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How Airbnb's CMO Transformed the Company Into a Super Brand in Just 18 Months

Marketers need to be fearless

Airbnb's CMO spoke about turning a startup into a super brand. Photo: Airbnb

When Airbnb CEO and co-founder Brian Chesky approached Jonathan Mildenhall about taking on the CMO role at Airbnb 18 months ago, Mildenhall said he was a bit skeptical. He was, after all, working with one of the greatest storytellers and one of the most visible brands in the world—Coca-Cola.   

"Our vision for Airbnb isn't just ambitious. It's historic. We want to be the next global super brand," Chesky told Mildenhall when the two first met. With that, the Coke exec was sold.

Joining the Airbnb team meant that Mildenhall would have the chance to take a new brand and build it from the ground up. Speaking at the National Advertisers Masters of Marketing Annual Conference in Orlando, Airbnb's CMO shared his strategy and some challenges he's faced on the road to building a super brand that now operates in over 190 countries and more than 34,000 cities.

In his new role, Mildenhall said he knew he needed to look to some of the leading brands in the world, citing Apple, Starbucks, Nike, Disney and Virgin as sources of inspiration. But copying these leaders wouldn't do a startup like Airbnb any good. "We couldn't use anyone else's playbook. We had to create our own," Mildenhall said.

Airbnb had an inherently unique and difficult challenge in that the idea of staying in a stranger's home, or allowing a stranger to stay in your home, is scary. What if someone steals your jewelry, harms you, provides you with dirty accommodations? These serious questions spurred Mildenhall's marketing strategy. 

That led to the brand's very first international TV campaign, "Never a Stranger." For the spot, the CMO said he deliberately cast a single white female who wants to travel the world alone as the lead.

The campaign embraces Mildenhall's belief that brands, both startups and traditional companies, need to use these questions and concerns to their advantage. "As a marketer I think it's really, really important that you lean into the uncomfortable truth," Mildenhall said. 

Airbnb has also formed strategic partnerships with larger, more established brands to help boost its credibility and to build trust in the service's safety. Since the beginning of 2015, Airbnb has partnered with KLM to create an overnight experience in a KLM plane, and American Express.

Mildenhall also noted that it's important for brands to be fearless, especially traditional companies. "The thing that drives organizations is a fear of losing what you already have. Try and experiment without fear," Mildenhall said. Take the brand's recent "Is Mankind?" spot, which drew a few parodies along the way. A version of the ad included the copy "mankind, womankind, transkind, humankind," sparking Caitlyn Jenner to send Mildenhall's team a handwritten note applauding their leadership and fearlessness.

"I want to commend you on the beautiful spot 'Is Mankind?' As I am learning everyday, the transgender community is so grateful for people to share their stories," Jenner wrote.

"I'm so proud that I work for a company that will invest in promoting these kinds of messages. We've got to make a stance on humankind and human values," Mildenhall added.

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