The Marketer: Disrupt or be disrupted

Rosie Baker
By Rosie Baker | 21 March 2016

This article first appeared in AdNews in-print. Click here to subscribe to the AdNews magazine or read the iPad edition here.

Disrupt or be disrupted. That's the reality facing every brand and Airbnb is firmly in the disruptor camp. Rosie Baker sat down with global CMO Jonathan Mildenhall to hear how he's building a super brand that defines a generation.

As traditional businesses look over their shoulders to the new models disrupting everything they stand for, Airbnb is what they should be watching out for. One of the founding fathers of the sharing economy, the world’s largest hotel chain that doesn’t own a single bed. It now has 2.3 million properties listed globally.

Jonathan Mildenhall is Airbnb’s first global CMO. He joined 18 months ago from Coca-Cola where he was SVP of integrated marketing communication and design excellence. Originally from the UK, he spent 16 years in ad agencies including BBH and London’s indie hotshop Mother before going client side.

Mildenhall is tasked with realising Airbnb’s stated aim to become a global “super brand” akin to Nike, Disney and Apple.

“These incredible brands have developed an ideology that transcends the category. The number one criteria is that we’ll become this brand that defines the next generation,” he says. And while it might be on its way - there’s a way to go.

This year it is rolling out what will be a “mega marketing platform” for Airbnb for the next few years. It’s a shift in brand messaging that “romanticises” the experience of staying at an Airbnb. It also paves the way for the next chapter of Airbnb that will see it go beyond accommodation. it plans to extend into service offerings for things such as local gyms so it is providing what Mildenhall calls an “end-to-end travel experience”.

It began last month with a content partnership with Disney, which used scenes from upcoming release Jungle Book to promote Airbnb’s tree house accommodation under the concept ‘Love this? Live there’.

“‘Live there’ will become the north star. You’re going to see work and products that transcend accommodation so we can build this notion that when you travel on Airbnb you really feel like you’re living there.”

At eight years old, it’s still in the early adopter phase but he claims around 7% of all Aussies that travel currently use Airbnb and the tipping point to becoming mainstream is around 30%. Airbnb started 2015 with 27% awareness in Australia. By the end of the year it was 46% and the aspiration is to close out 2016 at 66%. Roy Morgan puts it ahead of more established sites such as, STA Travel and Stayz in terms of recognition.

Australia is Airbnb’s “most advanced” market in terms of penetration and awareness, if not size, and will be a focus for the disruptor’s activity this year. Under Airbnb’s global management strategy, its 13-strong exec team each take on a different region to “sponsor” every year and in 2016 Mildenhall’s is Australia. The idea is that the leadership doesn’t get wrapped up in a “San Francisco mindset,” but really knows what’s going on in local markets at a micro level.

“We’re travel brand that resides in local neighbourhoods so to be truly authentic the travel experience has to be incredibly local. So I’m managing this wonderful tension of being a global iconic brand and a deeply local brand, not just with citizens of a country, but citizens of specific neighbourhoods,” he says.

The startup is a very different world to Coke – one of the world’s biggest spending advertisers and most globally recognised brands. But that challenger position is what gives the brand freedom to be innovative, according to Mildenhall and removes the fear from the organisation.

“Dollars wise it’s a fraction of Coke but because I’m not tied to legacy sponsorship or retail deals, the In terms of marketing budget, I feel richer than I’ve ever felt.”

Without being drawn on just how much, or little, that figure is, Mildenhall did say that it has doubled it’s dollar investment in Australia year on year. Over the last 12 months it launched its first outdoor and TV campaigns and ramped up partnerships with Mardi Gras and the Sydney Opera House.

This year Mildenhall is carving out a significant slice of his digital budget to “figure out what excellence in mobile marketing looks like” after admitting the brand isn’t where it should be in mobile. It will also be venturing into its first programmatic creative this year, targeting its digital content to its target consumer.

“When you’re working with an established brand, honestly, as a marketer one of your biggest considerations is fear of messing things up. You’ve got so much to lose. Being a brand that is growing so quickly, there’s no fear. A lot of marketing organisations are implicitly driven by fear of loosing what they already have. Airbnb is implicitly driven by the excitement of gaining what we’ve not yet got.”

There is one fundamental difference between what Airbnb offers and what its heroes like Coke, Disney and Nike have in common, however.

“Those brands got there because they are incredibly consistent with the product experience – yet for Airbnb every single home is different so we have to do it through values driven messaging. It’s why the review system on Airbnb is the most valuable part of our platform,” he says.

“I’m not selling a night, or trying to get another home on the platform as a result of ads. What I am trying to do is get the world to think about humanity in a more positive and optimistic way. I think all big brands, it doesn’t matter if you’re Apple or Coke or Nike, you need to think of the legacy that your marketing output is having in the world not just the impact that the marketing is having on sales.”

“The biggest thing all marketers should think of is ‘what is the story?’. Human beings remember stories. After the media dollars are spent. I don’t know if there’s going to be great recall for those brands that don’t know how to tell great stories. What frustrates me about the marketing industry, is that the things that people remember are the marketing platforms that tried to make a difference in culture. We keep going through these iconic chapters or marketing stories that inspire people and they’re always purpose driven - they’re never just product stuff.

“The marketing industry has a huge ambition to be relevant to pop culture and yet a very short-sighted way of practising it.”

Like any business Airbnb has to balance the long-term brand building with short-term activity that will drive the business now and those lofty aspirations and mission statements are worth nothing if they don’t also perform for the business. The budget is weighed 60/40 towards short-term sales activity - performance marketing that drive people to the site but three questions govern the investment decisions Airbnb makes into its marketing: is this investment having short term sales return? Is it having a long term impact on the brand? Is this short term business driving activity compromising the long term brand?

“I’m a champion of purpose driven stuff, but also a champion of making sure marketing is delivering value to the business, and managing that tension is one of the most interesting aspects of a marketer’s job today.”

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