Marius on Strategy and Communication

What it says on the tin

Product vs Brand – The real reason behind AirBnB’s success

Technology is great. When used right. But behind those who do follows a long tail of so-called digital experts, who, blended by their shiny new toys, is spearheading the regression of our entire industry.

Most marketers today treat “digital” as an advanced junk mail delivery system. Get the logo in front of eyeballs and people will line up around the corner. Just like the mythical subliminal ads back in the late 50s.

And in the fine historical tradition of their expert lineage, today’s digital experts effortlessly master the dark art of establishing credentials with impenetrable terminology. By playing on people’s technological FOMO, digital snake-oil is presented as the one-cure-fits-all.

Digital marketing, in other words, has done a great job of branding itself.

Which is really ironic, because in their eagerness to protect and justify an archaic approach, digital prophets renounce the brand.

“The brand is dead”, they say, and the argument goes like this: “with today’s technology there are no excuses not to make a great product. Innovate, tell people about it, and thou shalt be rewarded with loyal customers.” All of the sudden, it seems, human beings are rational again.

Mythology in the making.

But then comes the trump card:

Just look at Uber and AirBnB.

Since Job’s death, Apple has fallen out of favour as everybody’s go-to multi-purpose case study to knock any argument out of the park, and been replaced by the new generation of outliers: Uber and AirBnB.

“Just look at Uber and AirBnB. It’s all product innovation”. Case closed. You’ve won.

But it’s a flawed analysis from the get go. Holding these two brands up as the twin peaks of functional innovation completely fails to recognise that their success is largely due to cultural innovation and cultural problem solving, in other words the brand (of which the product/service is but one element).

Although the meteoric rise of what is essentially one of many glorified taxi-booking services is fascinating, I’ll focus on AirBnB. Now, you can ask someone like Douglas Holt to conduct the analysis and end up with something much more sophisticated, but it is my hope and belief that my effort and conclusion at least ends up in the same ballpark as his would.

AirBnB started as a way of finding a stranger’s sofa to sleep on, before evolving into mostly renting out entire houses and apartments. Now, it’s a bit like ebay, where all kinds of commercial actors promote their product. But that’s just the sign of a healthy brand whose original ethos still drives the business.

Which is the sofa part.

Take a look at their latest ad (funny, isn’t it, that the poster child of the digital movement still believe in the power of a great TV spot):

AirBnB, perfectly summarised in this ad, is a cultural statement that resonates with a generation. It’s a manifesto for travelling that reflects a much broader worldview and lifestyle.

AirBnB simply couldn’t have happened 15 years ago. Its success cannot be explained in isolation, but must be seen in the context of a very specific cultural shift that has taken place since then. Back then, staying on a stranger’s sofa wouldn’t have appealed to anyone willing to pay for accommodation. Back then, backpackers were still discovering new places untouched by their next-door neighbour. Back then, the world had yet to experience 9/11, the GFC, An Inconvenient Truth and the subsequent hipster movement and their late-adopter permutations. Culture as a whole has become more socially and environmentally aware, more anti-corporate and “authenticity” has replaced “cool” as the most valuable social currency.

AirBnB offers one (still increasing) group of people a way of distancing themselves from the kind of people they don’t want to be associated with. In the context of travel, that means business people and, more importantly, tourists. The former are selfish and greedy corporate slaves in designer uniforms whose business-class carbon footprint are wasted in their quest for third-world exploitation when a Skype call would’ve sufficed. The latter are the grey mass of uncultured suburban hordes, characterised by their fondness for getting drunk on cheap booze while getting sunburned by the pool, choosing McDonalds over the local cuisine and taking pictures outside commercial tourist attractions instead of hanging out with the locals.

These travel practices are seen as immoral and inauthentic by modern, young, urban professionals, creatives and baristas.

The accommodation of choice for the sinners is the generic hotel, part of an international chain, with Eurocentric breakfasts and identical rooms. Boutique hotels (too steep for a barista pay-check) and AirBnB offered a way for them to avoid meeting their bogan neighbours for breakfast.

And so it became an ideological world of difference between sleeping in someone’s apartment rather than at the hotel down the street. Living vs staying. Authentic travel vs. mass-tourism. Good vs. evil. A traveller experiences a place and its culture, lives it, breathes it, becomes part of it. Travellers don’t “do” New York, they shoot hoops with the locals. Colour blind and open to new experiences, travellers are citizens of the world, a new generation (class) of urban cosmopolitans. Not the crude jet-setting kind, but the kind whose wealth is measured in cultural capital.

This is neither a criticism of AirBnB, nor of their customers. I think it’s one of the world’s greatest brands at the moment. They have perfectly captured the global cultural mood and brought brand, product, communication and everything digital together in perfect unison. As for the customers, I’m kind of one of them.

It is, however, a critique of the digital experts who jumps on the daily 9am bandwagon without ever thinking to ask where it’s taking them.

AirBnB solves a cultural problem through promoting an ideology and a set of moral values, and has thus become a status symbol for a certain group of people at a certain point in time. The functional need that it covers is entirely constructed by this ideology and is therefore of secondary importance.

AirBnB is an idea and an ideal, promoted through advertising and reinforced by the product.  Digital is used to optimise every aspect of the customer experience (I don’t know the details of their digital strategy btw, I’m sure they too stalk people online and bombard them with ads). The result is a great brand and a great business.

Which is essentially the opposite of what the long tail of digital experts prescribe. For them, digital comes first, used crudely as a way of shoving messages about incremental improvements and meaningless product benefits down our throats. The brand, in their view, is irrelevant, a concept made up by creative spin-doctors to make up for their lack of data and analytics (you know, science and stuff).

But the greatest sin they commit is to use AirBnB to justify their simplistic view of communication and marketing in general and culture and human nature in particular.

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This entry was posted on May 5, 2016 by in Uncategorized.
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