Airbnb CMO on value-driven marketing and being 'transkind' to Caitlyn Jenner

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Jonathan Mildenhall: "This campaign is quite personal for me."
Jonathan Mildenhall: "This campaign is quite personal for me."

Jonathan Mildenhall talks about the purpose behind Airbnb's presence during the ESPY awards, and about a startup's flexibility in finding purpose

Having spent his career at Coca-Cola and ad agencies such as Mother, Jonathan Mildenhall joined tech start-up Airbnb with the aim of transferring some of the value-driven, big brand activity into a new space.

Airbnb’s latest campaign aims to show the tech and travel startup as having big brand purpose akin to the likes of Apple or Nike. It’s asking people to consider "Is Mankind?" by creating a series of provocative ads and messages across traditional and digital media. The entire proposition was launched with high-profile support of Caitlyn Jenner’s receipt of the ESPY (Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly) award for bravery Wednesday.

Value-driven marketing
Mildenhall said the campaign was Airbnb's first foray into value-driven marketing, something that he’d made sure the company was committed to when he moved from Coca-Cola to the startup last year.

"This campaign is quite personal for me. It was brilliant being at Coke because they appreciated what value and creative-driven marketing can bring. When I went to meet [Airbnb founder]  Brian Chesky I was a little bit dubious. If you look at the history of Silicon Valley, it creates big companies with huge shareholder values but then, because there’s not a great deal of historic creative and strategic marketing, brands disappear over space of a few decades.

"When I met with Brian, he painted a vision — and as a CEO, he is utterly committed to being a super-iconic brand, like a Disney or a Coca-Cola," Mildenhall says. "He has an instinct this value-driven creative work is a key component in creating an iconic brand."

Values aligned, the new campaign represents the first embodiment of this mission to stand for something bigger than the brand itself, to corral its audience into celebrating the kindness in mankind.

The opportunity to make a big splash alongside Caitlyn Jenner’s ESPY bravery award came about via Airbnb’s agency, Starcom. Mildenhall has called it an "Ellen moment," describing how many mainstream advertisers are shying away from commercially supporting stars with different sexual preferences or lives.

The 'Ellen moment'
"It’s a little bit of an Ellen moment. When [Ellen DeGeneres] came out, advertisers and TV companies ran a mile. She went into a dark place for a couple of years, but now you wouldn’t think twice about a female lesbian host. Caitlyn Jenner is similar: At a testosterone-filled iconic show, she’ll get an award for courage and some advertisers have moved away from that.

"A couple of weeks ago Starcom came to us with the opportunity to launch ‘Is Mankind?’ right after Caitlyn had done her acceptance speech, so we ran towards it. We want it to genuinely feel as though the 7 billion people in this world can belong anywhere."

Read: Transgender branding cracks the mainstream

Standing for something bigger than a brand isn’t unique to Airbnb or Mildenhall and is something many brands are trying to establish, as people become more likely to make brand choices based on more conscientious and social drivers.

The power of brand purpose
One criticism levied at this movement came from former PepsiCo marketer and Apple CEO John Sculley, who said retrofitting a purpose onto a brand wouldn’t work.

Mildenhall disagreed, arguing that all big, great brands once had a purpose but they easily forget it once it turns into a "multigenerational brand."

"A lot of big iconic brands were founded on purpose. Take Levis and Disney. They were standing on purpose and were therefore able to break away early on. The problem is a company moves into a multigenerational stage, where it is served by multiple generations of marketing and the original purpose is clouded and lost.

"The new generations don’t fully understand the original intent behind the purpose," he says. "When working on big iconic brands, I always say to research the original founder, look at the cultural moments. It’s then usually easy to turn around a brand form a communications perspective because the strategic work was done at launch."

For Airbnb, Mildenhall is able to set this strategy from the start, but he admits it won’t be easy for long. "It is definitely cleaner for a startup to get the entire organization to spin around a purpose because it’s a single generation but when a brand then starts being part of second generation, it gets harder."

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