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Building Brands

How brands like Airbnb built winning campaigns on tight budgets

June 14, 2022 · 7 min read

If you ever find yourself questioning the ROI of community engagement spend, just remember this phrase: 

“Made Possible by Hosts”

It's a campaign Airbnb rolled out in the gloom of the pandemic’s second year — a period where the company’s  valuation dropped by over $10 billion, they paid out $250 million to cover canceled bookings, and digital advertising spend was cut drastically.

Despite these setbacks, a small team from Airbnb was able to make an incredibly impactful branding campaign. One that helped the company: 

  • Stoke the excitement of their Guest segment.

  • Champion their Host segment as the true heroes of the brand.

  • Stay within an abbreviated marketing budget.

It’s a drastic, large-scale example, but one that perfectly demonstrates why community-building efforts are so important to brand success —especially in disruptive, uncertain times, when budgets aren’t ensured. 

This post will show how any brand — from Airbnb to smaller brands like Olipop, Couplet Coffee, and Outer — can build a thriving community and leverage them for great (and affordable) content. 

Crunched for time? No sweat, here’s a TL;DR:

  • Community-led branding isn’t just about social media metrics, it’s a strategy that creates resilient, value-driven brands.

  • Airbnb built up their community in the darkest months of the pandemic by championing hosts and spreading nostalgia with their “Made possible by hosts” campaign.

  • This process isn’t just for publicly traded giants, it works for companies of all sizes. Here’s how: 

  1. Use all your channels to build community.

  2. Engage your community by tapping into your values.

  3. Use UGC from your community to build high-impact, low-cost campaigns.

  • If you’re not quite ready to get this community brand bus rolling, check out our branding questionnaire for alignment

Airbnb’s marketing dreams “Made Possibly by Hosts”

In 2018, then-CMO Jonathan Mildenhall outlined Airbnb’s marketing dreams in the following statement

“It's a beautiful, big, audacious vision. And that is one day, all seven and a half billion people will feel that they can belong anywhere through the products and services of Airbnb.” 

Fast-forward a few years, and that vision seems laughable — who wants to stay in a stranger’s house during a pandemic-infused economic depression?

Not just a simple YouTube campaign (although it is very simple), Made Possible by Hosts was an exercise in building community by maintaining close relationships with their pillar groups: guests and hosts.

Using video content from hosts around the world and timeless classics like “In My Life,” “Landslide,” and “‘03 Bonnie & Clyde,” they created content that inspires both nostalgia about previous adventures with loved ones and a yearning to take similar trips in the future.

It was an effort to build community during a time when many were still hesitant to travel outside the safety of their homes. Of course, there was the additional benefit of leveraging organic content from guests and hosts that didn’t require as much investment. It was impactful and cost-effective.

These community-based tactics can be used by any business, provided there is a high level of social media engagement to build upon.  

3 ways to create a brand campaign with community-led content

Let’s be clear: leveraging community-led content is not a passive process. 

Waiting around to share Instagram stories and TikToks created by a few superfans does not a brand campaign make. That kind of content becomes available when you scale up your efforts to engage with people through a combination of multi-channel activity, tapping into your brand values, and leveraging the products of community interaction

It’s easy to look at the success of Airbnb’s “Made Possible by Hosts” campaign and think “Well, yeah, they’re a billion-dollar company. It’s easy to leverage community-led content at that level.” True. 

But much smaller companies have achieved similar success. Observe.. 

1. Use all your channels to build community 

It’s easy to forget that the “social” in social media isn’t the same across all platforms, at least from a community perspective. 

TikTok plays heavily on meme-like videos and popular music. Twitter is for short, quippy posts (or whatever Elon wants it to be *sigh*). Instagram accommodates a mishmash of formats. And each of them allows for comprehensive feedback when used correctly. 

Take Olipop, for example.

“A New Kind of Soda,” Olipop is liberating pop from the nutritional bad-books with low sugar, an organic ingredient base, and probiotic benefits. They’re zeroing in on the sweet spot of the health-conscious, desert-craving, vintage-aesthetic-loving Venn diagram. 

It’s a tough spot to hit unless you’ve got the right channel(s) lined up. For Airbnb, it was video content on YouTube. For Olipop, it’s UGC on Instagram. Why?

For starters, just look at their graphics: 

The clean, simple aesthetic is well-designed and highly shareable for a picture-driven platform like Instagram. #olipop has nearly 10,000 posts on the platform, the majority of which feature the can prominently. Sharing the can allows people to say something about themselves. It infers a youthful, healthy, and current cultural cachet.

 And with a viral product comes an ocean of potential partners. Olipop simply scrolls through their tagged photos and hashtags, selecting influencers with a sizable and highly engaged following. 

It’s community-building by proxy: to build a brand community, find and leverage people who already command a strong community. In Olipop’s case, it’s health-conscious people, athletes, and foodies. These already-enthusiastic influencers can then showcase the product to their own grassroots community through performance marketing and sponsored posts.

2. Engage your community by tapping into your values

We’re living in the era of value-driven brands. Younger Millennials and Gen Z are more conscious of where their followers, attention, and, ultimately, dollars are going. And they are quicker to ditch, and push others to ditch, companies that they perceive as macho, racist, or homophobic. 

It doesn’t matter how good your product is, your brand needs to be driven by the right values and those values need to be screamed from the rooftops.

Gefen Skolnick — champion of the underrepresented, contrarian investor, and CEO of D2C brand Couplet Coffee — is doing just that. Just look at this section from their homepage: 

Couplet makes coffee for the girls, theys, gays, and everyone. 

What’s more impressive is how influential Twitter was to Couplet Coffee’s funding process. How impressive, you ask? Just listen to 2020 Gefen

“I got a DM on Twitter from Jen Rubio, the co-founder of Away and former Global Head of Innovation at AllSaints and Head of Social at Warby Parker. She said ‘I've been so impressed by the way you’ve built multiple communities over a matter of weeks — and after a phone call, decided to invest in my startup.”

Those multiple communities are built on her foundational value of breaking down barriers to inclusion. Couplet Coffee’s brand is the conduit for that foundational value. 

3. Build high-impact campaigns with low impact on your budget

Outer is a brand bringing sustainable, durable products to the outdoor furniture space. And their community is helping them do it in a way that maximizes impact and reduces strain on the marketing budget. And, a la Airbnb, it’s all about “hosts”: 

Just like the “Made Possible” campaign, Outer’s host-driven branding strategy is built around their demographic’s love for exterior design (and their penchant for living in always-sunny locals). 

They have their own community-building funnel on their website — one where potential customers get product discounts for applying to be hosts; engage with other community members by sharing photos, inspo; and even arrange in-person visits.

It’s a user-generated content goldmine: 

Developing strong paid advertising campaigns is important, but costly. Community-produced content is a panacea for sickly marketing budgets: you know your audience will relate, because they made it, and you significantly reduce creative expenditure.  

Quick tip: 4 questions to ask when building community around your brand

We know marketers love to talk about community-led growth, but many fail to figure out how to walk the walk. The following 4 questions will help you and your team achieve a clear picture of what community building looks like for your brand: 

  1. Have you identified the social channel(s) where your customers are most active?

  2. What are your most engaged consumers looking for in these social channel(s): information, belonging, entertainment, or networking?

  3. How are you engaging with your consumers in these channels to provide the additional value they are looking for? Are you “being social on social”?

  4. Is your budding community aligned with the core values of your brand? If not, how can you convey these core values to achieve alignment?

Find the answers to these questions and you’ll know the social neighborhoods where your community lives, the types of content they crave, how to format your engagement efforts, and the values that drive their involvement.  

Build better, budget-friendly campaigns with your community

Size truly doesn’t matter — whether you’re selling luxury outdoor furniture or accessible artisanal coffee, it’s the strength of your community that matters. 

So make sure your brand is accessible through multiple social channels, in alignment with your core values, and leveraging every applicable instance of user-generated content.We live in a time where consumers want— demand — to participate in the branding process, so help them help you shape something that can have a real impact on your brand, your marketing budget, and your bottom line. 

If you’re not sure that your brand is ready for this level of community leveraging, give it a run-through with Air’s
branding questionnaire. We’ll have you on track and ready to scale in no time.

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