Successful Brand Cultures Live Their Beliefs

Mark MillerNovember 1, 20183 min

“There is a job and then there is a calling. We want to hire people who aren’t just looking for jobs, they’re looking for a calling.” ~ Brian Chesky, Cofounder, Chief Executive Officer, and Head of Community, Airbnb.

There’s a story Brian Chesky tells about meeting with Peter Thiel, the well-known Silicon Valley venture capitalist. It was 2012, Airbnb’s fourth year in business, and Thiel had just granted $150 million in Series C financing to the ambitious peer-to-peer house-sharing brand created by Chesky and fellow cofounders Joe Gebbia and Nathan Blecharczyk. During Thiel’s visit to the brand’s San Francisco office, Chesky asked the venture capitalist for his single-most important piece of advice.

“Don’t f**k up the culture,” said Thiel.

The investor explained that Airbnb’s strong culture was one of the main reasons he was backing the brand and that all companies inevitably screw up their cultures when they get too big. Somewhere be­tween scrappy upstart and industry leader, the brand culture often fails and the company loses its way.

Thiel couldn’t have found a better audience. Already known for his devotion to Airbnb’s internal culture (the CEO personally interviewed Airbnb’s first 300 employees), Chesky sent out a company-wide e-mail elaborating on the topic. In the e-mail, which soon went viral, Chesky stressed the importance of building culture by “upholding our core values in everything we do”:

There are days when it’s easy to feel the pressure of our own growth expectations. Other days when we need to ship product. Others still where we are dealing with the latest government relations issue. It’s easy to get consumed by these. And they are all very important. But compared to culture, they are relatively short term. These problems will come and go. But culture is forever.

Next, Chesky articulated a rallying cry built on a deeply held brand belief: “Belong anywhere.” Guided in part by beliefs like these, Airbnb’s culture has thrived in the face of significant challenges. Though the brand initially ignored naysayers who objected to its rental model, Chesky now encourages his employees to engage community members and government regulators to develop cooperative solutions. After incidents of racial bias among consumers, in 2016 Airbnb hired former Attorney General Eric Holder and began working with Harvard University professor Robert Livingston, an antibias expert, to help address all forms of discrimination across the brand. In the interest of transparency, Chesky has regularly posted candid blogs describing improve­ments, pledging to do better, and even apologiz­ing for shortcomings.

Today, with more than 2,500 employees, a market value of $30 billion, and nearly $3 billion in annual revenue, Airbnb is getting its business right. For proof that the brand is still getting its culture right, look no further than its human resource department: For every job opening, Airbnb reports receiving some 200 applicants.

Rather than just singing his brand’s praises and putting out fires the way many figurehead leaders do, Chesky devotes himself to reinforcing his brand’s values internally and encouraging colleagues to express those values through their unique behaviors. His dedication is telling of the modern legacy mindset: from attitudinal posturing to behaving your beliefs.

Nearsighted brand leaders imagine their brands first from the outside in, believing that attitude – what they say and how they posture matters most. Leaders with the modern legacy mindset build from the inside out in accordance with beliefs that drive behaviors because actions matter more than words alone.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by Mark Miller and Lucas Conley, excerpted from Legacy in the Making: Building a Long-Term Brand to Stand Out in a Short-Term World by Mark Miller and Lucas Conley, p.44-46 (McGraw-Hill Education, March 2018)

Mark Miller and Lucas Conley are the authors of Legacy in the Making: Building a Long-Term Brand to Stand Out in a Short-Term World. Miller is the founder of The Legacy Lab, a research and consulting practice, and the chief strategy officer at Team One. Conley is executive editor at The Legacy Lab, a former researcher for The Atlantic and staff writer for Fast Company.

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