Airbnb’s CMO Wants to Redefine Experiential Marketing With the Company’s New Offering

And how that will play out with agencies

Headshot of Kristina Monllos

Thursday, at its Airbnb Open event in Los Angeles, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky revealed that the company is fundamentally changing. In adding experiences and much more to the platform, it will also have to revamp how it functions as a marketer. Adweek sat down with Airbnb CMO Jonathan Mildenhall to learn how the company will do that, what it is trying to accomplish and how it plans to redefine experiential marketing. 

Adweek: How are you going to market this expanded offering?

Jonathan Mildenhall: A couple of things. Airbnb did democratize travel because we created greater access for people all over the world to travel the world. But it's still not a fully democratic business because in order to participate as a host you have to have a home. But now as we're moving into experiences, you no longer need a home. You've just got to have an interest in people and a passion that other people find interesting. So now we can connect everybody. It's also experiential based so the marketing itself needs to be very democratic, and it also needs to move into more of an experiential mindset than a traditional mindset. 

So for the first time, and I do believe this is a world first, all of the marketing content is going to come out of the product content and all of the product content will have to serve as marketing. By that, I mean that every host has a 30-second trailer, every host has a poster. All of my print work is just going to be the hosts' posters. All of my digital, video, TV, cinema work is just going to be the 30-second trailers.

But I'm going to stitch the 30-second trailers together so I can do 90-seconds, so I can do a two-minute cinema ads and things like that. I'll never start afresh, so as the business scales and the product creates this great content—which is created in-house by my team—then I have the media people who are looking at all the content and going, 'Actually in this market this particular piece of content would work well,' and we'll push it out.

The only difference will be the invitational end cards. All of the paid advertising will have this end card, which is the kaleidoscope of posters that says 'Welcome to the World of Trips.' You'll be able to click on that, and it'll take you directly to that trailer that you've just seen on your mobile phone in your social feed. It's an infinitely loop of product content becomes marketing content, gets you back to the product, etc. 

What's the relationship with your agencies going to be like if your in-house team is creating all of the content? 

We have three agencies that are [our agencies] of record. We have a design agency, which is an agency called Koto, and they're responsible for the overall look and feel of the Airbnb Trips identity. We then have a product marketing agency called Bokeh, and they're responsible for wherever you see the user interface. Bokeh is doing all of the functional videos that help everybody understand what this thing is and how it works.

Then you have [TBWA\Chiat\Day] and Chiat's relationship with me is really the agency that helps figure out the overall strategic approach to marketing this thing, figuring out exactly what the communications idea is and they'll figure out the bigger stories that rely on the product content that we make in-house. Chiat will help me really work out how to stitch it all together so that we can do anthems, and we can surprise people with cinema work that showcases the trailers but has a bigger narrative at the core. Strategic positioning and anthemic storytelling, that's still Chiat's wheelhouse. 

Airbnb must've built out its in-house team to create this content. 

It's huge, huge, huge. Right now around the world, and it'll continue to scale, we have 55 directors of photography. We've got them in many different markets all working to capture this content. Then they send back the un-edited content. I have a team of 20 editors currently working full-time to edit all of the different trailers. Then we have an army of legal people making sure that everything in the film that is now edited is legal and above board. That situation is only going to scale and become even more complex as the business scales.

Ultimately what I'm looking for, the holy grail on this thing, is to have a piece of software that allows each of the hosts to edit their own trailers so our hosts can do it completely on their own, send it to us, it gets legally approved, it's cool, it's a fair reflection of what their experience is, and then we push it onto the product and then we can use that in marketing. But right now there isn't a piece of editing software that allows us to do that. 

You have these trailers and the posters, but are there going to be physical experiential marketing efforts for Airbnb's new experiences? 

I want to kind of redefine what the world sees as experiential marketing. Also today, taking place in six countries, is a simultaneously broadcast real-time magical trip using Facebook's technology. So it's a Facebook Live, it's a partnership I've got with them, with trips in L.A., Miami, Cape Town, Paris, Tokyo, London and Florence.

There are six of these trips taking place over the next 24-hours, each one of them is being broadcast live on Facebook so that people all over the world can take a look at what a magical trip looks like on Airbnb. So my entire Facebook strategy is a live experience. I have no idea. There's no actors. It's real hosts. The story and the adventure is going to unfold. People might fall in love, people might fall out, people might fall over.

But we're using Facebook Live to see if we can redefine what experiential marketing looks like for people on the mobile phone. This model of lived by few but shared by millions is something that I'm hoping that I can really learn from over the next 24 hours. If we're going to be world's most preeminent experiential company it behooves us to really, really try and redefine what experiential marketing is.

With Airbnb becoming a one-stop shop, with restaurant reservations and eventually flights, that also completely revamps what you're marketing. How do you expect to tackle that? 

A couple of things that are totally terrifying. It is end-to-end travel, from leaving your home to being delivered back to your home after three-day, one-week, two-week travel experience. Whether it's flights, city transportation, restaurants, bars, local experiences, local makers, whatever it might be ultimately—and we're not going to rush into this—but I dare say by the year 2019 pretty much all of your travel needs will be met by Airbnb's services. 

The thing that's even more exciting and even more intimidating is that we want the app to be of daily relevance. Right now people only go to the Airbnb app once every six months. I'd like you on a Thursday night to be in New York and get out the Airbnb app—it's all geo-based—and you go [looking] for an interesting thing for three people to do tomorrow night and it gives you everything that we're doing, whether it's theater options, dinner options, cool people hanging out doing some underground experience. If we get it right Airbnb could become a daily app. If people who live in these big metropolitan areas can see Airbnb as a way of curating interesting daily experiences that's huge, that's even bigger than end-to-end travel. 

To take it back a bit, the posters and movies, Chesky said that they were inspired by movies. How did that idea come about? 

The glory days of travel were the glory days of Hollywood. People used to travel through the TV screen. The first time that people saw Africa was through the silver screen, the first time that people saw Latin America [was through TV]. So there was a time when the way that Hollywood used to market itself and the way that the travel industry used to market itself were exactly the same.

Unfortunately the travel industry has slowly, slowly commoditized the way that it used to market itself because it has commoditized the experience. It's taken all of that special, emotional, cultural potential out of it. So we just took a look at the golden era of travel and where those messages came from. A lot of them came from the golden era of Hollywood. So we thought that Hollywood still knows how to romance every aspect of the business, can we try and do the same thing? 

So we made these movie posters [for experiences] and then Brian [Chesky] was like, 'Could every single host have a trailer?' And my stomach was flipping because I [knew] he'd want that to be the case. We piloted several different ways of production and landed on something that we think is really good. 

How does this compare to Airbnb's competitors? Marriott and a few other travel marketers are trying to get into the experiential marketing part of it. How is Airbnb different?

The one thing that we have is the confidence to be authentic. We always cast real people, real hosts and real homes in everything that we do. Even though my reputation as a marketer is always the more glossy end of marketing, because I believe humanity and I believe in shining a light on humanity, the beautiful thing about Airbnb's marketing—and it doesn't matter if I've got a celebrity staying on the platform or getting a first time host to feel competent on the platform—is that authenticity is at the heart of everything that we do.

I just feel I don't need a new strategic approach to storytelling to separate me from any of the competitors, I just need to make sure authenticity of that human connection is the thing that will always make us feel more distinct because not a lot of brands are confident being authentic.

The piece of film I would point to, because I think it's fantastic, is the Universal Belonging film that we've just put out there. All of the different ethnicities, I'm so close on those people, I'm so close on those eyes, I'm exposing every single pour on every single face and it's so beautiful and it's so raw and naked and there are not a lot of brands that feel comfortable being that honest about their humanity and that's the thing that will continue to set Airbnb apart. 

@KristinaMonllos Kristina Monllos is a senior editor for Adweek.