Airbnb’s disastrous tax ads are a lesson in bad brandvertising

Hugh-Stevens-234x350 copyAirbnb has pulled a series of ads in San Francisco about the tax they have to pay. In this guest post Hugh Stephens argues the company misread where their brand is positioned in market.

You might have seen ‘sharing economy’-come-hotel-but-not-quite brand Airbnb’s recent out of home ads run in San Francisco as a response to increased regulatory action from local government to force ‘hosts’ to pay the 14 per cent hotel tax required by the city.

The ads facetiously call on various government bodies to spend the extra tax on a range of initiatives (presumably?) aimed to get consumers to take Airbnb’s side about the regulatory actions, and drive some positive word of mouth.


Suffice to say, the ads don’t quite ring true, and come across as just passive-aggressive. It’s in quite stark contrast with other ‘guerrilla’ style use of outdoor by online companies. My favourite example is this one from Hipchat, who in 2011 took out a billboard outside San Francisco and Palo Alto saying ‘Y U NO USE HIPCHAT?’ which has the perfect mix for their audience to get people taking about the campaign, roughly a year after launch (2011).

hipchat billboard

Source: Hipchat Blog

At the time of the billboard above, HipChat was still very much a ‘challenger brand’. It was a new product, aimed at a very technical audience, who generally used nothing (email) or cobbled together solutions like IRC – this was well before Slack was around. The ad above is perfect for the audience – technology nerds and developers – and was before the whole ‘brands-using-memes’ thing became tiresome.

So why did Airbnb do so poorly? The simple answer is that they lost sight of where the brand was positioned in the minds of their audience. Airbnb is no longer the ‘challenger brand’, a persona that technology startups love to use. The challenger brand persona is loved by the early adopter crowd, who love the concept of supporting something going up against the big guy – so it’s really effective.

But those days are gone. Much like other similarly sized startups (Uber, Twitter, Tinder etc), the brand needs to eventually move away from being a challenger in order to attract the ‘middle of the [adoption] curve’ audience. This crowd typically responds better to messaging about trust, convenience, making/saving money, outcomes (get dates) or perks (follow celebrities).

It’s challenging, because it’s easy to continue to feel like you’re a startup and forget that irrespective of your internal culture, valuation or size (Airbnb has a US$24bn valuation, Uber US$50bn) – what matters is how the audience will interpret the content. Airbnb is no longer a David, it’s a Goliath.

While these types of tongue-in-cheek campaigns can be really effective, breaking the ‘product marketing’ mould usually in broad circulation (such as the recent Turnbull ‘letter’ from Australian Aid in the Oz), it needs to be true to the brand – which is of course partly created by the business, but mostly in how it is perceived by the audience. Not staying up-to-date with how people perceive the brand, or doing something that is totally opposite to that perception, will never see a good response.

  • Hugh Stephens is a marketing technologist and Tweets @hughstephens

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