Why Airbnb Hired a Pixar Illustrator to Help Shape Their Brand
How the power of a good story can melt hearts and create magical customer experiences
What’s the makeup of a highly profitable and scalable tech company? What normally comes to mind is something like a coding wizard, a great product, or a rock star marketing team.
For Airbnb, it might have been something more unconventional. Storyboards may have been their secret ingredient to creating a unicorn startup. I know not everyone is a storyteller, so for the unacquainted, a storyboard is an illustrated outline of a story’s most important moments.
How in the world could something like that apply to a billion-dollar tech company? During its early days, Airbnb felt that creating an extraordinary customer experience is a lot like telling a great story. After all, the power of storytelling leaves a lasting impression on people, and it seems to have paid off.
Back in 2012, Airbnb was starting to see success. Regardless, Brian Chesky, the co-founder and CEO, wanted to take the business to the next level. He realized that if he wanted to create a revolutionary business, he needed to focus on the customer—more specifically, the customer’s experience and interaction with the brand — from start to finish.
Chesky came up with an unconventional idea after reading a biography on Walt Disney. In the 1930s, Disney was popular for animated shorts. They were entertaining stories following goofy characters. Walt liked these shorts, but he wanted to change his customer’s experience. He wanted people to associate his brand with stories they cared about and to leave an impact on his viewers. Ultimately, Disney decided to make long-form films with real depth.
Disney needed a strategy as they ventured into this new territory. They came up with a storyboard, that outline sketch I talked about earlier. This would guide his team as they started making Snow White.
Chesky thought Airbnb should use the same strategy. “I realized that Disney as a company was actually at a similar stage where we are now when they created Snow White,” Chesky recalled in a podcast interview.
Airbnb had secured a portion of the rental market. They had also started to expand outside the United States. Chesky longed to be more than just another short-term rental company. He wanted to give his customers a magical experience. Something he called an “11-star experience.”
Airbnb decided to bring Pixar illustrator Nick Sung into the fold. He helped the young startup shape how customers experience their brand. He created three storyboards for the team: the guest, the host, and the Airbnb employee. These stories outlined the journey of each stakeholder in their new vision.
Each of these stories acted as a tangible guideline for crafting the perfect Airbnb experience. Chesky said:
“When you have to storyboard something, the more realistic it is, the more decisions you have to make. Like are these hosts men or women? Are they young, are they old? Where do they live? The city or the countryside? Why are they hosting? Are they nervous? It’s not that they show up to the house. They show up to the house, how many bags do they have? How are they feeling? Are they tired? At that point you start designing for stuff for a very particular use case.”
This is a beautiful way to guide your brand and design your services. By doing this, Airbnb was able to craft an amazing experience for their customers. These storyboards informed the design of their app, their policies, and Airbnb Experiences.
Your Customer’s Experience Should Read Like a Good Story
People remember a good story. If you want people to remember and rave about your brand, the customer experience should play out like a good story.
Don’t worry—you won’t need to hire a Pixar employee as a consultant to use this strategy. You can apply the Pixar formula with some careful thinking and note pad.
We’ll be using a storytelling technique called a story spine. The story spine was originally invented by playwright Kenn Adams. Much like a storyboard, a story spine condenses a story into it’s most important parts. This basic structure keeps the storyteller on track when they flesh out these moments later. A story spine’s structure goes like this:
Once upon a time ______. Every day ______. But one day ______. Because of that ______. Because of that ______. Because of that ______. Until finally ______. Ever since then ______. The moral of the story is ______.
Use this structure along with your customer avatar to craft the “11-star experience.” Let’s use an organic meal plan subscription box business as an example. Their story spine might look something like this:
Once upon a time, there was a woman named Jane who struggled with finding an easy way to eat healthy.
Every day, she would research different diets, nutrition advice, and recipes. Ultimately, she would find herself in analysis paralysis. Instead of eating healthy, she would surrender to easy but processed ready-made meals.
But one day, she read about (company)’s subscription box on a lifestyle publication. This subscription box delivers a week’s worth of organic meals right to your door.
Because of that, she decided to try out the subscription. Now, it was easy to make meals that made her feel great, and they tasted delicious.
Because of that, she had more energy throughout the day.
Because of that, she was able to work more efficiently and have more free time.
Until finally, she felt and looked so good that she started to win in other areas of life. She landed a promotion at work, met some incredible new friends, and even started seeing a romantic partner regularly.
Ever since then, she has used (company) to help her plan her week’s meals.
The moral of the story is that eating healthy and feeling good can transform your entire life. (Company)’s subscription box is an easy way to do that.
Sounds good, right? Though, I haven’t taken the time to research and flesh out a customer avatar. But, as you can see, with only a couple of basic assumptions, I’ve created a pretty vivid customer journey.
This story spine is a powerful tool. It highlights a couple of important things for our subscription box friend.
The first thing it does is highlight what problem the customer is looking to solve. It acknowledges that there are other solutions. Although, it reinforces why our solution is the best for their particular circumstance. This keeps us focused on the right audience.
The second thing it does is highlight the direct benefit this service provides. This will keep your business centered. The things your business does should aim to provide this direct benefit. For our subscription box company, this would be providing an easy way to eat healthy. This is the reason people tell others they bought your thing.
Finally, the story highlights the indirect benefits of the service. Since Jane had found an easy way to eat healthy food, she felt better. Because she felt better, she was able to level up in her workplace, in the gym, and in her relationships. These are the important but secret reasons people chose to buy.
The Things That Don’t Scale
This is the case for storyboards, too. Storyboards are a powerful tool to envision the customer’s journey. But like all things, storyboards alone won’t make a business profitable.
However, like Paul Graham once said: “In order to scale, you have to do things that don’t scale.” So here is my advice to tie it all together: Combine both things that scale and things that don’t. Treat your business like you’re making a delicious pie. The things that scale are the sweet and tasty insides. The things that don’t scale makes up the crust that holds it all together.
Do that, and your customers will gush about your brand like they do about every Pixar movie.