A Lesson In Purpose from Airbnb

Countless conversations, focus groups, and a lot of soul-searching led Airbnb to find its purpose in 2014: to make people around the world feel like they could belong anywhere.

This, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is one of the core tenets of human existence. Belonging. It became their tagline.

Belong anywhere.

Launching publically through its ‘Never a Stranger’ advert in 2015, we were beckoned to follow culture-shifting protagonist ‘Ellie’ on her journey around the world.

Starting apprehensively she stayed in Airbnb homes in Tulum, Tokyo, Paris and New York.

Having sung her heart out in karaoke bars, and become part of a family in Rio, she felt the “wonderful experience of belonging.”

More than just a tagline, from there on in Airbnb would live and breathe this idea with the help of a seldom known department known as ‘Employee Experience’ run by a man called Mark Levy.

Not only does this mysterious department act as the internal glue that on boards new employees – serving food, keeping them safe and doing traditional HR work – but it indirectly serves as a marketing strategy too. Because by turning “Belong Anywhere” into a tangible reality at every employee touchpoint, Airbnb bolsters its employment brand and becomes a downright enticing place to work for industry leading talent.

This, in no small part, begins in the way Airbnb chose to design their offices.

The short-term rental service turned a 72,000-square foot, century-old, San Francisco Battery warehouse into a workplace that acknowledges its heroes – those men and women worldwide – who have opened their doors to a cultural phenomenon that has turned the hospitality industry on its head.

Based in San Francisco’s neighbourhood of SoMa, you’ll find replicas of famous Airbnb listings complete with photos of the hosts themselves, living walls, a perfectly cylindrical meeting room modelled on the war room from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, and if this wasn’t enough, there’s an enormous atrium offering a cross-section view of 8 meeting rooms based on homes featured on the site.

Oh, and the bathrooms are wilderness themed.

Every square foot of meticulously designed space adds to the allure of working or becoming a part of the $31bn valued organization.

Most businesses try and hammer home company values by brandishing aspirational mantras across walls, marketing collateral, email signatures, and anywhere eyeballs will see them. Mark Levy has said “you don’t see the mission and values on the wall. Instead, you feel it when you walk through the door and you see it in the way that people behave with one another, and with anyone who comes into contact with us. Being a host is one of our most important values, and it is how we behave both with one another, and everyone else.”

Back in 2013 Max Lenderman said that “Purpose is the new digital.”

What he meant is that purpose has changed the commercial dynamics of brands in the same way that digital transformed (and is still transforming) the way people buy and sell stuff. Indeed, there is no indication that brands will cease moving in this direction.

In an interview with Fast Company both Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia spoke of how design sits at the very core of Airbnb and helps share their purpose with employees and customers alike.

Chesky, Airbnb’s CEO says, “from conference rooms modeled after listings to storyboarding the user experience, design has a voice in everything—even in how a new employee starts their first day.”

Chesky went on to explain that when studying at the Rhode Island School of Design he was constantly challenged to question how design could be brought into the boardroom. That sentiment has remained with him to the point that now, at Airbnb, design “runs the boardroom.”

Since 2008, millions of users have foregone the hotel price premium to instead spend a night – perhaps unwittingly – evangelizing the very modern idea that access trumps ownership.

In fact, based on a survey of 1,400 U.S. hotel and short-term rental guests, Cowen analysts project Airbnb bookings will increase from around 79 million “room nights” this year to roughly half a billion annually in the next five years—and a full billion per year by 2025.

It seems that something is working.

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