to learn about mankind? No. 

Will the idea learning about mankind get people to visit the Airbnb site? Will that motivate people to post their property? It won’t. 

Airbnb should focus more on the product. The company has a tremendous offering; the marketing effort should tell people about it. For new users, the questions are simple. What is Airbnb, anyway? How does it work? Why should I use it? Can I trust it? 

New brands need to establish a frame of reference and provide a benefit. Airbnb’s new campaign fails on both fronts.

Another issue with Airbnb’s spot is that many other hospitality companies can offer the same thing. Airlines, hotel companies and tour operators can all make a similar promise. Exploring the world isn’t a unique benefit. 

Still, I’m a big supporter and happy to spread the news. Airbnb is fabulous. Word of mouth is the best marketing of all, so I suspect the brand will keep growing despite a somewhat weak campaign.


5 Responses

  1. Sarah Kemple says:

    Hi Tim! Still trying to acclimate back to the drudgeries of every day work life after the fantastic Kellogg on Branding experience last week! Thanks for such a great time. I recently attended Interbrand’s Top Global Brands launch, and they had the creative director from Airbnb discussing this and other campaigns. This was part of a series of micromoments they wanted to create around the concept of “belonging.” He discussed how this campaign was an opportunity to lean into a cultural controversy and find a way to engage in the conversation. I guess this was a more successful attempt than Starbucks’ “Race together” campaign. The ad was paired along with “Never a stranger” which was meant to lean into the uncomfortable truths about the brand—the fact that people might be afraid to try Airbnb because of safety/comfort concerns. Seems like it is a really delicate balance between being aspirational and evocative vs really targeting your customer.

  2. batyrn says:

    With this spot Airbnb seems to target a certain market. Whether the segment is sufficiently large is hard for me to judge. Personally, I agree with the earlier posters as far as the benefit I’d be looking for. This spot seems to imply that the company believes that it has tapped out the ‘practical’ crowd and now is after the aspirational adventurers.

    Even so, the spot is a bit slow and lacks action. If one is watching it with a sound turned off, she can assume that baby food or pampers are for sale.

  3. ockeghem says:

    I’d have to agree, after a summer of vacation apartments around Europe, that living like a local was for us a secondary or even tertiary benefit. For a segment of Airbnb’s audience (maybe more those renting couches or rooms), that may be more of a motivator. But I think that limits them.

    For me, travelling as a family, what Airbnb offers that others don’t is more of a guarantee that if something goes wrong, they’ll make me whole. In general, when we travel I’m looking for two bedrooms (one for parents, one for the kid), a kitchen, and a place that won’t break the bank — something a hotel can’t offer. VRBO, Homeaway (and Fewo-Direkt, their German site), and Airbnb all can offer that. What sets Airbnb apart is that they stand in the middle and offer a strong rating system. VRBO and Homeaway are just listing sites. When one of their owners bailed on me a week in advance, they wouldn’t even let me post a review of the guy, because I hadn’t stayed in his apartment (that was the whole point — I didn’t get to stay there — and that’s important information for a future renter to know; Airbnb automatically posts it to the host’s reviews). There’s also a lot of uncertainty in transferring $1000+ into an owner’s personal bank account, rather than having Airbnb handle it.

    Airbnb charges me a bit more, for sure, but I’m willing to pay for that guarantee that I’ll get my money back if the host bails or changes things at the last minute. One of my Homeaway rentals this summer didn’t deliver the promised apartment, instead switching us to an inferior apartment at the last minute, and we had to take it because our money was already in her personal account and we had no recourse through Homeaway.

    I agree that finding the compelling benefit that speaks to their entire audience might be hard. People renting couches (and considering their competitor Couchsurfing) are in a slightly different mindset than those of us travelling as a family and looking for vacation apartments. That’s probably why Airbnb landed where they did. But it’s watered down.

  4. Professor, thank you for this thoughtful post. I agree with you that lesser known brands and products need to first educate customers before using aspirational marketing, and to highlight the benefits that matter most to their target audience.
    While the spot doesn’t educate, it does hint at what I believe is the greatest unique benefit of AirBnB: not “understanding mankind,” per se, but an immersive, local travel experience. “Go sit at their tables and sleep in their beds,” says the voiceover.
    A more compelling spot would have shown someone booking on AirBnB and what their trip is like as a result of that choice. It would show them reading their host’s book collection by the fireplace, cooking in the host’s kitchen with ingredients bought at the local farmer’s market, and taking a walk around the neighborhood and interacting with the other residents while seeing the local sights. Thankfully AirBnB’s tagline reflects this concept, “Belong Anywhere.”
    In addition to clarifying its unique value proposition, AirBnB does need to beef up its network as you suggested. I observe competitors that also rent out people’s homes outpacing AirBnB in this regard. I recently resorted to booking a trip on VRBO, an AirBnB competitor, because their selection was broader even though I have been very satisfied with AirBnB in the past.
    In summary, to be successful, AirBnb must grow the category through product education highlighting the unique benefits of renting someone’s home over staying in a hotel. Then then it should maintain and grow its share by keeping up its quality standards (such as its unique mutual rating system), remarkable on- and off-line user experience, and most of all, by offering the largest selection of homes to rent.
    What do you think? Was a local, immersive experience part of your motivation for using AirBnB or did you truly just want a “nice place to stay”?

    • timcalkins says:

      Danielle—Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I wonder what is the most compelling benefit for Airbnb to communicate. For me, I was looking for an interesting place to stay at a reasonable price. I was traveling with three kids, so I also wanted more than just a hotel room. So I was motivated by fairly practical considerations. I didn’t have any need to see or interact with the host (though they were both terrific and helpful). Of course, I’m just one person.

      Either way, Airbnb has to dial up the advertising to set up the frame and deliver a stronger benefit.

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