5 Things I Know… with Airbnb’s CMO Jonathan Mildenhall

…About business, life and everything in between.


If I did anything wrong [when I started at Airbnb], I went straight into teaching mode.
‘Oh, this is how Coca-Cola’s has done it for all these years, so this is how Airbnb is going to have to do it’. That was okay in the short term because it actually bought a little bit of order to the chaos. But after about four or five months I started to run up against internal tensions, because it’s not Coke, it’s Airbnb, and we have to do our own thing. I think it’s understanding the rhythm between being a teacher and being a student. Sometimes I needed to teach the organisation, my team, our partners, and sometimes I just needed to learn.

Sometimes when I meet with marketers at small start-ups, they confuse the brand and developing the brand… with business development and sales.
Sometimes start-ups don’t realise their full potential because the marketing or the brand is all about the transaction. I think one of the biggest challenges is everybody understanding, and figuring out, and getting everybody excited with the value proposition of an organisation – and I don’t just mean, why should people buy you, but actually why should people care for you and why should the world be better as a result of you being in it?

When you look at iconic super brands, they have three things in common.
Firstly, they have a visual identity that is instantly recognisable. Secondly, they actually promote a sense of human values and have a point of view on human values and thirdly, they have a consistent product experience. It doesn’t matter if it’s Disney, Nike, Coca-Cola or Apple, product experience is consistent all over the world. But we [Airbnb] don’t have consistent product experience. With 2.3 million homes on the platform, every one of them is different, every single bed in every single one of those homes is different, the coffee that you are served is different. We are what the textbooks say is the complete antithesis of being able to build an iconic, global super brand because the actual product experience is so different. So what I love about that is it gives me a whole different set of marketing values because, while the beds, the homes, the coffee might be different – the hospitality, the human values, that’s the thing that is consistent.

I got this job at Coke and I was the most senior ethnic minority who was also openly gay.
All of these different times that I’ve been able to break through a particular barrier, what my mum always reminds me is, it’s my character that’s helping me achieve what I achieve, and so therefore I have no chip on my shoulder about my academic background, my socio-economic background, my ethnic background, my sexuality. My mum taught me to realise that none of that actually mattered because it’s the impact I have on people that matters.

It’s still really awkward to have a conversation internally about diversity.
Leadership in all organisations have to lean into the uncomfortable truth of it. We have to have uncomfortable conversations. It’s even uncomfortable for me. I’m obviously black, I come from a working class background and sometimes when I’m having conversations about people’s opinions, on ethnic minorities in the workplace or LGBT communities in the workplace or people who don’t come from an academic background, I sense the uncomfortableness and that’s as someone who has been in business for over 20 years. So what can we do about it? Put the uncomfortable truth as an agenda item to discuss and help everyone understand that if everyone is feeling uncomfortable about what we are talking about right now, that’s okay.

Read the full story in Issue 34, out now.

Photo: James Horan

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