Airbnb’s global head of marketing Hiroki Asai talks returning to big, bold campaigns and owning the brand narrative

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In the wake of measurement woes and data privacy initiatives muddying digital targeting capabilities, a number of companies have pivoted to become less reliant on targeting customers via third-party cookies to generate quick sales via performance marketing. Instead, they’ve become more focused on boosting brand awareness to re-familiarize customers with their brand.

Airbnb is one of those companies that has made that pivot, moving up the marketing funnel to more brand awareness tactics to bring new customers to Airbnb, said Hiroki Asai, global head of marketing at Airbnb. Notably, the company has recently been grappling with local government efforts to squash short term rentals and consumer backlash over increased pricing. In the midst of those things, the company is looking to carve out its own share of voice and better own its brand narrative.

“We have a lot of messages that we want to put out there that are our messages,” Asai said on the most recent episode of the Digiday Podcast. “When you’re over reliant on those performance channels, you end up either reacting to other people’s messages, or in that vacuum, other people will just create stories and messages about you that you can’t control.”

Below are highlights from the conversation, which have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

On competing with hotels

People really default to hotels. What that means for the marketing is that we need to really speak to people that have never tried Airbnb before, and don’t really connect the dots and think about it. People are busy. They travel once or twice a year. They don’t really think about travel until they have to book it. In that moment, they’re not really connecting the dots of why they would rent a home on Airbnb versus staying in a hotel. When we did our research, it turns out that when you explain to people that if you’re traveling with a family, multiple families or a group, Airbnbs are such a better option. So our goal is to really explain that to people in a really entertaining and brand forward way, and then send them to the app.

Why messaging on broadcast matters

From a messaging perspective, what we want to do is just illustrate some of these pain points and some of the ridiculousness actually that happens when you stay in a hotel. We really look at [television] as a, it’s not an either/or, but it’s an and for us. There are moments, especially in live TV, sporting events, shows — specific shows, award shows — where people do really gather together and watch it as an event with a lot of full focus. Those are good moments to participate in. 

Uncertainty in measuring brand awareness

There are ways that we can measure it. Granted, it’s not a science like the way you can measure performance. But between sentiment and awareness… And we do have a media mix model where we can understand when we see bookings and traffic upticks, and when we’re running campaigns and it goes against locations — we can even try and target that around when we do outdoor [ad campaigns]. But it is really, there are certain things that you need to do that you just can’t measure. You can’t really measure PR super accurately. You can’t measure brand as accurately as you can performance. But you do need to be able to have that forum to be able to put your own message out there. It’s not for everyone, but for someone like us, where we really have [an offering] that we think differentiates, we need the opportunity to talk about it.

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