Airbnb CMO: How to Manage a Brand at the Speed of Life

Jonathan Mildenhall
Airbnb CMO Jonathan Mildenhall on Content, Community and Culture

 Airbnb isn’t on the Best Global Brands list—yet. As chief marketing officer Jonathan Mildenhall, who joined from Coca-Cola in 2014, puts it, “I won’t rest until Airbnb is well and truly in the top 20 or 10 (of Interbrand’s Best Global Brands). I think this study is incredibly valuable to the world of marketing. There is no other study like it. I love that it’s science and art coming together to measure the value of these brands and these companies.”

Mildenhall, and Airbnb, have accomplished a lot in the past 18 months, including introducing a new logo (“the Bélo“) and brand platform in July 2014, launching a magazine called Pineappleand a global ad campaign (“Never a Stranger”) to communicate and reinforce the notion of belonging, and scaling at a breathtaking speed (adding more than 30 million guests in 2015 alone) in its mission to communicate the notion of belonging, and releasing an LBGT-inclusive spot (“Is Mankind?”) this past July to take a position on the transgender debate surrounding Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out— all exemplifying how leading brands must operate at the speed of life.

“It took four years to go from guest number one to guest number one million,” Mildenhall told us. “And it’s taken us three years to go from guest number 1,000,001 to guest number 56 million. I’ve never worked in such a hyper growth, massive-scale organization.”

In our conversation with Mildenhall, he shared how the brand is embracing content, community and cultural relevance to transform what was once a property listing company into an iconic brand.

Jonathan, how would you summarize Airbnb’s purpose and philosophy?

Airbnb is a fascinating proposition. We’re technology, but the entire purpose of technology is to connect human beings in the real world. We’ve now got over 1.7 million hosts and more than 56 million travelers on the platform. It’s phenomenal. I realized early on that if I was going to make Airbnb successful and take Airbnb mainstream, I’d need to focus on content. Because it’s a really weird behavior the first time you say to somebody, “I’m going to open up my home and let strangers come in and stay with me.” The first time travelers say I’m going to travel around the world and stay in people’s homes, people get worried. It’s a strange behavior, so I have to work incredibly hard, with content, to normalize that behavior.

So how do you use content to promote the values of your brand and build community?

The more different pieces of content I can put out in the world, sharing truthful perspectives on what it’s like to travel on Airbnb or host an Airbnb, the better. So I won’t rest really, until I become the kind of marketing director of the world’s biggest marketing department, because all of our hosts and all of our guests are really the marketing directors of our product. It’s their perspective and their experiences that really define the brand.

So we we’re looking to opportunities like Pineapple as just a fantastic vehicle to capture traveler stories and host stories. And then if you go on to places like Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, you’ll see all of those social media channels are just fantastic repositories for all of our guest and host stories.

My job is to curate the best of those and either put them in our magazine or our ad campaigns, and put them back out into our community to say: this is a great story, this is a great piece of content that really helps explain the proposition of Airbnb. I’m interested in new hosts and guests from all over the world creating more content to help us normalize the overall behavior. So content marketing through the community is really the core of the entire marketing strategy for the brand. Everything you see in our ads is about authentic human experiences.

As we talk about brands at the speed of life, how do you try to be agile and figure out quickly what to do with all these insights and these moments that you’ve gathered? And with so many travelers, hosts and stories, how do you filter all of that?

It’s really hard, and the one thing that we don’t really have right now anywhere in the world is technology that can really help us harness the creativity of the communities and then help us curate it. So it’s a real manual process right now and I’d like to try and be one of the first brands to start automating some of its community marketing.

I’d love there to be an automated system that would allow me to put out whatever briefs in all languages. We’re in 191 countries and 34,000 cities, so we have all these different languages and we’re an incredibly local brand. So I don’t want to speak to Brazilian hosts and travelers in English, I want to speak to them in Portuguese, likewise in Japanese, or whatever the language may be.

So I need to really connect deeply with my travelers and hosts and have some way of them uploading that content and then having the community vote on what’s the most interesting idea or what’s the most authentic piece of content and then that serves up to the company, and then the company can curate it and put it back out there in paid media. Some kind of automated system that allows us to do all of that would be great.

How do you manage and nurture a brand that’s growing at such an astonishing pace?

The more people we get on to the platform, the more they tell people, and it just literally grows. To be honest, two-thirds of the business comes to us free of charge and all the marketing investment is topping that word of mouth. It’s coming organically, so we look at marketing as a heavy investment, but it’s really just kind of an accelerator, because the business is really growing on its own.

And the other thing about tech startups that I’ve learned is how to be fearless. Startups have got nothing to lose. More established brands and businesses have to first and foremost protect what they already have, which makes them inherently conservative about the growth they could potentially get, because they don’t want to do anything to damage what they already have. But a business like Airbnb, it’s genuinely fearless and we can really innovate with storytelling and technology and with some provocative ways of telling the community’s stories.

About Jonathan Mildenhall
Jonathan Mildenhall is the CMO of Airbnb.

CMO