The success of sharing economy companies like Uber, Lyft, Zipcar and so many others hinges on the younger generation of Millennial and Gen Z consumers. With so many young people forgoing owning expensive assets for sharing and borrowing, they must have extra funds to spend on things like entertainment and travel. So they’ll probably need somewhere to stay, right?
From its scrappy startup beginnings, Airbnb has been built on a foundation of innovation meant to disrupt the hotel industry. As part of the company’s DNA, Airbnb lives and breathes a deep, fundamental understanding of the connection between its most important consumers: guests and hosts. By offering a two-way rating system to ensure quality and build trust, Airbnb provides that consistent, enriched, and trustworthy customer experience – something a lot of companies strive for.
However, something it’s been challenged with is the ability to differentiate the Airbnb brand from other similar housing rental services like HomeAway, VRBO, or even the more luxe onefinestay. Airbnb CMO Jonathan Mildenhall recently told Fast Company that the company is focused on becoming “a culturally driven brand” that uses real, emotionally-driven stories connecting to the human experience. But that’s not always so easy. “We get overwhelmed by the opportunity that’s in the community alongside the sensitivity that’s in the community,” Mildenhall continues. “We don’t yet have an understanding of how technology can help us harness the stories, curate the very best of those stories and in so doing, inspire more of the stories to be told and be shared with the rest of the community.”
Since being founded in 2008, Airbnb has housed 50 million guests worldwide. Still, the model is a relatively new concept in the hospitality industry; having people grasp it – and trust it – immediately can be a hard nut to crack. Changing people’s behaviors and recalibrating expectations surrounding housing while traveling doesn’t happen overnight. But here’s how it’s starting to happen.
Real people on the inside
For Airbnb, partnering with its community of loyal customers is a way to tackle that challenge. “They are more curious about humankind, more curious about the places that they go and the cultures they are embracing,” says Mildenhall. “We really wanted to put out a campaign that spoke to the people who are already on the platform saying: ‘We all have these beautiful values. These values are really what mankind started with and where we believe mankind should go.'”
A video featuring a real Airbnb guest, Ellie, highlights her experience using the service as well as her own background. She writes a “thank you” note to an Airbnb host, a total stranger. This is smart, brilliant, relatable advertising; it gives any potential customer context and the ability to see themselves as her. But more importantly, it demonstrates the power of putting real people at the center of a brand, right down to the marketing and advertising.
Now more than ever, profound, nuanced customer understanding is critical to Airbnb’s global success. It’s something we should expect more of as the company grows. With the recent announcement by CEO Brian Chesky of the company’s expansion into China – and, subsequently, into the wallets of 1.5 billion Chinese consumers – Airbnb “want[s] to clearly understand the needs and desires of Chinese travelers going overseas and partner with Chinese companies to create a truly localized platform for these travelers.” Tapping into the lives and discovering the needs of this massive consumer group will not only help Airbnb grow abroad, but also, eventually, domestically in China. It’s a smart differentiating strategy considering competition from rival Chinese Airbnb-esque companies like Tujia and Xiaozhu is fierce and heavily funded.
Smart partnerships on the outside
With success using their own core customers, Airbnb is able to then flip that to help other industries and brands connect with this younger demographic as well.
Of the four major professional sports in America, Major League Baseball has been challenged the most with trying to connect with younger fans. The historical nature and vintage nostalgia of baseball should seem to appeal to this audience – after all, they love a good throwback and seem fascinated with nostalgia marketing – but baseball is still challenged by its own product. Namely, it causes everyone to slow down. Unlike the NFL, baseball needs a new approach to interact and collaborate with this younger audience.
How does brand like MLB that’s looking to appeal to younger audiences do something unique and unexpected, keep tradition, but involve one of the up-and-coming companies that young people love?
Through partnership. And what better way to attract fans than with a contest, like this one that gave people the opportunity to stay at Fenway Park?! Not only does this give travelers a one-of-a-kind getaway to one of the most historic ballparks in the country, it allows for both brands to play ball and engage on a more intimate level with customers and fans. It’s a win-win-win: for Airbnb, for MLB, and of course for consumers. An unforgettable experience (and a rave review) is sure to ensue. I’d call that a home run.