The genius of Airbnb’s rebrand and possible design strategies to make it viral
Things are more interesting when two completely opposite qualities co-exist perfectly in one, often with one being hidden by the other. For example, our mind – the fast and slow thinking systems according to Daniel Kahneman; the innocent Alice in Wonderland and its sexual meaning according to psychoanalysis; the dichotomy existing in arts.
I nominate Airbnb’s rebrand too, for its seemingly banal but highly entertaining new logo. It would have been a disappointment seeing an unorgininal branding of one of the most innovative products of our times – a familiar logo mark (its originality was questioned), the people-embracing value, the dream-creating mission. The rebrand was very well executed through months of research and design, presenting a contemporary, stylish Airbnb to the world. But to me as a customer, there seems to be a lost of promise – the original Airbnb’s geeky, pragmatic tone of voice.
The banal one is in fact controversial
The launch of the rebrand was heated up by the Internet’s sexual interpretations of the Airbnb marque, Bélo. The shape of Bélo was criticised by The Guardian, New York Daily News, design and marketing bloggers and Twitter users. Forbes also wrote up an article on how to predict a creative misfire and what to do when things go wrong.
But was it really a creative misfire? Could it be in fact part of Airbnb’s rebrand strategy? Negativity bias gets the Internet talking, yet in this context, what was being talked about was quite a delight to watch – the sexual interpretations of Bélo were creative and fun; furthermore they reflected the goal of the rebrand, to create a marque that everyone in the world can draw. Whether it is a male or female genital, the imagination of the Internet was a free marketing opportunity for Airbnb to reach a wider audience effectively at the time of the launch of the rebrand.
Three possible design strategies to make the rebrand viral
1. First of all, why the genitals?
Sex is the easiest topic to be criticised (thus gets people talking). On the other hand, sexual interpretations of the logo mark, if done in comical way, could be entertaining and sharable without devaluing the brand.
2. The cognitive trigger
Something needs to guide our mind to associate Bélo with genitals and the new primary colour could be a key trigger. This new colour, named Rausch, along with a secondary colour palette reflects the lifestyle-centred direction. But used dominantly, for example on Airbnb’s website and app, it creates a sense of femininity and intimacy. I still remember the morning when I woke up and saw the rebrand for the first time, being so familiar with the old Airbnb blue, I actually felt a sense of unease and disgust – the new colour, I would describe it as ‘meaty’, seems to be out from the images of Maurizio Cattelan’s Toilet Paper magazine.
3. A design that can be associated with genitals without any cognitive strain
Nothing is more suitable for the purpose than a simple ‘A’ (for Airbnb) with a hole in the middle that can be easily associated with female genitals. Our brain sees shapes of sex organs in way too many things – from strawberry to Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings to Zaha Hadid’s Al Wakrah Stadium in Qatar to an ice cliff (Google ‘things that look like genitals’!). Once the image of the vagina is established, what follows is anything our minds can think of – no wonder it was questioned whether it was balls, vagina or both? It is just ANYTHING WE SEE.
Lastly, for the show to happen, it has to be the right brand in the right place at right time, in order to create the snowball effect to expose the hidden vagina in the new logo.
Above is based on the assumption that having a genital-like logo is part of Airbnb’s brand strategy, which could be wrong. Or perhaps ‘controversial’ is more accurate. Or the design could be just overlooked. Nonetheless, the rebrand gained great exposure through criticism, then through its product it showed nothing controversial but a heart that was so determined to change and put its people in the centre – and this is something we can learn from Airbnb’s rebrand.
Now over to you …
Strategic decision or creative misfire? What are your thoughts? Let’s continue the discussion on Google+.
Coming up next: Analysis of Airbnb’s top-of-funnel user experience. Subscribe to my newsletter to receive the article.