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BR EAKT HR O UG H

BRANDS

howairbnbfoundamission—andabrand
thisexcerptfromLeighGallagher’s upcoming Theairbnbstory revealshowthecompany searchedfor
itssoul—withsometimes painfulresults—anddeepeneditsconnectiontocustomers.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOE PUGLIESE

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fortune.com // jan.01.17
Brian Chesky rued
the fact that “mass-
produced and
impersonal travel
experiences” had
become the norm.
Along the way,
he says, “people
stopped trusting57
each
fortune.com // other.”
mon.01.16
SOMETIME IN 2013, Airbnb started thinking about
reorienting its entire mission and center of gravity
to better articulate the elements that made using its
platform so unique. Douglas Atkin, the company’s
new global head of community, began by posing
the questions, “Why does Airbnb exist? What’s its
purpose? What’s its role in the world?” The answers
to those questions, as Atkin puts it, would become
“the rudder that guides the whole ship.”
Atkin is an expert on the relationship between
consumers and brands and the author of The
Culting of Brands. He and his team interviewed
480 employees, guests, and hosts around the
BREA KTHRO UGH world. Again and again, he says, he heard guests
BRA NDS
saying that “the last thing they wanted to be is
tourists.” That felt too passive to them. Airbnb
customers wanted to engage with people and
culture; they wanted to be insiders.
Airbnb has been one of the signature successes A single idea began to emerge: the notion of
of the “sharing economy.” Along with Uber, it’s “belonging.” By mid-2014 the company had settled
on a repositioning around this concept. Airbnb had
a young brand that has penetrated consum- a new mission statement: to make people around
ers’ consciousness—and rung up a $30 billion the world feel like they could “belong anywhere.”
valuation—so quickly that many people already The company had a new logo to symbolize
this: a cute squiggly shape it called the “Bélo,” the
use it as a verb. (As in, “Let’s go to Miami for the result of months of conceiving and refining. It had
weekend. We’ll Airbnb a place by the beach!”) been named by Airbnb’s chief marketing officer,
In her upcoming book, The Airbnb Story: How Jonathan Mildenhall, who had recently joined from
Three Ordinary Guys Disrupted an Industry, Made Coca-Cola. Mildenhall also persuaded the founders
to expand “Belong anywhere” from an internal mis-
Billions … and Created Plenty of Controversy, sion statement to the company’s official tagline.
Leigh Gallagher takes readers inside the com- In July 2014, Airbnb introduced the rebrand, as
pany’s rise. Gallagher, an assistant managing well as a redesign of its mobile app and website.
editor at Fortune, identifies how Airbnb astutely Chesky explained the concept in a cerebral, high-
minded essay on Airbnb’s website: A long time ago,
expanded its brand from one known for put- he wrote, cities used to be villages. But as mass
ting budget travelers in people’s living rooms to production and industrialization came along, that
endless exotic options (tree houses, anyone?) personal feeling was replaced by “mass-produced
and impersonal travel experiences,” and along the
to renting ultra-high-end gems to the likes of way, “people stopped trusting each other.”
Gwyneth Paltrow. The book explores Airbnb’s Airbnb, he wrote, would stand for something
significant challenges along the way, from bat- much bigger than travel; it would stand for
tles with regulators to racial discrimination and community and relationships and using technol-
ogy for the purpose of bringing people together.
other unwelcome behavior on its platform, but Airbnb would be the one place people could go to
also how, with 140 million “guest arrivals” since meet the “universal human yearning to belong.”
its launch in 2008, it has clearly struck a chord The Bélo itself was carefully conceived to resem-
with consumers. In the following excerpt, Gal- ble a heart, a location pin, and the “A” in Airbnb.
It was designed to be simple, so that anyone could
lagher examines how cofounder and CEO Brian draw it. Indeed, the company invited people to
Chesky’s search for a mission for employees draw their own versions of the logo—which, it was
turned into a rebranding for the whole company, announced, would stand for four things: people,
places, love, and Airbnb.
a revealing process that spotlights the interplay To say Airbnb can be idealistic is an understate-
between what can be seen as a company’s soul ment. The media were skeptical, to put it mildly.
and the way it engages with the outside world. TechCrunch called “Belong anywhere” a “hippy-

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fortune.com // jan.01.17
dippy concept,” while others wondered whether it I, too, was skeptical—not of the logo, but of the
was really warm and fuzzy “belonging” that drove Clockwise from top “belonging” concept—at first. I thought it meant
left: Chesky on-
people to Airbnb or whether they just wanted stage at the Airbnb spending time with the person who lived in the
a cheap and cool place to stay. Media outlets Open, its annual space you rented. In the few times I had used
lampooned the Bélo, not for its idealism so much gathering of hosts, Airbnb, I hadn’t met or seen my host and didn’t
in 2016; guests at
as its shape, which they said looked alternately another event dur- want to; I mainly wanted to save money.
like breasts, buttocks, and both male and female ing the Open; Snoop But “belonging” in the Airbnb-rebrand context
genitalia all at once. Within 24 hours the sexual Dogg promoting didn’t have to be about having tea and cookies
interpretations of the logo had been curated and Airbnb at South by with the person whose place you’re staying in.
Southwest in 2014;
posted on a Tumblr blog. “Nothing says tempo- a protester in San It was much broader: It meant venturing into
rary home like the vagina-butt-uterus abstraction Francisco charges neighborhoods that you might not otherwise
that Airbnb chose as its new logo,” tweeted re- that landlords be able to see, staying in places you wouldn’t
evicted tenants to
porter Katie Benner, now of the New York Times. facilitate Airbnb normally be able to, bunking in someone else’s
rentals; actor
James Franco’s
Hollywood Airbnb
pop-up promotion.
Below: Chip Conley,
the company’s
head of global
hospitality and
strategy.
S U L L I VA N — G E T T Y I M A G E S ; C H R I S W E E K S — G E T T Y I M A G E S . C E N T E R : B E R N A R D W E I L—T O R O N T O S T A R / G E T T Y I M A G E S
C L O C K W I S E F R O M T O P L E F T: S T E P H A N I E K E E N A N — G E T T Y I M A G E S ( 2 ) ; V I V I E N K I L L I L E A — G E T T Y I M A G E S ; J U S T I N

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fortune.com // jan.01.17
space, and having an experience that person then that’s precisely why I picked her listing.)
“hosted” for you, regardless of whether you ever Whatever the press thought of the rebrand,
laid eyes on him or her. When I booked a place Airbnb’s users seemed to get it. Over the next few
through Airbnb in Philadelphia, I warily pushed months, more than 80,000 people went online
open the door to an apartment in a run-down and designed their own versions of the logo, a rate
walk-up in Rittenhouse Square to find an invit- of consumer engagement that would be consid-
ing studio with high ceilings; walls lined with ered off the charts by larger brands. Airbnb even
books; cozy, minimalist decor; and a string of embraced the logo hubbub. Atkin, who spear-
twinkly lights hanging over the fireplace. I liked headed the journey to “belonging,” later referred
everything about “Jen’s” place, from her book col- to it as “equal-opportunity genitalia.”
lection to the towels she’d fluffed and folded, to
the handwritten card she left for me. (It helped AS A COMPANY, Airbnb had a third constituency it
that Jen and I had the same aesthetic taste, but needed to enlist: not just employees and guests, but
BREA KTHRO UGH the people who rent out their houses and apart-
BRA NDS
ments. It wasn’t enough just to get the hosts to sign
on and to offer their spaces; the company had to
get them to work hard to offer a good experience.
The number of Airbnb listings dwarfs the quantity
of rooms in even the largest hotel chains, but it
neither owns nor controls any of the inventory, nor
the behavior of any of the people offering it.
The founders knew this from the earliest days,
when persuading people to list their spaces was
a struggle. But it wasn’t until late 2012, when
Chesky read an issue of Cornell Hospitality Quar-
terly, the journal of the esteemed Cornell Uni-
versity School of Hotel Administration, that he
started thinking more seriously about the experi-
ence the company was offering. He decided they
needed to transform Airbnb more deeply from a
tech company into a hospitality company.
Shortly after that, Chesky read Peak: How
Great Companies Get Their Mojo From Maslow.
The book’s author was Chip Conley, founder of
the Joie de Vivre boutique-hotel chain, which
grew to 38 boutique properties before he sold a
majority stake in 2010.
Conley had become something of a guru. In
Peak, he explained how he had saved his company
in the wake of 9/11 and the dotcom bust by apply-
ing the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy
of needs—the pyramid of physical and psycho-
logical needs humans must have met in order to
achieve their full potential, with food and water
at the bottom and self-actualization at the top—to
corporate and individual transformation. Chesky
Cofounder saw in Conley both business and hotel savvy and
Nathan Blechar- perhaps a kindred idealism. (Conley talked about
czyk is Airbnb’s wanting his guests to check out three days later as
CTO, but his role
has broadened a “better version of themselves.”)
over the years. Chesky lobbied Conley and eventually recruited
He’s also a host: him into a full-time position, in the fall of 2013,
He has had 178
guests in his as global head of hospitality and strategy. Conley
home in the past was fascinated by the challenge of democratizing
two years. hospitality, which had become “corporatized.” He
wanted to “take it back to its roots.”

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fortune.com // jan.01.17
Conley traveled to 25 cities, giving talks and
offering tips to help apartment dwellers chan-
monthsafter trip matches your “hosting style”; for example,
if someone is looking for a hands-on host and
nel their inner innkeeper. He set up a central- adopting you’re private, it may not be the best match. Com-
ized hospitality-education effort, created a set of
standards, and started a blog, a newsletter, and an
“belong municate often and provide detailed directions.
Establish any “house rules” (if you’d like travel-
online community center where hosts could learn anywhere” ers to take their shoes off or not smoke) very
and share best practices. He developed a mentor- asatagline, clearly. Clean every room thoroughly, especially
ing program wherein experienced hosts could the bathroom and kitchen. Bedding and towels
teach new ones good hospitality. cheskyasked, should be fresh. Want to go beyond the basics?
Among the mandates and suggestions now ar- “whatdoes Consider sprucing up the room with fresh flowers
ticulated in Airbnb’s materials: Aim to respond to
booking queries within 24 hours. Before accept-
itactually or providing a treat upon check-in, like a glass
of wine or a welcome basket. Do these things, he
ing guests, try to make sure their idea for their mean?” says, even if you’re not present during the stay.

how OVER THE YEARS, Airbnb and


the hotel industry have largely
Swissôtel, and others, ac-
quired the short-term-rental
Big Business has often
joined disruptive trends—

hotelsare maintained a nonaggression


pact. The incumbents tended
startup Onefinestay, which
offers luxury accommoda-
frequently after discovering
they can’t beat them. In re-

starting to pooh-pooh the potential


threat posed by the upstart,
tions in private homes with
the high-end service of a
cent years, after shaving-club
newbies Dollar Shave Club

toimitate and the upstart insisted it has


absolutely no desire to take
hotel. Accor also invested in
Oasis Collections, another
and Harry’s struck a chord
with millennials, Gillette

airbnb business from the incum-


bents. “For us to win,” Chesky
is fond of saying even today,
startup pushing a “home-
meets-hotel” concept.
Airbnb-style individualism
started its own alternative,
and Unilever bought Dollar
Shave Club for a reported
“hotels don’t have to lose.” is seeping into hotels, with $1 billion. And packaged-
Until now, that’s been largely more seeking to customize food giants have hustled
Why you might
true, with Airbnb enjoying the look of individual rooms— to catch up with the shift
thank Brian Chesky
astonishing growth and the once anathema in a business toward natural and organic
for the unique art
hotel industry reaching record that thrived on uniformity— offerings: Campbell Soup Co.
on the wall of your
occupancy in 2015. and granting employees more acquired Bolthouse Farms
guest room.
But, increasingly, each latitude in how they interact and Plum Organics, and meat-
side is making incursions in with customers to inject more processing giant Tyson Foods
the other’s terrain (not to “humanity” into the experi- went so far as to take a stake
mention more contentious ef- ence. Thomas Cook is experi- in a plant-based, protein-
forts, as the hotel lobby funds menting with a “Casa Cook” alternative startup called
the regulatory fight against hotel, which the company Beyond Meat.
Airbnb). Chesky’s company describes as “like staying at Of course, the same has
has designs on the lucra- a friend’s house, where the happened before in the
tive business-travel market, kitchen is always open.” A hospitality industry. It wasn’t
courting corporate custom- microchain, Freehand Hotels, that long ago that boutique
ers like Google and Morgan offers separate—or shared— hotels—Ian Schrager’s
Stanley and creating a new rooms to appeal to the Morgans, which opened in
classification of “business budget-travel set. Last year, New York City in the 1980s
travel ready” room options. Choice Hotels, which owns was one of the first—were
And the hotel chains are Comfort Inn, EconoLodge, considered revolutionary. Now
starting to experiment with Quality Inn, and other brands, almost every hotel company
ways to tap into the “home- launched Vacation Rentals by has its own twist on the con-
sharing” boom themselves. Choice Hotels, a partnership cept. So will we see “At Home
In 2016, AccorHotels, the with vacation-rental manage- by Marriott” or “Hilton Home-
France-based parent of ment companies, to offer an Shares”? Not tomorrow. But
Raffles, Fairmont, Sofitel, alternative to hotel rooms. maybe sometime soon.

61
fortune.com // jan.01.17
IN NOVEMBER 2014, four months after Airbnb people experienced when they traveled on Airbnb.
launched “Belong anywhere” as its mission, The company has codified this as the “belong any-
Chesky went back to Atkin. He said he loved where transformation journey.” It goes like this:
“Belong anywhere,” and he truly felt it would be When travelers leave their homes, they feel alone.
the company’s mission for the next 100 years. But They reach their Airbnb, and they feel accepted
he still had some pressing questions: What does and taken care of by their host. They then feel
the phrase actually mean? How do you measure safe to be the same kind of person they are when
it? How does it happen? they’re at home.
Chesky dispatched Atkin on another focus- When that happens, they feel like freer, better,
group odyssey to figure it out. When Atkin came more complete versions of themselves, and their
back, after talking to another 300 hosts and journey is complete. This is Airbnb-speak, and
guests, he had an answer: Belonging anywhere while it may sound hokey to the rest of us, many
wasn’t a single moment; it was a transformation would say this is a huge reason Airbnb took off.
BREA KTHRO UGH There is a cultlike devotion among Airbnb’s tru-
BRA NDS
est believers, who embrace this vision. (During
his focus-group travels exploring the meaning of
Airbnb, Atkin encountered one host in Athens
who had painted “Belong anywhere” on his
bedroom wall, and another in Korea who had
Airbnb changed her name to a Korean phrase mean-
cofounder Joe ing “welcome to my house.”) But whether or not
Gebbia is now it is a “transformation journey” for the average
the company’s
chief product traveler, Airbnb has enjoyed success that is about
officer. Gebbia something more than just low prices and easy
first contacted access to quirky spaces. It touches on something
Douglas Atkin, bigger and deeper.
who led the
company’s The opportunity to show some humanity or to
rebranding, receive some expression of humanity from others
after reading has become rare in our disconnected world. This is
his work.
another element about Airbnb (and other short-
term-rental services) that makes it different from
other aspects of the so-called sharing economy. At
its core, Airbnb involves the most intimate human
interactions: visiting people in their homes, sleep-
ing in their beds, using their bathrooms.
That is precisely what makes it objectionable to
so many people who can never
imagine using it. But it’s also
what makes it unique. This kind
of “sharing” is not present when
you hire a person to fix a leak
on TaskRabbit, or when you get
into someone’s air-conditioned
black car for a silent ride to the
airport. More than anything
Excerpted from else, it is this aspect of Airbnb
The Airbnb Story:
How Three Ordinary that distinguishes it from
Guys Disrupted Uber, Lyft, and any other of its
an Industry, Made sharing-economy peers. Elisa
Billions … and
Created Plenty of Schreiber, marketing partner at
Controversy, by Greylock Partners, an investor
Leigh Gallagher, to
be published on
in the company, summarized
Feb. 14, 2017, by this distinction concisely after
Houghton Mifflin we got to talking about it one
Harcourt. Copyright
©2017. Used by day. “Uber is transactional,” she
permission. said. “Airbnb is humanity.”

62
fortune.com // jan.01.17 FEEDBACK LETTERS@FORTUNE.COM
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