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  • Rekha Padmalaya

How Airbnb used storytelling to redefine its brand experience.

Updated: Jul 31, 2018



"When you're truly disrupting, you don't want to be limited by what your company can be right now."

Every brand that wants to grow has to resolve a paradox: How to find new ways to grow without diluting what customers find appealing about the brand in the first place. In practice, we all know that’s easier said than done. Anyone who’s been part of a brand trying to find a new path knows the pain and struggle that goes into the process. The more successful a brand, the greater the challenge.


I recently came across an interview with Rebecca Sinclair, Head of User Experience Research & Design at Airbnb. She is credited with leading Project Snow White, the initiative that paved the way for Airbnb to become the travel lifestyle brand it is today.


Legend has it that Brian Chomsky, CEO of Airbnb was reading Walt Disney's biography and found inspiration in one of the stories in the book. The year was 1934. Disney was at an inflection point, much the same as Airbnb. They had created short, cartoon films but had never done a full length animation film till then. The idea to do one was audacious, extremely expensive and risky since there was no guarantee that a full length cartoon film would find any viewers. There were a lot of naysayers in Disney's team, including his brother Roy. Walt Disney, never a man to give up on an idea worked day and night to create Storyboards of the entire film with engaging characters going on a wonderful journey as the story unfolds. Then he used these Storyboard to get everyone to see his vision and keep artistic control over the entire project. This film was Snow White. It went on to create history and grossed over $USD 8million in theaters at the time!


As Chomsky read, he felt he had found a solution to a problem that he'd been thinking about for awhile. Airbnb was a successful website and app but Chomsky wanted to redefine the brand and create a product roadmap that could take Airbnb to the next level. In this new tool, Storyboards he found an answer, a way to unlock a new way of thinking for the company. Chomsky asked Rebecca to explore ways to use the Storyboard. Rebecca who came from a Design background used the tool to map out the customer journey in a very real, visually evocative way.


Airbnb hired a Pixar animator to create Storyboards that were authentic with real characters, their emotional moments during interactions with Airbnb, and their entire journey mapped out. Distinct and detailed host, guest and hiring process Storyboards were created. Next employees were shown these end to end visual Storyboards and asked to find ways to affect the story of the characters. They responded by finding new, creative ways of solving all the pain points on the customer journey. The more everyone interacted with the Storyboards, the more they realized that the Airbnb product was not the website or app but instead the trip. This realization helped Airbnb identify the core of their brand and see themselves as a travel lifestyle brand that focused on what people care about - the offline moments when they are at their preferred destination.


The Storyboard tool unlocked a new, visual way of thinking; paving the way for an extremely successful brand reinvention. Most of Airbnb's product and experience extensions stem from Project Snowhite. The use of Storyboards as a tool was so successful that Airbnb made it an integral part of their process and culture.


After digging through more details on the project, here are a few observations that could be useful for anyone who is in the midst or redesigning a brand.


1. Experiment with new tools of thinking: Disruption often starts with adopting not just new way of thinking but also new tools for thinking. Storytelling tools are especially useful since they help teams see how real people interact with their brands. Data and analysis doesn't stay as graphs and charts on keynote slides but instead becomes an integral part of telling the story of how real people in the real world interact with the category or brand. It also focuses the teams on resolving pain points that these customers are going through, unlocking new paths for the brand.


2. Shift your focus: To carve out a growth path for the brand, it’s critical to shift the focus from what you are selling to what customers are really buying from you. For Airbnb, the Eureka moment came from understanding that the moments that mattered most to people were the offline moments – “staying in the Tree house or the trip to Paris”. Their customers were not buying into the website or the app but the trip itself. As Airbnb framed it, “The product was the trip”. This shift in perspective helped open up new avenues for growth.


3. Be Human: Often, tech based businesses (and professionals) get so obsessed with technology that they forget the real point of it - that they want some real human being (who has a million other things to do) to use their product/ brand. A visual, storytelling method like the Storyboard forces everyone to focus on the ups and downs, the emotional moments of the experience and imagine themselves in the shoes of their potential customers and then find ways in which technology can add value to their experience. Human-centric design trumps any other kind of design, anytime.


4. Don't expect customers to tell you what they want: Innovation and true disruption can’t be created by the customer. It’s not to be found through research and asking people what they want for a simple reason: Most people suck at creating and imagining something new, something totally unfamiliar. That job has to be done by designers, creators and storytellers.