How CMO Jonathan Mildenhall is helping Airbnb evolve from disruptive app to full-service travel brand

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Forget houses. The controversial tech company is increasingly relying on user experiences--lived and shared on social media--to propel its marketing.

At its inception in 2008, Airbnb was part tech company, part home-sharing service. Now, it’s evolving into a full-fledged travel brand, aiming to become a one-stop shop for adventurers.

Jonathan Mildenhall has helped steer the company through this and other thorny changes since coming on board as CMO in May 2014. A former marketing executive with Coca-Cola and a veteran of agencies Mother and TBWA (now one of the brand’s agency partners), Mildenhall is known as much for Airbnb’s buzz-worthy advertising as his outspoken stances on the industry’s diversity problem.

Earlier this month, Airbnb debuted a new feature called Trips that is meant to further its transition into a full-fledged travel provider. Hosts can use the feature to offer travel recommendations, as well as multi-day or single-day experiences, such as star gazing or fishing. The company also plans to begin offering flights and other travel services.

The company now boasts three million short-term rentals in 34,000 cities across the globe, and is valued at $30 billion. The Trips feature was unveiled at the third annual Airbnb Open Spotlight event, which this year attracted more than 20,000 hosts, as well as Mariah Carey, Jamie Foxx and investor Ashton Kutcher.  

For the launch of Trips, Airbnb worked with Facebook Creative Shop and Radical Media for "We Are Here," a series of Facebook Live videos filmed in six locations around the world. In the Paris video, performance artist Anne Marie wrote down emotions viewers wanted to release on paper butterflies. Overall, the videos have been viewed more than 6.2 million times.

But the company’s rise in the sharing economy has not come without controversy. Airbnb has seen backlash around the world, particularly in large markets such as New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago. Protestors and local governments have tried to ban the company, citing violations of local housing laws, driving up rent prices and even discrimination.

Campaign US spoke with Mildenhall about the challenges ahead, the use of celebrity influence and how advertisers can change mindsets post-election.

What is the greatest challenge in shifting the brand from simply a home-sharing service to a travel brand?
The biggest challenge is keeping a loyal consumer base, which was motivated by homes, fully engaged with the new entertainment and travel business, and making sure the new consumers and the core consumers are part of the same community.

The people who discovered Airbnb eight years ago, and were really excited about it, were adventurers. They liked having new experiences. And yet, the business scaled so rapidly over the last eight years that now we have consumers with very conservative mindsets. They are very prepared to use Airbnb for family vacations and business travel, and yet the Trips proposition is going back to that early adventurer.

How is Airbnb’s marketing strategy changing now that it has a new vision for itself?
We are creating a lot of user-generated content in-house. We’ve always been a huge content engine—Airbnb owns one of the biggest photo archives of homes on the planet. But now we are moving into experiences. The content will no longer just reflect the homes people have, it will reflect the experiences that these homes create.

What role do your agencies play now that you are creating most of your content in-house?
I still need to work with great agencies all around the world to create great moments where Airbnb can show up as a really compelling part of pop culture. Even though there’s a lot of user-generated content that forms the backbone of my marketing strategy, the way Airbnb shows up at the Oscars, the way Airbnb shows up at Christmas time, the way Airbnb shows up at the Olympics will still require what I call tempo content. So agencies will still collaborate with us to shape ideas, to shape the brand narrative. But I can tell you now that the integration of user-generated content is a real, ongoing strategy for all of our paid media.

Airbnb has been partners with TBWA\Chiat\Day since September 2014. How has the agency helped Airbnb rebrand into a travel company?
TBWA was a real co-author of the overall strategic foundation that we built Trips on, and TBWA developed the film for the introduction to Trips. Looking forward, the role of TBWA is an ongoing collaborator and ongoing curator.

You said you want to ‘redefine how the world sees experimental advertising.’ How do the new live tools on social media allow you to do this?
This is what I’m really excited about. This kind of live technology allows us to reinvent what we mean by experiential marketing. Experience marketing has historically been marketing that is experienced by a few lucky people who happened to be there. Now we have the technology, such as Facebook Live, that allows this type of marketing to be shared by millions.

For people who go on a genuine Airbnb trip on the other side of the world, millions of people can tune in and watch that experience unfold, but most importantly, they can direct that experience. So you can have an audience member in New York engaging by Facebook Live in an experience that is taking place in Cape Town, and through great curation, that audience member can direct some of the experiences.

That is really exciting because it forces the brand owners like me to give up control. I’m not in control of what happens in my experience. I’m not in control of what people are suggesting that experience does. 

Does that scare you?
It terrifies me! [laughs] But it’s brilliant. I’m incredibly passionate and optimistic about Airbnb Trips. They’re not contrived, they’re not corporate, they’re not packaged in any way. Somebody can tune in and see it unfold in front of their very eyes. I see it as a fantastic community experience. Most importantly, I learn from it. I learn from what aspects of the experiences are working well—what excites people, what bores people, and so it does terrify me, but it’s brilliant because it’s real.

With more live features coming to social media, such as Instagram’s reveal this week, is Airbnb already trying out these new features?
Absolutely. We’re constantly beta testing different ad units, different ways of talking to our communities on those platforms. It’s really important to me that Airbnb is seen to be at the leading edge of marketing technologies. So when there is a new technology that presents itself, I want to be the first to jump in. Not because I think that’s an efficient way of spending money, but that is an efficient way of learning.

Airbnb introduced the new Trips feature during Airbnb Open Spotlight, which attracted its share of celebrities. How does celebrity influence play into Airbnb’s advertising strategy?
These celebrities are a part of our community. I don’t work with celebrities from an advertising perspective at all. I work with celebrities either because they are investors, or co-creators, or collaborators or they are just guests.

There will be news further down the line of interesting content plays we will be developing with a number of these people. All of this is really important to legitimize Airbnb’s presence at the top end of the accommodations market. People, when they see celebrities staying in Airbnb homes, quite often the response is, "If it’s good enough for Mariah Carey, it’s good enough for me."

Are these celebrities encouraged or paid to share their brand experiences on their social accounts?
We never pay a celebrity to do any type of social post. We are not that type of brand. If a celebrity wants to go to a place like Hawaii, we’ll give them a great home, but we never pay for a celebrity endorsement. They can provide a social media comment on the experience they are having. And if they don’t, that’s okay.

Just checked into our NYC penthouse. Thanks @airbnb for the gift of our home away from home.

A photo posted by Kim Kardashian West (@kimkardashian) on

At the same event, Airbnb introduced a new magazine that it created through Hearst. Why invest in a magazine? Will it be available for purchase?
We invested in a magazine because it’s a fantastic way to shine a light on the beautiful community stories that take place on the Airbnb platform. It’s also a great way to curate content that can be used in other forms of media like social and digital content. The magazine will be out for purchase next April, and that will be the first in-market test issued, and then we will iterate its content based on market response.

You are an openly gay black man in advertising who has been outspoken about the industry’s diversity issues. What is Airbnb doing to help advance the cause?
I think that all marketers have the responsibility to ensure that their dollars are having a net positive impact on society at large. And now, more so than ever, we seem to be moving in a divisive phase all around the world, so I look to great marketing organizations to put out work into the world that shapes society for the better.

The universal belonging film that we launched last week is really important. It really does set out the values of our community and does so in a beautiful way—it literally shines the light on beautiful faces of all sorts of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

I’m hoping that over the course of the next 12 months we will see other strong brands step up and put their human values out into the world, because people need to look to brands for sources of inspiration and strong values.

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