It's been a few weeks since Airbnb launched a bold new brand into the world and captured the internet's imagination. The company's headlines are just now transitioning back to more expected fare such as "Airbnb slobs are causing a ruckus in Montauk" and "Airbnb host can't get rid of squatter." Now that the dust has settled, it's worth taking a moment to see what we can learn from this modern branding odyssey.
Act I: The launch
Despite what you may have read during July's logo gate coverage, Airbnb's brand launch was a case study in thoughtful rebranding, a venture often beset by risk. It was highly choreographed, press-savvy, buzzworthy, delivered with passion, and, most importantly, done with purpose. Airbnb's new brand was so much more than the proverbial fresh coat of paint. The company reexamined who it was and who its audience should be. Airbnb thought critically about what kind of company it wanted to become and how to best express that vision.
Next, Airbnb then did what all good brands do, which is distill their core business into an emotion or set of personified attributes that resonate with their community. Airbnb, along with DesignStudio, developed a new logo, Bélo, in order to symbolize and herald a new positioning based on a notion of belonging. Inseparable from that exercise was the redesigning of key touch points like the website and mobile experience in the spirit of this new positioning.
Airbnb laid the groundwork for success by giving its community a hint that something new was coming through social outlets and a teaser website. The company courted the press through events and get-togethers where it privately made the case for change. Airbnb seeded irresistible branded content like its GIF animations that spelled out the new brand story and its beautifully crafted YouTube video that set the scene for all of the visible changes to come. Airbnb provided disciplined talking points and pretty much anything a journalist could ever need in order to cover the brand in a comprehensive and constructive light. By the time the new brand launched, most everyone was already on Airbnb's side.
Act II: The backlash
You don't have to Google Airbnb for long to know that even the best laid branding plans often go awry. Within minutes of the launch, customers and journalists alike begin comparing the new mark to everything from grizzly bears to female anatomy. I must confess, when I first saw the symbol, my initial, fleeting impression was of something vaguely sexual, almost mischievous, but I didn't think much of it. It's nearly impossible to predict the nature and magnitude of a response to a change like this. Anyone who has ever created a logo for a mass brand can attest that you agonize over things like this and do your best to predict what the issues will be for any nascent logo. It's hard to tell if Airbnb's tools, like its logo creator and its invitation to manipulate its brand, helped or hurt this reception. Sites like airbnblogos.tumblr.com are part homage, part invective. They're enough to keep any brand steward up at night. And while Airbnb certainly got a lot of press out of this one, it was very stressful to watch this unfold, as someone who often finds myself in the position of advising clients to take risks. Anyone who has followed the most recent branding debacles like GAP, Tropicana, and Yahoo can attest that a company's immediate response can dictate whether something like this will blow over or reach critical mass.
Act III: The response
Airbnb's response was a first rate example of clever damage control and coolheaded restraint. It took to Twitter in real-time to acknowledge people's observations and join in on the fun. In response to the tweet, "The new @Airbnb logo looks like a weird butt," Airbnb replied lightheartedly, "We prefer well-rounded." It took to the media outlets with a few select statements suggesting, more than anything else, that it believed in the new brand and was standing steadfastly behind it. It produced a quick blog post on the process and rigor required to get to the final solution, but the next thing it did was just as critical: It took a break. In this case, silence proved golden.
If you acknowledge too much of this negativity, you perpetuate the feedback cycle and can find yourself in even deeper trouble. If there's anything people feed on more than negativity, it is weakness. Airbnb denied them that chance by never appearing desperate. I was once in the position of advising a client to ignore the comparison a journalist made between their logo and a vibrator. It sounds silly, but keeping quiet at times like that can be tough. Trust me -- that is a difficult thing to do.
The most brilliant thing Airbnb did was a week or two after launch, once things had cooled down a bit. It produced "The Bélo Report: an infographic on the new Airbnb symbol." Not only was this "report" a beautiful, shareable JPG that just begged to be read, but it once again took control of the story Airbnb wanted to tell. It was witty and passionate. There may be some reality distortion going on here, but it's an undeniably honest sentiment. Sure, the logo looks like genitalia, but it also looks like modes of transportation, food, and animals! Sure, people created parody Tumblr accounts largely ridiculing the new logo, but someone also wrote a song about it! This report does a beautiful job of showing the community passion that rose up to meet Airbnb's passion and demonstrates all of the creativity that was shepherded into the world. It was inclusive, humorous, and warm.
Without any more unexpected hiccups, this post should make for good closure to an exciting brand launch with many ups and downs. The media can now get back to writing exciting Airbnb headlines like "Most Airbnb Rentals Go Perfectly. Then There Are These Horror Stories."
Sam Becker is creative director at Brand Union.
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