Anatomy of an Ad: Behind the scenes of Airbnb’s first global campaign ‘Never a Stranger’

Airbnb has turned to TV and digital advertising for the very first time across the US, UK and Australia. Working with TBWA\Chiat\Day LA, its ‘Never a Stranger’ film brings to life the brand, its community and its ‘Belong Anywhere’ positioning, writes Gillian West.

It started with two graduates bunking on air mattresses in a San Francisco loft, and now it has more rooms than Hilton and InterContinental Hotels Group combined. Eight years after its launch, Airbnb is a household name and has helped 35 million guests visit its listings globally. With over a million listings in 193 countries worldwide, the brand is focusing on its community in its first foray into advertising.

With brand awareness growing, Airbnb enlisted TBWA\Chiat\ Day LA in September 2014 to lay down the gauntlet and challenge travellers to create a world where everyone felt a sense of belonging.

Launched in April, ‘Never a Stranger’ is backed with a global advertising spend of $22.5m with media buys in broadcast, digital, cinema and social across the US, UK and Australia, and takes a personal approach in engaging the Airbnb host community, featuring real-life hosts and listings from around the globe.

“There’s a voracious appetite for home-sharing, and for a more sustainable, more culturally immersive and more transformative travel experience,” Alexandra Dimiziani, the brand’s head of European marketing, tells The Drum, adding that the push is spurred on by an “ongoing focus on fostering and enabling our community.”

According to TBWA\Chiat\Day LA executive creative director Brent Anderson, the idea for the ad was within the original pitch the agency won. He describes the process from idea to account win to production as “fast-paced and aggressive”.

“They came to us with a lot of the underpinnings, we just needed to take those raw materials and really shape and define the soul of Airbnb,” says Anderson. “Brian Chesky [Airbnb chief executive] and Jonathan Mildenhall [the brand’s chief marketing officer] had a very clear ambition for the brand and that is to become the world’s first community-driven superbrand.”

Featuring real hosts and listings in five locations across the globe – New York, Paris, Tulum, Tokyo and Rio – had its challenges. The ad had a gruelling shoot schedule of one month, with a “swat team” of senior copywriter Kathleen Swanson, senior art director Annie Johnston, senior brand manager Lexi Vonderlieth, senior producer Chris Spencer and the US directing team present every step of the way. Anderson jokes that it would have been far easier to “fake it”.

“Every location is an Airbnb location. The flower shop, the karaoke bar, all of those things are real host recommendations. It involved a lot of collaboration and coordination to get into people’s neighbourhoods for real and that was really important to us.”

To get under the skin of the Airbnb community, TBWA\Chiat\Day LA forged a close relationship with the brand, with Anderson seeing Airbnb as more of a “partner than a client”, adding that it was in fact Chesky and the Airbnb team who came up with the advert’s letter device, a voiceover of the lead character thanking ‘strangers’ for her experiences.

“They [Chesky and his team] brought real perspective and we embraced it wholeheartedly. When they suggested the letter device we thought there was real strength in attacking that myth about Airbnb being anything other than a spectacular way to travel,” explains Anderson.

“So the start – ‘My friends thought I was crazy, why would I stay in someone else’s house?’ – there’s an unapologetic, unvarnished honesty to that. We also discovered leaving handwritten letters of appreciation for hosts is a real Airbnb trend.” The brand also took the lead on what cities to shoot in, according to Anderson.

“They [Airbnb] took our input on what we would like the emotional impact to be and the breadth we wanted to cover from one corner of the world to another. In turn, we were respectful to what key markets they needed to set the story in.

“When you get up close to Airbnb as a brand you realise it’s a truly creative company. For a startup as young to have covered so much ground in its first years it’s a compliment to its creative energy and creative talent,” he adds.

With a month’s worth of footage in the can, the first edit was “well over three minutes,” Anderson laughs. He admits to making some “difficult decisions”.

“It’s a good position to be in. What’s left is the best of the best. We set out to prove that you can truly belong anywhere, because that is Airbnb’s true north as a brand, and that journey is unique to Airbnb – you go from being a stranger to acceptance then to bonding and then belonging,” he explains.

“If you look at the structure of the narrative, Ellie feels like a stranger, then you see her in Paris and Tulum where she’s accepted to Tokyo where there’s this bonding moment in the karaoke bar to the end where it’s almost like family in Rio. Like any creative process there are feelings about which way to go but from a creative, and an emotional, standpoint I think where it fell was the place it needed to be.”

Since the ad’s launch on 21 April, social sentiment towards the brand has increased from 59 to 87 per cent. Anderson is pleased that it has “sparked travel wanderlust” amongst viewers.

“The collaboration in this project has meant so much. For Airbnb to give us the access to its community, and for the community to open up to us – that’s the soul of this brand.”

Airbnb was named brand of the year at The Drum Marketing Awards 2015.

Agency: TBWA\Chiat\Day

Chief creative officer: Stephen Butler

Executive creative director: Brent Anderson

Senior art director: Annie Johnston

Senior copywriter: Kathleen Swanson

Director of production: Brian O’Rourke, Peter Bassett

Senior producer: Chris Spencer

Digital producer: Kristin McCarron

President, international: James Vincent

Managing director: Peter Ravailhe

Senior brand manager: Lexi Vonderlieth

Associate brand manager: Molly Goldbach

Chief strategy officer: Nick Barham

Group planning director: Neil Barrie

Production: Reset

Director: Us

Executive producer: Jeff McDougall

Editorial: Rock Paper Scissors

Post production: a52

Composer: Nick Seeley

Sound design: Stimmung

This feature first appeared in the 13 May issue of The Drum which can be purchased now from The Drum Store.

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