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The Airbnb debate rumbles on – the brand strategists hit back!

Two weeks ago we featured DesignStudio’s Airbnb logo. One week ago copywriter Rob Mitchell of We All Need Words wrote an Opinion piece calling for an end to convoluted brand stories. His article was cheered by some people and incensed others; Sam Peskin and Liam Hamill of VentureThree want to have their say and defend brand strategy. Again you can add your views using the comment thread below…

To say that the Airbnb rebrand has polarised opinion is to put it lightly. But in evaluating all of the contributions so far, perhaps the most curious thing is the apparent disconnect in critical response between the design and strategy disciplines. For a piece of work that is so clearly defined by a sense of ‘joined-up’ thinking, there have been very few responses that have considered the project as it was executed and intended – holistically.

It begs the question of what we really mean when we talk about a rebrand. Is it just a fancy way of justifying the redesign of a logo? Or is it something bigger?

In this column last week, Rob Mitchell of We All Need Words criticised the “puffed-up nonsense” that went into “justifying the logo” as an “over-cooked brand story masquerading as strategy”.

We sympathise with Rob in that we’re painfully familiar with agency processes that sound exactly like this. Strategy has gotten a bad reputation from valueless navel-gazing like “If your brand was an animal, what would it be?” Not to mention the constant agonising over “pyramids” and “playbooks” when what really matters is the power of the thinking that goes into them.

In a world where it is possible to analyse the 50 most successful businesses of the past century, and prove “a cause-and-effect relationship between financial performance and their ability to connect with fundamental human emotions, hopes, values, and greater purposes” (Jim Stengel, Grow), an approach to brand as logo and words, as Rob appears to champion, simply doesn’t cut the mustard. Such a definition massively underplays the value of brand as a force for business and the world.

We all pride ourselves on having sensitive bullshit detectors. And yes, there’s a lot of it around. But here’s the simple truth: businesses that stand for something bigger than their product, and seek to have a meaningful impact on the world, enjoy more success and more longevity than those that don’t.

They connect with consumers on a different level. They give their employees a clear and inspiring reason to get out of bed in the morning. They set the direction for how they want to develop and grow.

They do this through understanding that brand goes beyond a logo, an identity and even marketing. It defines your purpose and reason for being. It represents what you stand for and believe in. It drives culture and performance, product innovation, the customer experience and more. It gives people belief, pride and motivation. Businesses that embrace brand in this way do better. Simple.

“Here’s the simple truth: businesses that stand for something bigger than their product, and seek to have a meaningful impact on the world, enjoy more success and more longevity than those that don’t.”

Sam Peskin and Liam Hamill

IBM’s “smarter planet” brand idea had nothing to do with clever words and logos. It was all about the power of an idea to drive business change and action. Persil’s “dirt is good” whilst a clever and unexpected turn of language came from forensic strategic insight into the attitudes of parents towards play and cleanliness. Sky’s “believe in better” isn’t just a tagline, it’s a philosophy that drives the entire culture of the business.

John Mackey, the founder of Whole Foods who is not a planner, strategist or brand manager puts the power of brand for business better than we ever could: “Every business has the potential for some other higher purpose besides just making money. Of course, it has to make money just like my body has to make red blood cells if I’m going to live. But the purpose of my life is not to produce red blood cells. My purpose is more transcendent than that. Similarly, business has that purpose for some type of larger contribution to society. So business people need to begin thinking in those terms… What is the value that it’s creating for other people? What is its contribution to the larger society?”

This is what the Airbnb brand aspires to; brand as purpose and idea, not product, logo and words. “Belong anywhere” isn’t about justifying a design solution, it’s about unifying the company’s efforts behind a meaningful and valuable strategic direction.

When all’s said and done, perhaps giving a logo a name like a character from the Jungle Book strays a little into the land of brand bollocks. But the overall thinking and ambition behind Airbnb’s rebrand is to be admired.