Can Airbnb unite the world?

After the Attacks in Paris, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky is redoubling his efforts to expan his business--and close the cultural gaps between US.

Fast Company/January 12, 2016

By Max Chafkin

The Airbnb headquarters takes up three floors of a former battery factory in San Francisco’s SoMA neighborhood and houses roughly 1,100 employees, but its secondary function hits you as soon as you walk in: The place is a museum. Chesky, an art school graduate,
designed the conference rooms as exact replicas of more than a dozen of the most significant Airbnb listings, including the nearby apartment where he and his cofounder Joe Gebbia were living when they rented out three air mattresses during a design conference to help pay the rent. (Chesky still lives there, periodically offering the couch to travelers for $40 a night.) Dollhouse-like dioramas of well-known listings greet guests near the lobby, and framed artwork lines the walls throughout, accompanied by museum-style didactic panels that offer an interpretation. An entire wall is dedicated to exploring the creative origins of Airbnb’s new logo, and another exhibit attempts to imagine what Airbnb’s flag might look like if the company were a country. One possibility: AIRBNB IS THE NEXT STAGE OF HUMAN EVOLUTION, overlaid on a scientific illustration that shows our progression from apes to cavemen to humans. None of this is done with much of a sense of humor, and as I mull the March of Progress, I wonder if there has ever been a company with such an expansive sense of its own importance. Even Coca-Cola’s famous "Hilltop" ad—"I’d like to buy the world a Coke / And keep it company / That’s the real thing"—had a certain sense of proportion.

As idealistic as this is, it’s also the point. "How could you be cynical about humanity and join Airbnb?" Chesky asks during an employee orientation. "When we started this company, people thought we were crazy. They said strangers will never stay with strangers, and horrible things are going to happen." This is no exaggeration: During Airbnb’s first year in business, every venture capitalist Chesky pitched turned him down, and few guests were willing to risk staying with people they’d never met. Chesky and his cofounders relied on storytelling to make the idea seem friendly and, crucially, safe. It was a tall order, but Chesky is a gifted storyteller. "He’s incredibly charismatic," says Jeff Jordan, a board member and general partner with Andreessen Horowitz. "He just draws you in. There’s this elegance in how he describes the business and how he envisions the future."

Of course, there are limits to this approach. Most Airbnb hosts are not full-timers, and while the idea of sharing their world may hold some appeal, many just want to make the rent and get to work on time. And so Chesky has tried, in addition to helping with practicalities, to convey to hosts (and potential ones) that Airbnb is important even as a concept. The company launched an ambitious rebranding effort in 2014 that scrapped a straightforward text logo for an abstract symbol, endowing it with a weighty name and backstory. Chesky characterized the bélo, a made-up word created with the help of a London branding agency, as "the universal symbol of belonging," and encouraged hosts to display it prominently in their homes. ("We wanted something that transcended language, transcended culture, transcended geography," he said in a video about the rebranding.) He also gave Airbnb a new tagline: "Belong Anywhere." "Cities used to be villages," Chesky wrote in a blog post. "Everyone knew each other, and everyone knew they had a place to call home. But after the mechanization and Industrial Revolution of the last century, those feelings of trust and belonging were displaced by mass-produced and impersonal travel experiences." Many joked that the bélo looked a bit like Scrotie. Chesky laughed off the comparison and pushed the message even harder.

"Let me draw something for you," he says when I suggest, ever so gently, that the message seems just a little bit over the top. He grabs my notebook and sketches a simplified version of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Typically represented as a pyramid, Maslow’s hierarchy says that people are motivated both by basic needs (like food and shelter) and more transcendent ones (like "self-actualization," which is found at the very top of the pyramid). "Most of our advertising is here," he says, pointing to the bottom of the pyramid—and noting how Airbnb routinely buys Google ads targeted at people searching for rooms and apartments in specific cities. Airbnb’s more conceptual marketing, he says, is aimed at "the most passionate people," and is intended "to turn on the right people and turn off the wrong people."

What Chesky means by the "right people" are the hosts. They are, as Chesky often says, his company’s product, as well as the key to its growth. "This company is first and foremost about the hosts, not the guests," he says. "We"—that is Chesky and his cofounders—"were the first hosts. We are them." If this seems a bit cultlike, well, that’s the point. Chesky’s head of community is Douglas Atkin, a former advertising agency executive known for his work on JetBlue and for writing a book that draws business lessons from cults like Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church and the Hare Krishna movement. "We’re an ideologically led brand," Atkin says.

The thing about cults is that they tend to inspire passionate opposition when messages intended for their followers inevitably trickle into the wider world. Proposition F, for example, generated weeks of negative headlines in San Francisco, and at one point Chesky had to apologize for a series of passive-aggressive billboards Airbnb had purchased to try to help defeat the measure by reminding voters that its hosts pay hotel taxes to the city. But Chesky has become a skilled communicator and shown a willingness to compromise. Whereas Uber, another disruptive sharing-economy service, prompted riots in Paris during which cars were overturned and burned, Airbnb has stirred only minor controversy there. In August, Paris officials agreed to allow the company to collect tourist taxes on behalf of its hosts, essentially legalizing the service in the city. In fact, feelings were so warm that deputy mayor Jean-François Martins appeared on stage at the Airbnb Open calling Paris’s status as Airbnb’s biggest market "a special honor."

On the morning of November 13, the second day of the Airbnb Open, Chesky’s chief marketing officer, Jonathan Mildenhall, led the audience through a raucous group boogie-down to Whitney Houston’s "I Wanna Dance with Somebody," followed by a screening of the company’s latest television spot—a 60-second commercial that had aired immediately after Caitlyn Jenner’s emotional acceptance speech at the ESPY Awards gala in July. ("Is man kind? Are we good?" asks narrator Angela Bassett, as a toddler waddles toward a window. The viewer is invited to "sit at [Airbnb hosts’ tables] so you can share their tastes; sleep in their beds so you can know their dreams.") The campaign had been called "wildly pretentious" and "existential bordering on absurd" by Adweek. But here in Paris, Mildenhall, a former Coca-Cola executive who has said he was inspired by the "Hilltop" commercial, got a standing ovation. As the crowd erupted, Mildenhall dropped to his knees, as if in prayer. He later called it "the best moment of my career."

The hosts I met at the event seemed similarly moved. (This is yet another way that Airbnb differs from Uber. Most Uber drivers seem to look at Uber as a business partner. Airbnb hosts tend to be true believers.) "Airbnb speaks to a big part of who I am," said Michele Martinez, a textile designer and former real estate agent who began renting out rooms in her Brooklyn loft in 2010 and who now has built a life around Chesky’s service. She is close with a group of two dozen hosts who "have drunk the Kool-Aid," as she put it. She also organizes regular meetups, attends city council meetings on behalf of the company, and starred in a political ad designed to rally support in New York for the company.

Coke’s "Hilltop" ad, which is regarded by many as the greatest TV commercial of all time, did turn out to be sort of true, at least in some small way. "You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the president drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too," Andy Warhol wrote in 1975. "All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the president knows it, and you know it, too." Global capitalism, propelled by big brands like Coke, helped usher in a period of relative calm and unprecedented wealth in America and in many parts of the world. We saw the ads and we believed them; and in believing them, we kind of made them real.

That’s the other thing about cults: They stop being cults once enough people believe. Today, Airbnb is a good business with great marketing. But maybe it’s more. Maybe it’s the real thing.

Note: This is a shortened edited version of the article.

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