You make your own bed.

Every StartUp should learn to play like airbnb

I’m a nomad. And I force my wife and son to be nomads. Such is the price we pay for trying to do a StartUp. It’s not pleasant but hopefully that will end soon and hopefully it will have been worth it. But as a result, I’ve become an expert in all things airbnb. Now I’m evangelist.

I might even invest if they go to IPO this year. And I don’t do IPOs. They’re all hype, CNBC up-to-the-minute bulletins and over-valuation. They have 700,000 rooms, making them the biggest lodgings provider in the world and the hard business case is strong. But what really excites me is the potential of the brand they are developing and the way they understand what the brand is. This is a StartUp that is just over 6 years old but with the brand wisdom of maturing years.

Sure, they can do brand awareness — they built that very well in the first year or two — but what they’ve always understood better than most StartUps is that it’s the brand experience that matters more than anything. The brand must look good, it must communicate well, it must have solid marketing but a modern brand is not this. A modern brand is the unified rich experience people have when they use any and every part of your business. The brand is everything you do, certainly everything that is visible.

Take the language. They have ‘hosts’. They talk of feeling at home, not of ‘staying’ somewhere. This cleverly positions themselves away from their enemy, the hotel industry

That’s another thing: they have an enemy. The don’t bad mouth them, they don’t need to, but it’s clear that they want to be seen as a genuine alternative, not more of the same. We don’t do that, we do this.

They feel different. It feels like a genuine community. We review hosts. But they review us. We introduce ourselves. We get to know each other. airbnb helps us become short-term friends.

It makes you realise that the booking.com’s and expedia’s of the world might have seemed to offer something new but really are only an extension of the old. They have value but they lack the depth of airbnb and in time I think that will be a problem for them. It’s hard to care passionately about an extension of the old. But the new creates evangelists.

It isn’t easy to avoid being like your competitive set. People huddle together for safety. Often investors, managers and stakeholders like conventions; they call it ‘best practice’. But here everyone has been smart enough to see the value of difference. (That’s something the marketing client community need to learn from as they become more and more convention bound.)

It’s clear what they are against but in terms of what they stand for, airbnb are using ‘Welcome Home’ as a tagline at the moment but Brian Chesky, the CEO, touched upon the broader (and bigger) purpose in a recent FT interview when he talked of ‘creating a world where people can belong anywhere’.

Words are important so let’s break this sentence down.

‘Creating’ tells me that they make a distinction between where they are now and where they want to get to. So it’s a vision, not just a summary of what they do now. It also tells us that it’s unclear what that is exactly. It’s much bigger but not yet defined — and they are clearly comfortable with the fact that they don’t know exactly what this is but do know in a general sense. I’ll come back to this.

‘World’ is clear. They see no limits (other than the world…for now). This is evidenced through their creative output. This is worth commenting on because too many US StartUps think the world is the US.

‘Belong anywhere’ is the substance of the purpose. It implies that, in the current lodging/hotel model, people do not feel they belong and that only the airbnb model can deliver belonging.

This is their benefit: belonging anywhere. The reason to believe is that real people with real apartments/homes provide the product, not de-personalised hotel rooms. This is reinforced through the style of reviews, the nature of the properties and the nicely shot Welcome Home ‘advertising’ campaign running on their own website header and so on. Basically, everything the business does.

But it’s the room to grow in that statement that fascinates me. What other ways can they help people feel they belong?

Later in the interview he touches on what that might be when he aligns with the idea of ‘bring(ing) back the idea of cities as villages’ by making more of all available space. Wow. The high street has lost its humanity; it has become a homogenous block. Imagine a world in which individual businesses had access to the same enormous audience as the current airbnb hosts, an audience willing to try something new, who crave something distinct…you might just see a renaissance of distinct, one off shops and cafes, of cities.

As a brand person, I love this. It’s the kind of idea we’d pitch to clients but often they’d shy away from because it doesn’t talk about the product enough, because it’s too conceptual, too warm and lovely and exciting. Business people still think this stuff won’t sell: airbnb are here to prove them wrong.

What can we learn as StartUps? Lots but the headline is this: look to develop a brand vision that recognizes your competence in a bigger way than is currently delivered. Give it room to grow. Who knows how you’ll see things once the business is rocking?

Andy Edwards is a creative agency veteran and the founder of Folktronica, where we help StartUps humanise their technology through brand creation. If you’d like to see more of our idiosyncratic thoughts on StartUp branding please check out http://folktronica.com.sg/brand-thinking-for-startups/


Originally published at folktronica.com.sg on January 7, 2015.

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