digital storytelling
Creativity Marketing Transformation

How Airbnb CMO Jonathan Mildenhall Uses Digital Storytelling to Create Content That Matters

4 Minute Read

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the current political climate is polarized—and most marketers are wise to stay out of the fray when it comes to branding and digital storytelling. But for CMO of Airbnb, Jonathan Mildenhall, speaking up for more diversity across organizations makes sense: international cooperation and acceptance are necessary for his business to operate. The key is how to say it.

“It’s About Doing What’s Right for Humanity”

“What a lot of marketers are afraid of is putting their brand in the middle of political discourse. It’s about doing what’s right by humanity,” Mildenhall told The Globe and Mail about the recently proposed immigration ban. “The social stand that Airbnb takes is entirely consistent with the values of our community. So did we take a political stand? I’d like to say no. Did we take a very clear social stand? Absolutely.”

Mildenhall recounted how, throughout his career, he’s stood by the LGBTQ community and has invested in charities and Pride events, but explains that he didn’t feel it was right to take a political side until after the Supreme Court ruled on same-sex marriage. Mildenhall himself, a gay black man, has had a number of minority experiences within the advertising and marketing industry, as he was and is often the only person of color in a room. Regardless of his own background, though, Mildenhall felt that this was the best way Airbnb could maintain neutrality.

A recent homepage screencap of

“Bipartisan With a Universal Ideology at the Core”

“I’m very, very conscious of the fact that I want my brand to be bipartisan, but bipartisan with a universal ideology at the core,” Mildenhall told The Globe and Mail. “I want to make sure that my community feels that the brand is sensitive and is not exclusionary, providing that the brand is respected for promoting diversity and inclusivity.”

The challenge of this marketing transformation, of course, is knowing the right time to speak—but it seems to be an example that Mildenhall is leading by doing. Mildenhall took this year’s Cannes festival to task by asking over Twitter why there weren’t more diverse faces winning awards for their work. Again, Mildenhall spoke from a place of wanting inclusivity within organizations, telling Campaign, “I want to ask all parties in a position of power and influence to work harder than ever before to ensure Cannes Lions reflects a diversity agenda that is as progressive as the creative work it celebrates.”

Unique Experiences for All

At the end of the day, Airbnb is a company built upon travel, discovery, other cultures, and experiences. Mildenhall’s decision to make social stances is in line with Airbnb’s brand image. On The Drum, Mildenhall explained that a core part of Airbnb’s business is based around younger travelers who want to take unique trips. The Instagram generation wants to be able to share new and unusual things. “What [millennials are] much more motivated by is unique experiences, and unique experiences afford millennials a way of self-affirmation, education and basic social development,” Mildenhall told The Drum.

This isn’t news to most marketers, but millennials prefer events to material things. Airbnb created an inclusive experience that allows people around the world to share their homes. By celebrating that these foreign homes are so welcoming, and that they afford a traveler a native’s perspective, Airbnb’s marketing is doing something really unique.

Just last year, Mildenhall told Adweek that he’s had to power through other cultural tensions Airbnb presented—such as getting strangers to open up their homes and travelers to stay in stranger’s homes. But in the end, this is what pushes the company to think differently about service and how the brand celebrates its customers and their choices.

Most brands these days have to think about the wider community and how their actions will affect a large number of people. Airbnb is taking this a step further and is pushing content curation around its community, sourcing guidebooks by locals around the world. Furthermore, all of the content that Airbnb travelers create adds to the platform, as Mildenhall told The Drum, he wants users to drive the narrative, using digital storytelling to present their own stories, rather than having the brand speak for them.

Understand Your Community’s Needs

For many marketers, it might not be possible to speak as directly about social values as Mildenhall has, but when it comes to creating good content, there’s plenty of possibilities for a marketing transformation within your own organization: It comes down to building a community that’s human, and understanding its diverse needs, even if the community itself isn’t all that diverse. From these needs, infinite amounts of content can be generated—and if Airbnb is any indication, it could be a defining factor in that company’s success.

Content marketing, at its core, is about creating stories that are in touch with consumers and their day-to-day needs and desires. If a marketer is successful, that story strategy is woven through a brand. Need a few words to live by? Reflect on this poignant quote from Mildenhall: “Every night, ask yourself where you practiced humanity and creativity today and where you failed.”

Subscribe to the Content Standard

Featured image attribution: Maarten Brinkerink

Register for Forward 2019!

I write about design and technology for The Atlantic and Popular Science, about digital retail marketing for Forbes and Digiday, and about art and design for Architectural Digest and Communication Arts. I currently write branded content for Cornell Tech and xAd, and I've written branded content for Adweek Brandshare, Rubicon, Chango, and Autodesk. As wearables advance, I'm interested in how they will affect businesses and culture in the near future. I publish an email newsletter called Alternative Circuit that documents advancements in wearable technology and the business and culture surrounding wearables makers—sign up for bi-weekly letters here: To learn more about me, please visit or follow me on Twitter:

Recommended for you