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Airbnb CMO: the ad that propelled Airbnb to global success

Compelling video content Compelling video content
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The ‘Never a Stranger’ campaign helped Airbnb overcome an uncomfortable truth and continue its journey to becoming the world's first community driven super brand.

There are a select few moments in a brand’s history that mark its ascent to greatness.

For Nike, it was the 1988 indelible ‘Just Do It’ slogan, which instantly turned the Oregon based mega-brand into the undisputed king of fitness.

Apple’s moment was in 1984 when its brazen Orwellian fantasy literally hit screens to prove computers were for freedom and not control.

And for Airbnb its year was 2015. Specifically, it was when its ‘Never a Stranger’ advert appeared on TV screens for the first time, following the culture-shifting protagonist Ellie on her journey around the world.

Starting apprehensively, she stayed in Airbnb homes in Tulum, Tokyo, Paris and New York. Having sung her heart out in karaoke bars, and become part of a family in Rio, she felt the “wonderful experience of belonging.”

The desired outcome was to expose viewers to the very avant-garde idea that staying in a stranger’s home is nothing out of the ordinary.

For Airbnb CMO Jonathan Mildenhall, this was the most important message to get across.

After all, catalyzing his vision of building a brand that transcends its technology to enter the same deified realms as Coca-Cola in the ‘80’s, Nike in the 90’s or Apple in the 00’s had to begin with a confrontation of the one thing potentially hampering its chances of success.

“I wanted to broadcast that message to the world,” says Mildenhall, “and I wanted the world to know that Airbnb knew that what it was confronting was a little bit of an uncomfortable truth.”

Indeed, this uncomfortable truth had been a thorn in Airbnb’s side dating back to when founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia first approached investors for funding. Of the 7 prominent Silicon Valley investors they were introduced to in 2008, 5 rejected them. The other 2 did not reply at all.

Knowing the uphill battle faced and the cultural stigma attached to the idea, Mildenhall, through the medium of video, decided to tackle the issue head on. The commercial commenced with the rather provocative line:

‘Dear Stranger, when I first booked this trip my friends said I was crazy. Why would I stay in somebody else’s house? But this morning a city I have never been to felt like one I already knew.’

In short, the campaign worked. And video has become the bedrock of Airbnb’s global marketing drive.

Before the campaign, there were 500,000 homes on the platform. 2 years later, says Mildenhall, “that figure has grown exponentially.”

The result is that Airbnb has become a mainstream fixture of the travel sector, fulfilling both Mildenhall’s and the founders’ vision of becoming the world’s first community driven super brand.

Which was exactly the reason why Mildenhall left his prominent exec position at Coca-Cola to join the then startup.

The power of video for marketers

The success of ‘Never a Stranger’ in shifting the traditionally held views of access and ownership has allowed Mildenhall to re-direct his sights at the travel industry, in a more recent campaign called ‘Live There’.

“I can now push up against a much broader and uncomfortable universal truth, which is that the alternative to travelling on Airbnb is not such a pleasant experience.

Why would you want to indulge yourself in the mass market tourism industry when you can truly live in the local neighbourhoods, with local people, and buy things from local makers? This is the premise of the ‘live there’ campaign.”

It comes to show just how important a tool video has become in the armoury of marketers. Not just for peer-to-peer content sharing and broadcast media, but for brand-to-customer communications in both B2C and B2B markets too.

“The entire world is moving toward video. The entire world,” Mildenhall explains.

To put it into perspective, Cisco predicts 80% of all Internet traffic will be streamed video content by 2019, up from 64% in 2014.

Mildenhall believes that this represents an astounding opportunity for brands that wish to stay relevant. They can become astute storytellers through the creation of compelling video content.

“This is not just about advertising storytelling either. Real time storytelling is where the world is headed,” he says.

“It is all about the way you express your brand essence, how your brand shows itself within the experiences people are having, whilst creating compelling video content that people are really going to want to give their time for.”

This may not take the form of a traditional 30-second TV ad either. Newer interactive platforms provide astounding control.

Snapchat’s emboldened new interactive ad format, for example, rakes in double the CPM ($40) of non-interactive video. The ads are clickable, people can swipe up on them and apps can be installed directly through them too.

There are also video formats that enable incredibly precise targeting. Be that native video, an area set to be explored by Mildenhall in the coming year, or addressable TV platforms that allow you to “serve up bespoke content that actually is relevant to the profile of a particular household.”

Tested for the ‘Live There’ campaign, Mildenhall shot different versions of the same ad for maximum relevance to those watching.

A millennial version, Chinese version and LGBT version are amongst some of them.

“This will be the benchmark of marketing excellence, not in 5 years time, but in 2 or 3. The rapid acceleration of video distribution and production means that all progressive marketers have to lean into it and understand how to tell real time narrative through video. The kind that can be shared widely and include the voice of their consumers and their fan bases.”