Airbnb introduces the Bélo  the story of a symbol of belonging_00001

Airbnb had just unveiled their new identity as part of a brand overhaul. Many people would say that it’s time for the brand to think global. Afterall, in 2013, it was reported that more than 10 million guests stayed at an Airbnb rental. On a global scale, counting “beds on offer”, Airbnb is already the fifth-largest “hotelier” in the world, with unparalleled global reach. However, despite the scale of its success, what does the brand stands for?

Technology brands traditionally tend to believe that better products will win the market, therefore putting brand building as something of a luxury or an afterthought. They often also need to push to the market quickly and going global from day one, very little thoughts have been put in crafting something that works across different cultures.

So it is great to see that Airbnb starts to think more holistically. In 2013, their strategy was to build the company into one that delivers “a seamless end-to-end experience when its customers travel”. That’s a pretty transformational statement. Let’s take a look at some of the areas that the new identity will help to achieve this in the long run.

A meaningful story

For a brand to succeed, it has to mean something – something that matters to people they want to connect with. If it doesn’t, no matter how sharp the graphic design of the logo, or how unique the choice of color, fonts and all that, it will not work. Airbnb has crafted a rather interesting message here. In the introduction video that accompanies the launch, it eloquently explains that while the world is getting bigger, people feel less connected. Recognizing the desire of people to connect and share, is the reason why the brand stands for a world where people can “belong everywhere”.

For a change, even the logo has a name. It’s called Bélo. The key message is that it has transformed the “transaction” from a pure mechanical “accommodation booking” to a “connector” from which you can find a place where you feel you belong to. Like a friend with a name.

There is indeed a trend that we all crave for human interaction in the world of digital channels. When you buy a book from Amazon, it might add to the memory and experience if you know that someone you know is also reading the same book. Recent research also have found that LinkedIn lacks the emotional attachments that encourage people to stay and spend time on the platform, which sparked the recent brand positioning drive worldwide.

Giving power back to the consumers

Consumers no longer engage with one-sided marketing messages. Social media has further intensified this relationship. Consumers are now more connected as they have an easy access to information. The battleground is now leveled and consumers have all the power to shape your brand and bend it right. It makes sense that this way of thinking starts right from how the brand is conceived, literally.

“The community has outgrown the brand” Brian Chesky, the founder of Airbnb, said passionately about how “friendship” is an element of the brand that has been so underrepresented.

The Airbnb Bélo was designed to be accessible and universal so that it “can be drawn by everyone”. To facilitate that, users of Airbnb can personalize the logo and place in their property or share it with the community. The companion project “Create Airbnb” has put this in practice and let the users to experiment with it. The notion of a “shared brand identity” is a bold one (though I have to stress that it is not the first time that a brand has done it) and it shows the brand’s confidence and really meant what they say.

Create Airbnb(The create airbnb website)

More important, this is not just a trademark, but a platform for future growth. It paves the way for the development of other “sharing-economy services” down the road. At the end, a good identity defines what the business is and where it is going.

Creating a culture and a movement

The idea that the logo is so simple that anyone can draw it, and so basic that it’s not likely to be drawn the same way twice, connotes something larger than the logo itself. It celebrates and embraces diversity and recognizes the fact that everyone is different. Unlike a typical hotel brand that guests may need to conform to what the brand projects, with Airbnb, you have the feeling that you are in charge.

A brand is no longer just about the product, but about creating a culture and a “movement”.

Airbnb collage

So, what’s next?

I hope the new brand identity really lives up to the brand’s ambitions, and provides a fertile ground for product extensions. Whether the rather bold statement and fully customizable brand identity will be able to withstand the risks that in certain markets there could be a sudden influx of copycats bearing a similar “identity” is yet to be seen. But I think as a defining statement of what the brand stands for, it is instrumental in crafting a pretty clear and sharp picture.

What I think also interesting is how the identity could be interpreted for the users in different countries, and how the message of “belonging” could be adapted globally, regardless of territories or language barriers.

When a western brand enters a foreign market, a lot of people will first set sight on the name. However, a name, as important as it seems, is just part of the defining factors. Let’s take a look at how a few brands across different categories have done recently.

Fashion

When American casual fashion brand Old Navy opened their 22,000 square foot, three-level flagship store in Shanghai in March, they did not launch with a Chinese name. Critics came pouring in right after. Some people criticised the overtly American presentation in their merchandising and launch activities. Old Navy may not be a brand that can accelerate so quickly in the market. Their parent brand GAP (also without a consumer facing Chinese name) launched their own-brand shop in 2010 in China, and is still gradually finding their way in the market. Shanghai is likely to act as their platform to anchor their presence and pave the way for a nation-wide launch of their e-commerce business, and that will be the time when their Chinese brand name will play an important role.

Old Navy_screen

Within the everyday fashion category, it is common for brands to launch without their Chinese name. H&M and ZARA, among others, all followed the same formula. When I worked on the launch of H&M in Shanghai and Hong Kong at the time, what the campaign had managed to achieve was to establish a new ‘category’ in the market. The message was defined through innovative media and owned channels such as their own house magazines. The brand also came in at a time when the millennial generation emerged, and ‘affordable fashion’ perfectly fits what they need. In a market filled with all kinds of Chinese fashion brand names, it was perhaps wise for these brands to focus on their authenticity. What latecomers like Old Navy need now is to craft the next ‘movement’, and to break the new dress code into the mass market. Perhaps adopting the notion of ‘made with Chinese’ rather than the traditional approach of ‘made for Chinese’, and leverage the impact of co-creation with the younger generation in the country. That, to me, is the real localization tactic.

Food

“今個夏天我會喺銅鑼灣開間好正嘅意大利餐廳。”

This was, apparently, what Jamie Oliver said in his video announcing the opening of Jamie’s Italian in Causeway Bay, the heart of the busiest district in Hong Kong.

Traditionally, food is not an easy export. Even though Italian food is arguably one of the most accessible cuisine in the world, and starting with Hong Kong is going to give the brand a good testing ground of the concept, before they enter further into the mainland market. Jamie Oliver cleverly adopts his down-to-earth persona by appearing to be playful in this promotional video. A subtle way to say, “Hey, mixing with local culture is in my DNA”. If he is clever enough to ride on his personal brand, he should engage with the local market through his fantastic social enterprise activities and food revolution campaigns. I believe there is a market for a meaningful brand – a global one.

Professional social network

LinkedIn中国_00001

In a different category, Linkedin has just announced their expansion in China and has launched a simplified Chinese language beta-site branded “领英” (literally meaning ‘Leading Elite’, phonetically as ‘lǐng yīng’). Linkedin (the global site) claimed to have more than 4 million members within China already, but through the partnership with Sequoia China and CBC, they hope to refine and localize the product’s offerings to the Chinese users. The decision to launch with a Chinese brand name, in their case, will help to make sure the Chinese users can communicate comfortably in native language in a business context. However, whether they can fine-tune the nuisances of the communications within the platform to reflect the Asian way of communications is yet to be seen. And once communications start to involve cross-border interactions, how can they effectively help global users to connect and communicate successfully and seamlessly, is also a crucial element. All these challenges, is not just a well-coined Chinese phrase can help.

Think beyond language

A well thought out localized brand name, is just one of the ways to gain traction in the market. The most important part is whether the brand can identify the ‘market’ for their product. They should have the insight to localize the product elements and understand how they can fit into the lifestyle of the local market. Without a clear positioning, finding a Chinese name may just be another hit and miss exercise.

brand experience China

There is a subtle difference between brand pushing messages to consumers, and letting consumers discover what the brand represents.

Recently, a giant pavilion in the shape of a Louis Vuitton suitcase emerged on Moscow’s Red Square. The construction is part of an exhibition called “The Soul of Travel”, marking Louis Vuitton’s 150th anniversary. The blatant display of branding in a conservative culture didn’t go down well.

In fact, consumers in parts of the world where branded goods used to represent status are now turning towards more subtle expressions of taste. China is one of them, and luxury products have already seen heavily branded merchandises slowly losing their charm.

Brand presence has to be more intelligent, subtle, understated, and localised.

In doing so, brands need to dig deep into their DNA or develop a multidimensional personality, and not just fulfilling a functional benefit. Sportswear is not just for helping people excel in sports performance but as a fashion statement; cosmetics is not just about beauty but about fulfilling a social purpose; and coffee shops are not just about beans but about sharing with friends.

Brands are also becoming more like publishers. Creating content around the brand needs more than just one dimension. To be involved in popular culture, particularly the creative side, gives brands the opportunities to contextualize the brand stories, and build key components of their brand promise. It can also give them “currency” and relevance in specific local markets.

There’s a trend that resonates this movement – brands are making the most of retail space. Not just as a place for transaction of sales, but also as a place where they can project a multidimensional character of their brand.

The beauty and make up company Sephora created a pop-up museum concept in New York entitled “Sensorium” in 2011. The category of perfumes has always been solely relaying on glossy print ads and images, but the interactive journey of the setting of the “Sensorium” space introduces consumers to a new way of appreciation of fragrance. All of a sudden, beauty is not just skin deep, but adds a layer of intelligence to it.

In September this year, Starbucks opened two flagship stores in Beijing. They are not ordinary flagships, they are brand-defining establishments. One, located at Beijing’s glitzy and busiest Kerry Centre, is a 4,000 square-foot, two-story “coffee tribute”. The temple-like space features a giant, bold, Starbucks siren icon on the exterior of the building that illuminates at night. The other “eclectic” version, located in Sanlitun, is a 24/7 operation. Featuring ceiling-to-floor glass windows with a special club on the second floor called “Club 1971” that features live music by local talents on weekends. The Chinese Millennials are in dominance. It also reflects the young Chinese growing up in the one-child system with a strong desire to connect with their brothers and sisters outside the family.

In Shanghai, Under Armour opened its first store in China by blending art and science, presenting the Chinese consumers a sensory journey into the brand. The “retail theatre” is located in the new Jing An Kerry Centre, and designed by Marc Thorpe Design in collaboration with HUSH Studio.

China has a complex relationship with sports, although Chinese athletes are winning more medals in the global stage, but still relatively few Chinese has a personal relationship with sports. Global brands such as adidas adapted their strategy by creating two different divisions, on the one had is their flagship sports performance line; and on the other hand, capturing an aspect that translate sports into lifestyle and fashion. The result is, sub brands such as Originals and Y3 had been successful through the halo effects and the connections with its sports performance heritage, effectively crafting out a strategy that is relevant in the local market.

But developing local product strategy is not enough anymore. The idea behind the Under Armour’s “retail theatre” is to open up the minds of the consumers by redefining the notion of training – not as a pursuit of profession in sports but working to achieve physical greatness. It elevates the proposition from a physical one to an aspirational one.

In an age where authenticity of the brand is so critical that it defines what the brand is all about, by presenting consumers a production quality of epic scale it breaks down the boundary between the physical space and the digital, it will certainly triumphant over any content people get just from small screens.

Creating unique brand experiences is one of the most powerful, immersive means of building a brand. Ultimately, it boils down to making it relevant to local consumers while enabling sharable conversations.

Technology brands are not often good in coming up with their product names. They also tend to focus more on building the best products and put much more emphasis in communicating what the products or services do, from a functional point of view, rather than going for the conceptual or creative approaches.

This is even more so if the technology startup brand is an innovative concept. Conveying the functional side of the product will deem to be more crucial at the early stage of the brand development.

GoToMeeting, Box, WeChat, YouSendIt, Summly…YouNameIt.

These many not be the coolest brand names but they did exactly what the startups need to achieve, especially in an increasingly cluttered marketplace.

There are no one-size-fits-all guide in building a technology brand, but we can certainly learn from the journeys that some of the brands had gone through.

Sometimes, certain names did catch on even though they set out to focus on communicating the functional side. Skype derived their name by cleverly condensing the meaning of ‘Sky Peer to Peer’. The brand Skype is easy to pronounce, with potential of leveraging on the images of ‘sky’ in both messaging and design (the cloud graphics). Nowadays, the brand name has become a verb – ‘Skype me’, as we say. It’s also fair to say that it has travelled well internationally.

Skype taglines

YouSendIt, the cloud storage service, has just announced that its name has changed to Hightail. This is to signal the new vision as led by the new CEO Brad Garlinghouse. In his official announcement on their blog, he comments that the new identity represents the current breadth of their services and also marks the fundamental changes that have happened at the company since he took over as CEO just over a year ago. The move is hardly surprising. The name ‘YouSendIt’ will indeed be very confining, and does not carry the connotation that appeals to their core professional users.

Hightail_logo

WeChat, the mobile text and voice messaging communication service developed by Tencent in China, first released in January 2011. The original name of the app ‘WeiXin’ (微信) literally means ‘micro messaging’. It had grown from 4-5 million users in 2011 to over 100 million by 2012. The growth was phenomenal and hence the ambition to go global. Quickly in response to that, they rebranded as WeChat for the international market in April 2012. This move allowed the international audience to get what the product is quickly, sharing the same universal language. WeChat is a true big global brand in the making, but will they re-define their product in the future and will ‘chat’ start to become a limitation? Time will tell.

So what are the guiding principles when developing a tech brand? Here I share with you some of my thoughts:

Define your brand early: Tech startups need to be as crisp as possible in defining what their point of difference is because they’re entering a very cluttered marketplace. They should also take full advantage of being starting from a blank canvas and refine their brand early. I also argue that sometimes it should start with a brand before developing the product. Once you have identified what people really needs, everything will flow into place.

Be world-ready: From the brand name to the representation and various interpretations of the brand, embrace diversity and have a world-view on what the identity means to people in different cultures. A brand name needs to have the capacity to endure velocity of the marketplace and the swift changes in people’s needs. Do it with foresight, not hindsight.

Which tech brands do you think have got their branding done right? What are the differences between branding for tech startups versus other products and services? I like to hear your thoughts.

Share A Coke campaign

Great global ideas do not come about easily. There is always the challenge when an idea works really well in one market, but does not resonate with the consumers in another. There is also the misconception of consistency and the danger of adapting global ideas for the local market without taking into consideration of the context, focusing more on the similarities and not the differences.

Traditionally, the narrow definition of a great global idea means the ability to adopt the same message and adapt it for the local market, maintaining ‘brand consistency’ and maximise cost savings. While this is still true in the broad sense, it is no longer enough. Not only the guiding message needs to be adapted, or transformed, to connect with local audiences, in a connected world, the way that the message is ignited is also likely to be different.

A recent campaign of Coca Cola was a good example.

The ‘Share a Coke’ campaign was first started in Australia (originated by Ogilvy). Overnight, the much loved, but often overlooked, Coca Cola changed the logo on the bottles to 150 of Australia’s most popular names. It took the entire country by surprised.

The strategic thinking behind the campaign was that for a big global iconic brand like Coca Cola, people don’t find it ‘personal’ enough. The campaign was so successful that it was subsequently launched in markets including Brazil, New Zealand, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece and the UK. This year, the China team (working with Leo Burnett Shanghai) adapted the campaign by applying local creativity. Instead of showing people’s names on the bottle, they put the very local and colloquial ‘nicknames’ that are fondly used by Chinese among friends.

icoke_webpage

A quick recap on how the idea has been transformed in different countries:

Australia – the original:

UK: (similar execution for the Netherlands and Belgium)

Greece:

China:

The result is an authentic execution building on local culture and nuances. Not only did the idea travel, but they also managed to adapt it creatively for each local market, so that the consumers felt that the idea was created natively for them.

Each market also had their own way to connect with the people. In Australia, the campaign was activated by an interactive billboard at Kings Cross in Sydney, taking advantage of the digital technology and transfer people’s names instantly through SMS messaging. In China, widely recognised as a mobile-first market, an app was designed to facilitate sharing of the chosen ‘nickname’ to people’s friends via social networking platforms.

Interactive outdoors billboard in Australia:

An app created for the China market:

icoke_app

Such creativity blurred the boundaries between origination and adaptation. I call it creative solutions.

This is the kind of creativity that every successful global campaign requires. Miles Young of Ogilvy Group commented recently that with budgets under pressure, clients aren’t prepared any more to have advertising developed in every one of those markets by local agencies. I also think that a shared brand vision globally can deepen the cohesiveness of the corporate culture internally and maximize the power of collaboration.

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Topshop is no stranger to creating social media sensations. Last year, Topshop took the high street fashion chain’s social presence to a global level when they collaborated with Facebook on a “Customize The Catwalk” experience during London Fashion Week (see my summary of it in my previous blog post).

This year, the brand worked with Google+ to create yet another multi-dimensional experience. The trend for brands to work with social media platforms takes the definition of ‘the medium is the message’ to the digital age. The benefits for brands to co-create content with social media platforms directly is to tap into the expertise of the technology and jointly exploring innovative ways to connect with consumers.

It also guarantees a certain level of exclusivity during content-rich season such as the London Fashion Week when every brand is now producing live streaming of some sort and winning the consumers over unique experience is important.

Brands are also able to make the best use of data collected from various activities. While live streaming, and other ways to give consumers digital access to runway fashion, was more of a marketing tool at first, is now being seen as a research opportunity.

Here I would like to give a brief summary of the key elements of the campaign to illustrate how they are all inter-connected with each other:

Teaser: On 12 Feb, a trailer “The Future of the Fashion Show” (as featured below) was released as teaser of the upcoming activities, giving hints on the ‘storyline’ that would unfold in the following days leading up to Topshop Unique show at London’s Tate Modern on Feb 17. It’s also a crucial step to invite fans to get onboard Google+ that essentially acts as the hub and springboard of the Topshop ‘story’ of the season.

The Future of the Fashion Show – the trailer:

Creating buzz: On 14 Feb, Google+ and Topshop installed a “Be The Model” photo booth in Topshop’s flagship Oxford Street store in London. Customers can try on Topshop outfits and snap pictures in the booth, the device creates animated GIFs users can share with others on their social networks. Organically growing the number of followers and Topshop fans were turned into brand advocates through peer-to-peer recommendation.

Connecting with professional influencers: On 15 Feb, Topshop unveiled behind-the-scenes videos of the models and creative team preparing for Sunday’s show on its YouTube channel, and invited bloggers and fans to join a Google Hangout with Topshop’s creative director Kate Phelan and the Topshop design team. Specific content targets at the fashion circles that in turn act as credible voice for the brand – to give ‘a 360° view of what goes into creating a catwalk show’

Real-time experience: On 17 Feb, Topshop activated its full portfolio of interactive tools. 3-D Google Map technology was employed to give fans access to the show’s space in The Tank at Tate Modern. To create pre-show buzz, 30 mins before the show kicked start, Topshop broadcasted Google Hangouts between fashion bloggers, Topshop fans, and celebrities on their way into the unique space. More opportunities for the content to be widely spread on various platforms such as Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.

Hangout Live Backstage Before Topshop Unique AW13:

Topshop Unique AW13 – The show:

Multi-platform distribution of content: The Topshop Unique Show was streamed live on Topshop’s owned website, as well as on Google+ and Twitter (Tweek Walk), in embedded media players on news organization websites and various fashion blogs, and on a giant screen in the window of Topshop’s Oxford Street store.

360° Interactivity: Runway models’ outfits and accessories were fitted with ‘Model cams’, HD micro-cameras powered by SIS Live’s Hawkeye techonology. The tiny cameras broadcast model’s-eye video in the corner of the show livestream, giving audience an opportunity to experience stepping out onto the catwalk through their favourite models’ eyes.

Content optimization: Other spin-offs were adopted from the success of the previous season’s livestream “Customize The Catwalk” initiative. These include the very successful “Shoot and Share” feature for fans to take still shots from the webcast, and various ways to prolong the experience by allowing fans to download the catwalk music tracks (this year the music featuring tracks from the Smiths, Beats International and Saint Etienne) and purchase the make up range. Every single element was fully utilised to extend the lifespan of the campaign.

Data intelligence: “Be The Buyer” post-show custom Google+ Hangout app was launched so that every clip from the runway will be swipable into a ‘wish-list’ which will then be featured on Topshop website. The data from the Google+ Hangout app will help the buyers decide what they are going to actually bring to retail. Fans feel like they are literally taking control of what they are going to buy.

It’s exciting to see how brands embrace digital channels to produce experiences that consumers really enjoy. The use of data also allows designers for the first time to make a very educated decision about how to plan. I believe the clever and seamless application of technology without making consumers feel like they have been put under the microscope is the key to success. As we know, the worst things happen to some of the digital campaign is that they tend to make consumers feel like they are generating content on behalf of the brands rather than having an enjoyable experience.

I would also like to see how this kind of co-creation could evolve to a global level, creating universal experience for consumers from different markets joining in the big event. It also allows brands to understand what works where globally. That could well be the next big news in global digital content creation.

Celebrity endorsement in advertising is nothing new. From the long time strategy adopted by brands such as Lux who pioneered female celebrity endorsement or Pepsi’s relationship with pop culture in their ‘Taste of the New Generation’ platform, to the more contemporary usage of celebrities by brands such as Mandarin Oriental’s ‘I’m a fan’ campaign. The use of celebrity used to be about helping to shape the brand positioning (as in the case of the Lux being the choice of ‘stars’ and Pepsi’s association with the ‘New Generation’), or in some cases, purely as an awareness exercise.

In Asia, celebrity endorsements had long been a ‘formula’ favoured by brands aiming to achieve an instant fame, from China, India to Japan, often without much careful consideration of the compatibility of the celebrity’s persona with the brand’s image. Every Bollywood star has a product to endorse, and every Japanese whisky has a Hollywood star in a talking head commercial. That’s probably the reason why in the past when a client said they wanted to use a celebrity in the upcoming campaign, it almost always signified the beginning of a formulated creative process.

To a certain extent, this has changed.

The recent trend for brands to associate with celebrities indicates both a changing nature of ‘celebrity’ and the practice of ‘endorsements’. Celebrities are no longer just the face or simply play an acting part in a commercial. In fact they are now hired as creative directors. Some of the recent appointments include:

  • Justin Timberlake for BudLight Platinum
  • Alisha Keys for Blackberry
  • Marc Jacobs for Diet Coke
  • Will.i.am for Intel
  • Lady Gaga for Polaroid

Here are some of their own words in response to their appointments:

Some of them are more credible, as in the case of Will.i.am who actually carries the title of Director of Innovation and reportedly holds an Intel fellowship at the company’s HQ in Santa Clara to constantly dream up innovative ideas, working in collaboration with Intel’s futurist Brain David Johnson. This seems to me one of the more successful collaboration. For other, it could well be just another ‘form’ of celebrity endorsement.

However, one thing is for certain, celebrities are no longer one-dimensional and with their ability to generate ‘content’ in the digital space, it’s where the potential begins. And when brands are moving towards acting as ‘publishers’, the need for relevant and quality content is paramount. When BudLight announced Justin Timberlake’s appointment they said he will ‘provide creative, musical and cultural curation for the brand’ while Justin Timberlake said he is ‘looking forward to not only being a part of the creative process, but in bringing other talented musicians to the forefront as well.’ Could that mean the brand’s future involvements on platforms such as MySpace? Let’s wait and see.

Will the trend of ‘celebrity creative directors’ adapt well in your market? What are the differences in terms of the driving force behind it and its effectiveness? I would like to know.