The home-sharing site's new logo has earned it a heap of scorn across the Internet for its sexual undertones - but the added publicity could help boost its new rebranding strategy.
Airbnb's recent rebrand, announced last week, has been overshadowed by public reaction to its new logo (also announced last week), a pretzel-like symbol that has been mercilessly mocked on the Internet for its visual similarity to both male and female genitalia.
But, assuming there is no such thing as bad publicity, the entire affair has likely done the home-sharing company more good than harm.
According to social media analytics tool Topsy.com, for example, more than half of the 96,823 mentions of Airbnb tallied on Twitter in the last month took place since the rebrand announcement last week.
"A tech company with engineers is liable to do something unintentional and be ready to face the backlash," says Arun Sundararajan, professor of information, operations, and management Sciences at NYU's Stern School of Business, who specializes in digital economics and the collaborative economy. "Whatever negative reactions users had probably already came up in testing. They may have thought: fine, people will joke about these things, but a lot more people will be talking about Airbnb," he notes.
The logo is just one part of a wide-ranging company rebrand that involves rearticulating how the company defines itself and a complete revamp of its website and mobile apps.
"From a consumer point of view, the redesign of the site is fabulous. It feels like a higher-quality experience than the old site," says Sundararajan.
In May, the company also hired Jonathan Mildenhall from Coca-Cola as its new chief marketing officer (CMO), part of an effort to help it transition from a start-up into a more professionally marketed international company.
With the rebrand, Airbnb is positioning itself as far more than a just a site to rent houses with new language that focuses on belonging.
"Belonging is the idea that defines Airbnb, but the way we've represented Airbnb to the world until now hasn't fully captured this," said Airbnb chief executive (CEO) Brian Chesky in his blog post announcing the changes to its community of Airbnb hosts and guests. The company, Chesky said, stands for values of "people, places, and love."
A video also explains the changes to users.
Airbnb has also made the platform more social. For example, it is allowing community members to personalize the new logo, with a simple graphic program on the site that lets users add different design elements, colors, or themed objects. It is also encouraging members to embed this on a website, use it on business cards or stationary, or apply it to special coffee mugs and T-shirts they can order from Airbnb and sell to guests.
So far, according to the Airbnb site, 15,459 users have designed their own version of the logo.
Hosts and guests are also being encouraged to share their Airbnb stories and photos on a special section of the relaunched website entitled Create Airbnb and on social networks, using the hashtag #BelongAnywhere.
But not all community members are buying the new touchy-feely talk.
"Airbnb: If you want your customers to do some advertising for you, ask us to. If we like the service enough, we'll support you. Don't try to dress up your plea with some pretty story trying to convince us you're doing it for us," posted one such community member on a news site announcing the changes.
Another frequent Airbnb guest had the following comment: "I won't be dropping any $$$ on Airbnb merchandise. They've already gotten hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars from me in Airbnb fees in the last year alone."
Indeed, others find the language inauthentic, as it's coming from a rapidly growing company valued at some $10 billion that has made clear its intention to broaden its push into the hospitality industry well beyond rooms into other services.
One critic is Neal Gorenflo, co-founder of Shareable, a self-described "connection hub for the sharing transformation" based in San Francisco.
"There is clearly a monopolistic ambition at Airbnb, yet they cover that with the language of sharing and collaboration and community. But they aren't an underdog social enterprise anymore," he says.
Gorenflo points to the fact that a majority of the listings on Airbnb are simply vacation rentals involving no interaction and have lost that initial community flavor. He also expresses concern at how the site encourages hosts to use their housing supply for short-term rentals, taking long-term housing supply off the residential real estate market.
Others see the rebranding as part of an effort to generate a more positive image for the company to counter negative headlines about whether Airbnb's room-sharing service violates local laws and encourages tax evasion. In New York, for example, Airbnb has been wrangling with the New York Attorney General's office, in a dispute over whether its hosts are violating New York real estate laws by running illegal hotels. The company settled the dispute in May.
"I think one part of the rebrand is Airbnb seeking to reclaim its own narrative," says Jamie Wong, CEO of Vayable, a website that offers users travel experiences, of the rebranding efforts.
NYU's Sundararajan also sees the discontent among community members partly as signs that the tech company that is growing up.
"Don't forget that Airbnb is a young company that is still not a household name. If you are a venture-backed company and reach a certain scale, you will inevitably depart from the community you emerged from," he notes.
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Mary Lisbeth D'Amico is a freelance writer based in Jersey City who frequently covers digital marketing, social media, tech startups, and venture capital. She has contributed to a wide range of publications including The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Red Herring, and Real Deals. Find her on Twitter at @mldamico.
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