The secret to Airbnb's successful rebrand

Ben Moss.
July 18, 2014
The secret to Airbnb's successful rebrand.
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Unless you've been abstaining from social media this week, it can hardly have escaped your notice that Airbnb, the global accommodation finder, has undergone a rebrand, including a brand new logo.

The official name for the logo mark is Bélo, and they'd like it to become "the universal symbol for belonging". It's an appealing notion, even if the cynic in me realizes that Nike would like their tick to become the universal symbol for running, and Apple would like their fruit to become the universal symbol for the Internet.

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The new Airbnb logo

Designed by London-based design studio, DesignStudio, the new logo is undeniably a substantial improvement on the original—which looked like the lettering from a '90s sega video game. Despite this, within minutes of its unveiling the new design had begun to be mocked across the twitterverse.

The new mark has been likened to everything from a bear's nose, to a stealth bomber, to female genitalia. What's interesting is that almost everyone has an opinion on the company's branding — it's not a new phenomenon, the same thing happened with Yahoo — from hipster wannabe to hippie used-to-be, the whole world seems to value being perceived as design-literate.

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The original Airbnb logo

But if that's the case, why did so many people begin by mocking the new mark? Well, the human eye is a strange device: rather than record what it sees, it records what it expects to see. That's why devoutly religious people often see the image of a saint in their toast; it's why people saw Lisa Simpson doing something unspeakable in the London 2012 Olympics logo. We expect corporate logos to flop, because so many have before.

But if we're objective, the new Airbnb logo looks no more like genitalia than a lowercase 'd', or (heaven forfend) a lowercase 'a'.

I suspect the real reason most people began mocking the design is that it was simply fun. It's irreverent, and carries with it a small victory for freedom over the power of the mighty corporation. And that, is exactly what Airbnb were aiming for.

With admirable self-assurance the marketing team at Airbnb have embraced the idea of a logo that can be altered, not just depending on what document it's presented on, but everytime it's used. They've even created a dedicated micro-site to help you create your own version of the Bélo. Renting out a lodge near Yellowstone park? Why not turn the logo into a bear's face? Renting out rooms next to an airforce base? Why not turn the logo into a stealth bomber? There are probably apartments in Amsterdam mocking it up as genitalia right now.

My first thought when I saw the new design was that it looked like a map pointer; my second, was that it looked like someone providing shelter with their outstretched arms; thirdly, I felt it resembled the habitat logo that I've admired for years. I didn't see the heart, or the keyhole, both of which are 'official' interpretations. But what matters to Airbnb, is that I had both a personal, and an emotional response: if I'm lost, they'll point me in the right direction; if I need shelter, they'll provide it; they've probably got some comfy bauhaus-style furniture.

Airbnb have recognized that every single member of their community is more than just a supplier; and that just as every room, apartment, town house, or lodge is unique; so too are the experiences they offer us. Airbnb's rebrand provides a framework for each user to redefine the brand in their own way, without detracting from the overall identity.

The logo is so successful not because it represents the brand, but because it embodies the brand's core values. It's a design that is simultaneously intelligent, self-aware and brave.

Ben Moss

Ben Moss has designed and coded work for award-winning startups, and global names including IBM, UBS, and the FBI. When he’s not in front of a screen he’s probably out trail-running.

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