Bedroom interior in a cabin

Airbnb Rooms: When Rebranding Works Backwards

Many businesses have humble origins. Bill Gates built Microsoft out of an Albuquerque garage, while Airbnb began with three air mattresses on the floor of a San Francisco loft.

It’s in the nature of success that it takes you away from your roots. But when your brand identity is wrapped up in your origin story, growth presents a powerful challenge to the fundamental values your brand is known for.

This is the situation Airbnb has found itself in. No longer an industry disruptor, but an industry giant, Airbnb has nearly outgrown its origin story. So it’s reintroducing us to Rooms: staying with a host, and reestablishing human connection as the soul of Airbnb.

Growing Pains or Identity Crisis

Airbnb’s astronomic rise provides a fascinating case study in brand identity, and to an extent they have been a victim of their own success. They started out as a disruptor to the traditional accommodation industry and their peer-to-peer lodging model looked set to shake up the hotel industry and make travel more creative, affordable, and community-based than ever before.

But the platform made it incredibly easy to rent out your whole home, not just a single room within it. And slowly, Airbnb grew into the very thing it stood against at its outset — a platform for self-catered accommodation, streamlined and trendy, sure, but not so different from your average, faceless holiday accommodation provider.

Of course, this has rarely impacted their revenue, and the company even posted its first profitable Q1 this year. But revenue is one thing, brand is another. And this transformation posed serious challenges to their brand identity.

Undoubtedly, Airbnb was outgrowing its brand. If not addressed, this could create an identity crisis that undermines the whole business. An incoherent identity confuses customers, removing the emotional tether to your business and allowing competitors to vie for their loyalty.

That’s why the rebranding of Airbnb Rooms, and emphasizing the connection to host and community, is a genius move. It’s a preemptory rebrand that heads off issues of brand identity down the line.

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A Return to Roots: Community and Authenticity

So here’s what Airbnb has done: they’ve brought Rooms to the forefront of their business model, giving it a fresh rebrand that emphasizes Airbnb’s origin story.

Rooms was Airbnb’s original product, offered long before the site’s providers could let out their whole home. It never left the site, but as users preferred the privacy of renting a whole home, its importance faded.

And in a video launching the rebrand, they’ve done everything right to emphasize the values of authenticity and community that were at the heart of the original Airbnb.

The video introduces us to CEO Brian Chesky, hosting a couple at his home. “I felt like this isn’t the Airbnb CEO’s house, this is our new friend and host for the weekend,” they tell the camera.

Brian’s welcoming and personal air is at the heart of this rebrand, and who better than the CEO to embody the human connection that Airbnb is trying to inject into its platform?

Alongside the rebrand of Rooms, Airbnb has introduced the “Host Passport” feature, letting guests get to know their hosts before they stay. It’s a smart move, that seeks to undermine the awkwardness of staying in someone else’s home.

The Host Passport turns the human interaction of a guest staying with host from a weakness into a strength and puts community at the heart of the Rooms product.

Airbnb is no longer a disruptor, it’s an industry influencer, and with Rooms they’re seeking to reclaim an authenticity that connects with their users. This is especially important as the business leans on a younger demographic for whom authenticity is a key value in brands they trust.

Resolving Pain Points

As well as being an on-brand move that highlights their authenticity and disruptor credentials, pivoting to place hosting as the soul of Airbnb also solves a number of customer pain points and wider issues that the business has faced in recent years.

In the process of blurring the line between private residence and holiday home, Airbnb created a new market that they couldn’t quite control. Cities became increasingly Airbnb-ified as traditional housing stock transitioned into accommodation for tourists. While the true impact of this on rent and inequality is up for debate, it’s certainly been a source of bad publicity for the brand.

And customers are increasingly finding the Airbnb experience no more hospitable than the traditional self-catering model. Inflated prices, excessive rules, and over-the-top cleaning fees have driven some consumers back into the welcoming arms of the hotel industry.

Re-emphasizing Rooms is a powerful branding move for Airbnb, but it also tackles a number of challenges the business faces. It evades short-term rental laws being introduced to combat whole-home letting and makes the Airbnb experience more affordable, personable and hospitable for its users.

The SuN Takeaway

Given the emphasis on Airbnb’s original purpose, maybe rebrand is the wrong word for Rooms. It’s not a new branding direction so much as reclaiming an old one — back branding, rather than rebranding. There’s an important lesson in here for every business owner: growth and authenticity can find themselves at odds, and without a coherent story for your whole business journey, you might end up outgrowing your brand and alienating your customers.

This is one reason that businesses lean on retro or nostalgic brand identity, like Burger King’s 2021 logo redesign, emphasizing a return to simpler ingredients and simpler times. But a rebrand that looks backward has to be authentic. Placing CEO Brian Chesky, who’s been around since the very beginning, at the heart of the rebrand ensures that customers can see that this really is about Airbnb’s roots.

So even while your focus is on where your brand is going, don’t lose sight of where you came from. Your origin story could be the key to a continued connection with your customers.

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