Airbnb’s first challenge was to get strangers to open their doors to other strangers. Mission accomplished: The number of properties on the home-sharing site skyrocketed from 500,000 to 2.3 million in the last three years, and 100 million guests around the world have stayed at an Airbnb. Since its launch in 2008, Airbnb has become an iconic global brand and a household name.
Chief Marketing Officer Jonathan Mildenhall played a key role in that growth, launching campaigns such as “Never a Stranger,” which followed a New Yorker named Ellie as she traveled around the world on Airbnb and demonstrated how any city can feel like home when you’re staying with an Airbnb host.
Now comes the hard part. As the home-sharing community has gotten bigger, it has, perhaps inevitably, dealt with issues that conflict with its messages of sharing and inclusiveness. The most worrisome? Discrimination against guests. Headline-making incidents prompted Airbnb CEO and cofounder Brian Chesky to respond. He brought in prominent names in law and civil rights, hired a director of diversity, rolled out training to discourage unconscious bias for hosts, and added features to the site that deter racial profiling.
Mildenhall, having grown up as a gay, mixed-race, working-class kid in the projects of northern England, is no stranger to discrimination, and as such is well suited to the job of shaping the company’s public image on the issue.
“I don’t shy away from uncomfortable truths,” says Mildenhall. “I lean into them and try to build narratives that address them head on. That’s just the way that I’m wired.”
Airbnb’s “#HostWithPride” video, which tells stories of personal struggles and acceptance from Airbnb hosts and guests who are members of the LGBT community, launched during National Pride Month this year. “Is ManKind?,” a simple ad showing a baby walking toward a door with a voiceover about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, aired during the broadcast of ESPN’s ESPY Awards after Caitlin Jenner’s speech.
“Brian [Chesky] talks about a world of increasing isolation,” says Mildenhall, “and he believes that Airbnb can push against that isolation and create a world of more belonging. As a marketer, to have this as my motivation was a dream.”