ANA Annual Meeting 2015

Airbnb CMO Knocks Uber's Growth Tactics

Mildenhall: We Don't 'Want To Kind of Bulldoze Our Way Into Success'

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ANA's Bob Liodice exchanges a high-five with Jonathan Mildenhall, CMO of Airbnb, at the 2015 ANA Masters of Marketing
ANA's Bob Liodice exchanges a high-five with Jonathan Mildenhall, CMO of Airbnb, at the 2015 ANA Masters of Marketing Credit: ANA
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Airbnb Chief Marketing Officer Jonathan Mildenhall didn't hold back when asked what the lodgings rental platform has learned from watching Uber expand around the world.

During a presentation at the Association of National Advertisers Masters of Marketing conference in Orlando on Friday, Mr. Mildenhall called Uber a very interesting company. He also made it clear that he does not want to grow the same way.

"They have their own way of seeking growth," Mr. Mildenhall said. "I think for us, our community and the humanity of our community actually drives a lot of the things that what we do. So we approach any kind of awkward situation or any challenge with a lot of empathy and a lot of open collaboration. And so, we don't want to kind of bulldoze our way into success. We actually want to partner our way into success."

Mr. Mildenhall admitted that Airbnb has had some bad experiences with certain cities as it has expanded, but said the company is now working with cities "so they see us as a net positive contributor to local neighborhoods." He pointed to the company's relationships with places such as London, Amsterdam and Philadelphia, and said it is working with San Francisco as well.

Mr. Mildenhall said when he was still doing marketing at Coca-Cola, Airbnb's Brian Chesky approached him for dinner and expressed some big aspirations. Mr. Chesky said "our vision isn't just ambitious, it's historic," Mr. Mildenhall said, adding that Airbnb's aim is to become the next global "super brand." Its competitive set, as he defined it: Apple, Starbucks, Nike, Disney and Virgin.

Mr. Mildenhall, who joined Airbnb in 2014, said the company's marketing is built on five core tenets: inspiring conversation, putting deeds above messages, mining human truths, seeking both global resonance and local relevance, and measuring everything.

His efforts so far have used a mix of new, social strategies and traditional advertising such as TV and print. In one of the newer media efforts, Airbnb spent $1 million to give 100,000 people each $10 and asked them to pay it forward with a random act of hospitality that they would record and upload in the #OneLessStranger campaign. That effort had no above-the-line media, yet garnered lots of attention, including more than 300 media mentions, leading to public relations value that more than paid back the $1 million that was spent, Mr. Mildenhall said.

Airbnb's newspaper ad about opening in Cuba, calling improved relations between the country and the U.S. a 'giant leap for man's kindness.'
Airbnb's newspaper ad about opening in Cuba, calling improved relations between the country and the U.S. a 'giant leap for man's kindness.'

In another case, traditional advertising went social. Soon after President Obama announced plans to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba and expand travel opportunities from the U.S. to Cuba, Airbnb planted a stake there and promoted its presence with full-page newspaper ads.

"These ads, 'One giant leap for man's kindness,' these ads themselves became social media content," Mr. Mildenhall said. People reading the newspaper snapped photos of the print ads and posted them on social media. "My social media content that my team had designed deliberately for social media didn't actually go viral. What went viral was traditional newspaper ads in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal."

Mr. Mildenhall said Airbnb, compared to more traditional, established brands he has worked on and watched over the years, "has nothing to lose" and operates with a sense of fearlessness.

"The truth about a lot of traditional companies is the thing that drives the organization is a fear of losing what you already have," he said. Others should "try an experiment without fear," he said, and pointed to how Procter & Gamble shook up marketing for Old Spice. "Fear and conservative thinking is the one thing that's holding back the growth of a lot of traditional organizations."