Letting go: How Airbnb controls its brand without controlling its customer experience

In recent years we’ve seen a proliferation of brands that successfully let go, allowing their customers to define and deliver brand experiences for other customers, becoming the enabler rather than the doer.

Airbnb is an extreme example of an “enabler brand.” Unlike the likes of eBay, Uber, and Lyft, which offer relatively standard products and services, the experience of staying with an Airbnb host is determined by hundreds of factors beyond Airbnb’s control (for example, whether the sheets are clean and the place is tidy or whether the neighbors are noisy or quiet). In addition, with Airbnb the stakes are higher and extremely personal. A bad experience could impact days or weeks of your precious vacation, and even your perception of a place and its people.

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So how does Airbnb manage its brand when its hosts (who are sometimes also its customers) have so much control over the brand experience? I see the solution in four parts.

1. Airbnb over-delivers on all of the things it can control. 

  • Its website is functional and beautiful. You want to use it.
  • The payment process is relatively seamless, using the latest and best in e-commerce technology.
  • Places are categorized and described fairly accurately, helping to manage people’s expectations.
  • Social rating systems help to keep hosts honest, too.

2. Airbnb vets hosts.

Not just for functional requirements, but also for alignment with its mission. This is a huge part of the Airbnb onboarding process.

3. Airbnb creates strong incentives for its hosts.

As with other businesses in the sharing economy, Airbnb creates financial and social incentives for its hosts to create a great experience for customers—bad ratings make hosts look bad and they also hamper future earnings.

4. Airbnb is a purpose-driven brand, not a product-driven brand. 

Airbnb’s mission is not just about providing a roof over your head when you travel—there are tons of hotels that do that already. It’s also not about delivering one specific experience. The offer can’t describe “high-end boutique rooms in the heart of the city” or “simple, affordable family cottages” when so many different experiences are available. With 425,000 homes rented out each night in 190 countries across the globe, consistency is not something that Airbnb can, or would want to, promise.

Airbnb’s hosts and customers are united in their mission to make travel personal. They want to participate in a sharing economy, where travel is human, experiences are unique, and where it’s the people (not just the famous buildings) that help to shape one’s experience of a city.

When you’re able to excel at providing services under your control, and when you can provide strong incentives for your customers and brand representatives to also live up to your brand standards, your brand can let go a little and still achieve your goals.