Culture as a business accelerator

Why telling an authentic brand story makes business sense

Our hero: Brian Chesky. CEO of Airbnb

Brian Chesky. CEO of Airbnb.

He leads the team that, in just eight years, has created a new model of travel accommodation. Already they have over two million properties listed in 34,000 cities across 191 countries.

Their success hinges, in large part, on an authentic alignment between their internal culture and their external brand proposition. Both are built on a feeling of belonging.

Their story: Built on belonging

Founded in 2008, California-based Airbnb is a ‘trusted community marketplace for people to list, discover, and book unique accommodation around the world’. Hosts can earn money from their spare space, and guests can find somewhere to stay which feels less like a hotel, and more like a place where they actually live.

Creating that sense of belonging is also an internal ambition, as Mark Levy, Head of Employee Experience, explains: ‘Our company mission is to create a world where you can belong anywhere. And in terms of employee experience, it’s to create a work environment where people feel they belong here.’ i

We want everyone to feel like they can go anywhere and belong anywhere, and that feeds into the culture

‘We want everyone to feel like they can go anywhere and belong anywhere, and that feeds into the culture,’ adds Associate General Counsel, Sharda Caro. ‘That sense of community is a huge part of what energises me every day.'

Employees love the company

Airbnb took top spot in Glassdoor’s Employees’ Choice Awards 2016iii for the best places to work, a ranking based entirely on employee reviews. Employees give the company an overall score of 4.4 out of 5. Almost all of them, 94%, would recommend working there to a friend. And 95% give Brian the thumbs up as CEO.

The pros of working there are said to be ‘fantastic benefits, including travel coupons, and the chance to visit other offices around the world’.

‘I think probably the perk our employees love the most, is the fact that quarterly they get a travel voucher,’ agrees Mark. ‘The reason why, is everyone here is embracing the adventure, and they want to get closer to our hosts.’ iv

They identify with customers

Airbnb are part of the ‘sharing economy’, in which there’s less difference between supplier and consumer, employee and customer, and in Airbnb’s case, host and guest.

Many employees are also hosts and guests, meaning they can identify closely with both the company’s ‘suppliers’ and ‘customers’.

This blurring of roles encourages empathy between a company’s employees and customers. It creates more coherence between the experiences of working for a company and being a customer.

It also means a company can tell the same story to customers as they tell to employees, because the employer brand and the customer brand stand for the same thing. So, for Airbnb, creating an authentic brand experience makes business sense, and it’s contributed to their success and profitability.

Hosts tell their story

Airbnb use storytelling to great effectv . Hosts introduce themselves, their locations and homes, and talk about what they do for their guests. There’s no sense of the video vignettes on their site being adverts. Instead they feel personal and genuine.

Like adverts, though, they make you want to go and stay there. But because they’re genuine, the effect is stronger.

Airbnb do make commercial ads too, but ones which tell true stories. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, they produced an animated video that tells the story of two former border guards who were reunited through the site. vi

Talking about the commercial, Airbnb CMO Jonathan Mildenhall said: ‘Great content and storytelling is so important now for any brand. As a community-driven company, we don’t want to just talk about our product, but instead put our community front and centre of any campaign.’ viii

Airbnb’s stories ring true, and their brand feels authentic, because their mission of making people feel they belong is the same for employees and customers. So why are brands using storytelling, and what makes those stories authentic?

The wider issue: Building an authentic brand through storytelling

Authenticity is replacing advertising

Customers today see through advertising. According to a Forrester reportviii , only 10% trust online ads, and just 32% trust information on company websites.

They trust reviews more. Some 46% believe online reviews written by consumers. And 70% trust recommendations from family or friends. But everyone believes their own experience as a customer because they know it’s authentic.

So how do you get your customers to believe and trust you? By being authentic yourself. By living the values you want your brand to stand for. By creating an internal culture which is truly aligned with the external brand proposition.

The Authentic Brand Indexix says that having an authentic brand makes business sense because, ‘the stronger a brand’s core authenticity is, the more likely people are to become advocates of the brand, and the greater the share a brand will have of its market’.x

So how do you get your customers to believe and trust you? By being authentic yourself

‘In an age of abundant choice,’ says the Index, ‘consumers are drawn towards brands with an engaging identity, a sincere commitment to deliver what they promise – and an original story.’

Authentic stories cut through the noise

There is a native American proverb: ‘Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.’

Humankind has always told stories. But the way a brand tells its story today is becoming more complex, according to a recent survey of the UK’s Top Storytelling Brands.xi

Charities are the category which uses storytelling best, according to the survey, with stories of people in need and people they’ve helped. Consumer technology brands also fair well with stories of how their products touch people’s lives, with Apple coming overall top of the survey for its consistent narrative.

Ed Woodcock, head of narrative at storytelling agency Aesop, who sponsored the survey, thinks having a coherent narrative is key, especially across proliferating social media platforms.

‘If you think back to before we had broadcast technology, we told stories around the campfire,’ he says. ‘What social media has done is put that on steroids – the campfire is much bigger now and millions of people sit around it.’xii

To cut through the noise on social media, stories need to be authentic – true stories about real customers and employees.

Our opinion: Telling the story of an authentic technology brand

Stories of greatness – in employees and clients

‘At Dimension Data, we tell stories of greatness,’ explains Marisa Jansen van Vuuren, Group Marketing Director for Brand at Dimension Data.

‘Our brand purpose is to enable greatness, and that applies internally to our employees as much as externally to our clients. Our narrative is coherent between inside and out – between the internal culture and the brand proposition.

‘We don’t just focus on telling our own story. We celebrate the stories of other people who have achieved great things.’

Ruth Rowan

One of the external stories is that of Team Dimension Data, the first cycling team ever to enter the Tour de France. Team Principal, Douglas Ryder, tells how they had to overcome many obstacles over 20 years to make it happen: ‘If you believe in it, and you focus on it, and you prepare well enough – you make your own luck.’

And one of the internal stories is about an employee, Sonu Natt, who was nominated for the CEO’s Emerging Leader award. She says that, ‘If you put in the dedication, the hard work, and you believe in what this organisation wants to do, you can have such a fulfilling career.’

Both stories are examples of alignment between the internal culture and the external brand proposition.

Culture and brand aligned

‘Having an internal culture that translates into what the brand stands for is what makes a brand authentic,’ agrees Ruth Rowan, Dimension Data’s Group Executive – Marketing. ‘For us, our culture is at the heart of our brand proposition.

‘These days there’s so much transparency in brands’, she continues, ‘that if a brand’s internal culture doesn’t match its external proposition, it will seem hollow. Like a “health” food that’s low fat, but full of sugar.’

‘In the business technology sector, there’s less and less room to differentiate on product. We see ourselves as a services company in the technology sector. And although some services are being automated, delivering the sort of complex IT projects we do for our clients, comes down to people. So people matter.

Having an internal culture that translates into what the brand stands for is what makes a brand authentic

‘If people feel valued, they’ll go the extra mile. They’ll apply their brains, think creatively. They’ll bring their personality to work, knowing that there’s no specific corporate way you have to answer the question.

‘I believe our brand is authentic because our internal culture and our external proposition of enabling greatness is the same for employees and clients,’ Ruth concludes.

Technology can help

If employees and customers both like the technology they’re given to use, their experience of the brand will improve, they’ll stay with the brand longer, and contribute more value to the business.

Technology oils the wheels of how Dimension Data’s own employees interact with one another to serve their clients. Collaboration platforms allow employees from all over the world to work together. They can innovate and bring new products and services to market faster, and meet their clients’ needs sooner.

The company also provides clients with advanced customer experience technology, like multi-channel contact centres. This enables them to connect with their own customers better and provide service and support over any channel they choose.

Back to our hero: What’s next for Airbnb?

Last year they updated their logo to the ‘bélo’ (an invention of a branding agency) which Brian describes as ‘the universal symbol of belonging’.

They’re experimenting with extending the proposition beyond accommodation into the wider experience of living somewhere. At an event for hosts in Paris earlier this year, Brian urged hosts to, ‘Share your homes, but also share your world’.

Some might say this is taking it too far. But given that they’re currently valued at over USD 25 billion, Airbnb are now larger on paper than any hotel chain in the world.

Clearly, aligning employees, hosts, and guests around a shared community culture – and telling that story authentically – has made good business sense for them so far.

 

References
i Airbnb website, accessed August 2016, www.airbnb.co.uk/about/aboutus
ii Glassdoor reviews video on Airbnb, accessed July 2016, https://www.glassdoor.co.uk/Overview/Working-at-Airbnb-EI_IE391850.11,17.htm
iii Glassdoor Employees’ Choice Awards 2016, accessed July 2016, https://www.glassdoor.com/Award/Best-Places-to-Work-LST_KQ0,19.htm
iv Glassdoor review video ibid
v Airbnb website, accessed August 2016, www.airbnb.com/stories
vi ‘Wall and chain: a story of breaking down walls, YouTube, 6 Nov 2014, https://youtu.be/BpAdyFdE3-c
vii Omar Kattan, Airbnb tells emotional Berlin Wall story of reunification, 8 November 2014, http://www.brandstories.net/2014/11/08/airbnb-tells-emotional-berlin-wall-story-reunification/
viii How Branded Content Will Unlock the Key to Consumer Trust, Forrester, March 21 2013, https://www.forrester.com/How+Branded+Content+Will+Unlock+The+Key+To+Consumer+Trust/-/E-PRE4784
ix Authentic Brand Index website, accessed August 2016, www.authenticbrandindex.com
x Authentic Brand Index website, accessed August 2016, www.authenticbrandindex.com/results3.htm
xi Top Storytelling Brands survey by Aesop quoted in Marketing Week, 9 July 2014, www.marketingweek.com/2014/07/09/the-top-storytelling-brands
xii Ed Woodcock, head of narrative at storytelling agency Aesop, who sponsored the Storytelling survey ibid.

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