Airbnb CMO Says His Work Is Done. ‘Belong Anywhere’ Campaign? Not Exactly There Yet
Jonathan Mildenhall plans to leave Airbnb this month after three years as chief marketing officer, his goal achieved, he said, to make a beloved brand that has helped create value.
Now one of the largest providers of tourist accommodations in the world, Airbnb claims to have 3 million-plus listings in 165 countries and expects to book 100 million guest stays in 2017. Its current market value of more than $30 billion exceeds the value of the world’s largest hotel chains.
Airbnb’s “Belong Anywhere” campaign has become meaningful for the brand’s community worldwide, Mildenhall said.
Now he plans to set up his own brand consultancy named 21st Century Brand, the Wall Street Journal reported.
He wants to take what he learned at Airbnb and work with other founders to get people to care deeply about their brands, he said in an emailed statement to Ad Age:
Mildenhall has been outspoken on the subject of making the ad industry less white, and he strives to include diverse casting in the campaigns he oversees. Just this year, Airbnb’s first Super Bowl ad, a last-minute purchase bought just days before this year’s game, promoted “We Accept,” a message of tolerance after company executives spoke publicly against President Trump’s travel ban. The ad was created in-house.
Airbnb has faced some highly publicized controversies, including racial discrimination by hosts that prompted the company to hire former Attorney General Eric Holder to help craft a better policy, CBS reported.
When some hosts discriminated against African Americans, gays and lesbians and Asian Americans, Airbnb said it had “zero tolerance” for racial intolerance and would not do business with prejudiced lodgings providers.
Now when you sign up for Airbnb, you have to sign a community commitment saying you will not discriminate against people and allow people of all backgrounds in your home.
In a 2017 study, Harvard Business School associate professor Ben Edelman found that a “request from guests with distinctively African-American names is roughly 16 percent less likely to be accepted than identical guests with distinctively white names.”
A Tampa-Based startup hopes to build a better Airbnb by promoting inclusion and diversity on a new home-sharing platform, Innclusive.
Entrepreneur Rohan Gilkes was inspired to start the new lodgings website in 2016 after he tried twice without success to book an Airbnb property in Idaho. Gilkes asked a white friend to try, and she was “instantly” approved for the same property and dates.
Disability advocates say people with disabilities who want to use Airbnb are often turned away.
For years, Airbnb argued that it was “just a ‘platform,’” a disinterested marketplace where tourists could find accommodations in residential housing units. As such, Airbnb argued, it was exempt from any regulations and laws that apply to traditional businesses, 48Hills reported:
The company’s unwillingness to follow the Americans with Disabilities Act and provide disabled travelers the opportunity to “live like a local” (as Airbnb’s marketing promises) have gone largely unnoticed, said disability advocates Becky Ogle and Bob Planthold in an opinion piece.
Airbnb and its hosts routinely discriminate against people with disabilities, turning aside lodging requests from people living with dwarfism, blindness, cerebral palsy, and spinal cord injuries at high rates, according to an independent study from Rutgers University, “No Room at the Inn? Disability Access in the New Sharing Economy.
Jonathan Mildenhall at Airbnb
In 2014, Mildenhall quit one of the most plum gigs in advertising (running Coca-Cola’s marketing) and took a chance on then-unproven upstart Airbnb as its CMO, Ad Week reported.
Airbnb wanted to craft a brand narrative that, “much like Coke’s, aspires to a higher purpose than merely selling a product or service,” and he was in sync with founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia.
“The idea of Airbnb helping to create a world where all 7.5 billion people can genuinely feel they can belong anywhere—it’s such a noble purpose. And we will probably not reach it in my lifetime,” Mildenhall said. “But it’s big enough, and tangible enough, to motivate not just the people at Airbnb but all the agencies and media partners we work with.”
Charismatic and driven, Mildenhall helped Airbnb evolve “by leaning into, rather than running from, the cultural tensions around the brand,” Ad Week reported. He embraced the brand that celebrated “the diverse nature of humanity”:
“As an openly gay black executive in marketing in North America, I am very unusual,” Mildenhall said. “I look different. I speak different. And rather than shying away from all that, I’m in the incredibly privileged position of being able to use the brand as a magnifying glass for those values. For the first time in my career, there is no difference between the way I want to show up in the world and the way I can steer the brand to show up in the world. And that is incredibly, incredibly satisfying.”
Mildenhall overcame the tension people feel about staying in a stranger’s house with the “Never a Stranger” campaign. When Airbnb became a bigger player, he went after the hospitality industry for sanitizing the travel experience, in the “Don’t Go There. Live There” campaign.
He oversaw smaller campaigns that made the Airbnb brand look good, such as the “Night At” series, (where Airbnb partnered with unusual locations to offer overnight stays) and Leo Burnett’s re-creation of Van Gogh’s bedroom for the Art Institute of Chicago.
“The corporation should assume responsibility for ensuring that all travelers, including those with disabilities, have access to its accommodations,” disability advocates said, according to 48Hills. “There’s nothing innovative or disruptive about discrimination, and there’s no law protecting a platform’s right to embrace it.”
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