However, it’s also true that - as the members of the celebrated “mock-umentary” band Spinal Tap famously said - “It’s such a fine line between stupid…. and clever.” The recently pulled local marketing campaign from peer-to-peer accommodation rental company Airbnb underscores just how true this can be. It also shows how tricky branding campaigns can be in today’s hyper-transparent world.
Airbnb's attempt at an edgy, disruptive message around its home city of San Francisco featured outdoor ads suggesting ways in which the city should use the company’s (formerly delinquent but now collected) tax revenue. The tongue-in-cheek suggestions included keeping the city’s libraries open longer, and filling expired parking meters. Unfortunately, Airbnb’s ads crossed the line from clever to stupid - they missed the mark in terms of tone and contextual appropriateness. The ads were pulled in just a few days after many complaints from San Francisco residents and even some Airbnb employees.
Airbnb is a great company with a valuable service, but this was clearly a low-light for the brand, and an embarrassing gaffe by their marketing team. However, I don’t fault them for taking the risk of being disruptive. As I said above, provoking thought and generating conversation can help brands get noticed by new customers, and can deepen engagement with existing ones. The mistake stemmed from losing sight of a few key brand marketing fundamentals – which I list below as take-aways from this situation:
- Know your audience – As the linked CNET article astutely points out, Airbnb should have known better than to be as tone deaf as they were. Understanding the needs and wants of those who will be seeing your ad is the first step towards positive engagement. It’s critical to ensure that your audience is in tune with your message, and will not only get the jokes, but also appreciate them.
- It’s not about you; it’s about them – Airbnb focused on its own tax plight with these ad messages, and the response was loud and clear: your self-absorbtion and presumption is a turn-off. What Airbnb failed to realize (or remember) with this ill-conceived campaign is that it’s not about the company’s opinion or agenda. It’s about customers - establishing an emotional bond with your target market. After all, branding is about getting consumers to desire a company’s goods & services based on emotion vs. a standpoint of assessing pure economic value.
- Advertising and PR are two different things – It’s easy to lose sight of this, but it can also be a critical mistake for marketing leaders. PR is the channel in which you can tell your story, describe challenges, and express your views. In fact, it’s expected (otherwise the press will do it for you). Advertising is to make people emotionally connect with your brand, and to become educated on the value of your products - period. Do not get these wires crossed, as Airbnb did this past week.
Start-ups move quickly, and they often feel as though they need to make “big statements” in order to remain relevant in the collective consciousness. What they also need to remember along the way is to never lose focus on delighting their customers.