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The holy trinity of brand-building


Per usual, I watched the recent Super Bowl with one eye on the game… and the other on the commercials.

I had a hand in TV advertising in a previous life, so I’m always curious to see what gets noticed on the biggest television day of the year.  Surprise… this year the ad that impressed me most didn’t involve herding cats, a Clydesdale, an adorable puppy, or a rock star.

Instead, it was this spot by Airbnb that jumped out at me.

Just as Netflix is changing how we watch TV, Airbnb is doing the same for how we travel. Founded only nine years ago, Airbnb is firing on all cylinders:

  • 150 million guests since inception;
  • 3 million listings worldwide (including 1,400 castles!);
  • $900 million in annual revenues;
  • $30 billion market valuation (not bad for three classmates from the Rhode Island School of Design!)

Equally impressive, to me, is how Airbnb smoothly integrates what I consider the three essential ingredients (the ‘holy trinity’) of brand-building:

1.  A clear, compelling purpose.  

Purpose is our soul, the dramatic difference we make to those we serve. Purpose is never about selling more stuff or making more money. This all follows if we link the three ingredients properly. Consumers today want to engage with brands that stand for something meaningful and change their lives for the better, not just sell a product or service.

Airbnb’s purpose is to make people feel like they can “belong anywhere,” even when they’re thousands of miles from home, experiencing a new country or culture. It’s why the acceptance commercial is so compelling – it syncs with what Airbnb is all about.

2.   A culture 100% aligned with the purpose.

Culture is our back stage. It’s our internal glue, core beliefs, values – and the mix of people and their mindsets – that all wrap into what Steve Jobs described as “how we do things around here.” Best of all, our culture can’t be copied. It’s ours alone.

No surprise, Airbnb’s culture is rooted in the values and beliefs of “belonging.” It relentlessly vets all new hires for the right fit with its purpose. As one co-founder puts it, “The minute people start talking about job titles or equity over changing the world via local and authentic travel experiences, we know they’re barking up the wrong tree.”

Airbnb doubles-down on culture by continually enlisting A+ talent that deliver on the purpose. An example is Chip Conley, a renowned hotel entrepreneur and disruptor in his own right. Airbnb consistently raises its game and never settles for average.

3.   Marketing that spreads.  

Marketing is our front stage. It’s how we plant the right messages in our targets’ minds. Once upon a time this meant heavy duty advertising, but no longer. Not in the age of smartphones and information overwhelm.

Instead, the best marketing today is spreadable.

So what causes customers to advocate and spread our message for us?  Two things, primarily: (1) their ‘experience’ with the brand – the product, service, benefit and how it’s delivered – that’s so good they can’t resist telling others about it; or (2) useful information (the buzzword is content) that helps in a real, practical way in their lives, and that they feel compelled to share.

Airbnb excels here, too. Much of Conley’s time has been spent delivering a mixture of tools (a blog, podcasts, newsletters, online community centre) directed at Airbnb hosts to share best practices, continually hone their own game… and further enhance the experience for the guest. This is the whole game to Airbnb.

Even the Super Bowl commercial is a form of spreadable content (the ad quickly went viral for its optimism at a time of exclusion under Trump). Airbnb doesn’t advertise much, and only bought the TV slot three days before the game, jumping at the opportunity to build its ‘acceptance’ message with a huge, captive audience.

As for the experience itself?  It seems to be working.  My brother and his wife recently returned from four weeks in Guatemala. Mike and Mallu are experienced travelers – they once spent four years visiting much of the planet – and they’ve learned the ins and outs of where (and where not) to stay to get the most of their experience. Most of all, they want to live like locals when they travel. So they didn’t spend a single night at a traditional hotel. They booked almost solely with Airbnb hosts. They wanted to ‘belong’ in Guatemala. And they’ve become loyal to Airbnb.

Alas, many brands miss the linkages in this ‘holy trinity.’ They lock in one or two ingredients, but rarely get all three working together.

The whole thing matters.

  • Purpose, without culture or marketing = great intentions, wishful thinking.
  • Culture, without purpose or marketing = a feel-good vibe, little else.
  • Marketing, without purpose or culture = all hype, no substance.

We need all three ingredients connected… on both the front stage and back stage.

Otherwise, we never truly reach our full potential.

So, ask yourself:

  1. What’s your real purpose?
  2. Are you nurturing a culture that fulfills it?
  3. Is your marketing spreadable?
  4. And are you knitting all three together?



Please excuse the length of this post. I was wound up about a topic that’s important to me. I’ll be back to normal next time!