Brian Chesky is too excited about the color magenta–yes, the purplish-pink hue found in printer cartridge ink. The CEO of Airbnb, the megahit service which enables users to list their homes on the web and rent them out to guests, is raving about the color’s “pop” and “spirit”; about its “modern” look and “sophisticated” feel; about its “playful” vibe and “fun” tone. Chesky has been enamored with magenta ever since he was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design; more recently, he even went so far as to launch an internal campaign to get other Airbnb designers to integrate his favorite color into their work. “I have too much energy–I have to stand up,” announces the hulking 32-year-old as he talks, bouncing up and down at his company’s San Francisco headquarters.
Chesky isn’t normally so amped. But after months and months of work, he’s pumped to finally lift the curtain on a massive rebranding effort his team has been secretly working on. Today, at an event in San Francisco, Chesky is unveiling a brand overhaul that impacts everything at Airbnb, from its advertising and product messaging to its community outreach and web and mobile services. To Chesky, the moves represent more than just a superficial makeover. “I feel our brand of yesterday was starting to hold back our ability to go mainstream, and limiting people’s idea of what it could become,” Chesky tells me. “This new branding changes the whole identity and expression of the company.”
Airbnb has given a fresh coat of paint to its website and apps, which are now far cleaner than previous iterations, and feature subtle animations and splashier imagery. The company’s branding has also been given a makeover, thanks in large part to a new company symbol which resembles a paperclip stretched out in the style of an A-shaped birdhouse. The goal is to give Airbnb an offline presence as ubiquitous as its online presence–all while laying the foundation for marketing a slew of new sharing-economy services down the road, as Chesky explained to me during a recent behind-the-scenes look at Airbnb’s creative process.
When Chesky and cofounder Joe Gebbia first designed Airbnb’s logo back in 2007, the two had little time to consider aesthetics. The pair, trying to earn extra cash before they went broke, were just trying to get their makeshift website online so they could rent out air mattresses to guests in their apartment. They called their service AirBed & Breakfast; Chesky jokes their lengthy logo looked more like a sentence than a startup name. After the company rebranded as Airbnb, Chesky and Gebbia went on to introduce several redesigns of the service–eventually hitting on its more recent aesthetic, featuring a puffy, blue-and-white logo and slick, airbrushed look. “Those brand identities were created in a matter of hours, for a short deadline, and only for temporary use,” recalls Gebbia. Adds Chesky, “We were growing so fast, it became one of those things where you say you’ll figure it out later, but then you never end up doing it because you’re too busy.”
Last year, some members of the Airbnb design team began tinkering with the idea of finally fixing the company’s branding issue. The company was in the process of transforming itself into a global hospitality brand, as detailed in our recent profile of Airbnb, and many on the team felt the brand should better reflect that mission. They put together a dek for Chesky and Gebbia to convince them that Airbnb was in dire need of a facelift. How do you broach the subject of redesigning a brand that your own bosses created? “Carefully,” jokes Airbnb designer Andrew Schapiro.
Fortunately, Chesky didn’t need much persuading. Chesky doesn’t think of Airbnb as a tech startup, and felt the company’s blue logo misrepresented the brand. “There’s something much bigger here than booking rooms.” (More on this later.)
The company embarked on a year-long brand study, during which it hired an outside agency, London-based DesignStudio, for assistance. The teams collected mounds of user research, traveling to more than a dozen countries to interview hosts and guests on what they loved most about Airbnb, then setting up camp at a back office in Airbnb’s headquarters to work in private. The team also performed detailed surveys of competing brands, concluding that too many technology companies, from Facebook to IBM, play it safe with a “cold, corporate blue color,” according to DesignStudio cofounder Paul Stafford.
Eventually, Chesky says, Airbnb’s design studio started to look like Russell Crowe’s workshop in A Beautiful Mind. They were overwhelmed with an absurd number of mood boards and brand identity studies, which included “the Red Cross, the Olympic rings, and probably the most important symbol of all, Batman’s,” Chesky says, only half-joking. But eventually, in what he calls a “drop the mic” moment, Chesky says he was able to distill everything the team had learned down to one core principle: “Airbnb is about belonging anywhere. The brand shouldn’t say we’re about community, or our international [reach], or renting homes–it’s about belonging.”
That may sound like a highfalutin takeaway, but Chesky says it’s this central emotion that informed the company’s entire rebranding effort. Of the “thousands” of Airbnb brand logos his teams mocked up, Chesky says he settled on the one that best captured the essence of belonging. He points out how Airbnb’s new (magenta) symbol combines elements of a heart, a location pin, as well as the “A” in Airbnb. More significantly, he continues, the logo was designed to be completely customizable: It’s so simple that anyone can draw it, but also so basic that it’s not likely to be drawn the same way twice, a reflection of Airbnb’s unique community of hosts. “It’s a symbol anyone can create, whether drawn on a mirror or etched in the sand,” Chesky explains. “Every single person can have their own impression of the brand.”
Whereas Lyft is known for its pink mustaches and even hotel chains like Days Inn have nationally recognizable logos, it’s worth noting that Airbnb has never had such a consistent offline presence. When you arrive at an Airbnb, your interaction with the brand itself essentially ends with the app; there’s no Airbnb flag outside the door welcoming you when you check in like there is at, say, a Hilton. That’s finally changing. Chesky believes Airbnb’s rebranding will provide its hosts with a “social utility,” much in the same way the symbol of a pineapple was often a sign of hospitality on old New England homes centuries ago. “Imagine one day you’re walking down the street and you see the Airbnb symbol in a window–you’ll know that it’s an Airbnb and a place that can be shared,” says Chesky, who has hopes for it to become a “universal symbol of sharing.”
That’s just the start. Chesky teases that Airbnb’s new branding campaign will soon work its way into a slew of Airbnb services and products. As noted in our recent feature on the company, the company is testing a variety of new sharing products, ranging from cleaning services to new key-exchange processes to ride sharing. It’s not a stretch to imagine how Airbnb’s logo could serve as a marker for many of these services. The company has already mocked up a key-chain version of the symbol, as well as ways it could be used to illustrate other experiences that could potentially be shared through Airbnb, like surfing lessons.
Chesky hints at even more possibilities. “A restaurant could put this on its window telling travelers that it’s an Airbnb-friendly place,” he says. “I can’t go into specifics, but you’re going to see this design continue to permeate the real world.”
Chesky and Gebbia are serious when they say they want Airbnb’s community to own the Airbnb brand. Whereas Apple meticulously crafts its logo to be universally consistent, Airbnb “celebrates the fact that every one will be different,” Gebbia says. It sounds overly symbolic, but the pair believes storytelling is essential to successful branding. “Gap was an example of a rebranding where there was no story,” Chesky says. “The original Gap brand had a lot of meaning; the new Gap brand had no meaning.”
As part of today’s launch, Airbnb is introducing a tool called Create, to enable users to customize their own Airbnb logos. It’s a pure marketing gimmick, but a clever one: Airbnb’s hosts and guests can now use a basic Photoshop-style service to tailor Airbnb’s pretzel-like symbol to their liking, with unique patterns, stickers, and shapes. “Most brands would send you a cease-and-desist letter if you tried to recreate their brand,” Chesky says. “We wanted to do the opposite.”
Now, when a host adds a listing, he or she can include a unique Airbnb symbol personalized for his or her home. What’s more, Airbnb has partnered with Zazzle, so users can also purchase cups, apparel, stickers, postcard stamps and other paraphernalia with their unique Airbnb logo on it, to share with guests as mementos of their stay.
It’s a small gesture, but it’s representative of the pains Airbnb has gone through to turn on its rebranding all at once, Chesky says, “like a light switch.”
Most of all, though, it’s a tiny symbol of Chesky’s ambitions for Airbnb: to create an experience worthy of its guests’ and hosts’ memories, and to build a magical brand that everyone wants to be a part of. Chesky knows it’s a rare achievement; few “super brands,” he says, are able to have such a cultural impact as Coca-Cola, Disney, or Apple.
“We get compared a lot with Uber, Lyft, Dropbox, and Instagram; these are all really good brands,” Chesky says. “It’s an honor to sit next to them. But it’s not enough.”