At the same time Airbnb was trying to build a brand centred on the idea that “anybody can belong anywhere,” the reality for some guests was very different. 

In 2016 The New York Times documented the discrimination experienced by African-American guests using the home-sharing service, which gave birth to the social media campaign #AirbnbWhileBlack.

“We were growing at such an incredible pace that we hadn’t recognised that there was challenges booking on Airbnb, particularly if you happened to be African American,” says Jonathan Mildenhall, Airbnb’s former CMO.

Speaking at Marketo’s Marketing Nation Summit in San Francisco today, Mildenhall said that in response to the news reports, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky, “basically stopped every work stream in the company and brought all of the leaders together so that we could all lean in, take responsibility and address this issue.”

In eight months Airbnb changed the entire process of becoming a guest or a host on Airbnb and enforced a zero tolerance policy for any form of racism, bigotry or discrimination on the platform, Mildenhall said.

“We worked really, really hard to clean up the platform, we took off bad actors and we were prepared to slow down growth so that we could grow with the right people who had the right values.”

Being forced to face the discrimination on its platform led to Airbnb’s in-house creative team producing the company’s debut Super Bowl ad in 2017 called ‘We Accept’.

“As a result of running it we really took control of the narrative about a platform that genuinely does believe in inclusivity and diversity wherever you might travel.”

“As a brand we were leaning in to our own challenges, we were leaning in to our own issues.”

Mildenhall left Airbnb in October 2017 after three years but is still involved in the development of the Airbnb brand as a consultant.

Brand Airbnb

Mildenhall said Airbnb wants to be “the world’s next global super brand” like Coca Cola in the 1980s, or Nike in the 90s and Apple in the 2000s. 

“We think we can, but it does mean we will have to develop an entirely new marketing playbook because the one thing that we’ve learned is as culture changes, so should the playbook that you apply to your brands,” he said.

As well as Super Bowl ads, Airbnb has built its brand through partnerships and social media campaigns. Sometimes on a fraction of a traditional marketing budget. 

For example Mildenhall said he had wanted to advertise during the Oscars but a hotel brand that kept Airbnb from joining the event, meaning it asn’t able to buy airtime, reference the Oscars or any of the movies in it.

“I said to my team, ‘We would have spent $2.5 million advertising in the Oscars, [now] you’ve got $250,000, I want you to dominate the Oscar conversation by being fearless, taking risks, being smart, being creative.” 

In response, Airbnb developed the #LiveInTheMovies campaign, asking users on Twitter: If you could live in any movie what would it be? That got Twitter to reference the movies Airbnb wasn’t allowed to, and matched them with a Airbnb listings.

What started out as a TV buy became something much bigger, on a tenth of the budget, Mildenhall said. 

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