Airbnb’s transformative “Don’t Go There. Live There.” campaign was conceived in the back of a car.
The online home-sharing site’s founder, Brian Chesky, and then-CMO Jonathan Mildenhall were on their way to a meeting in Beijing when the two debated the difference between traveling and living. When they arrived, the campaign concept was set.
That decision bolstered a young tech brand, and it also served as one of several key marketing experiences that have come together to fuel Mildenhall’s desire to “make a bigger contribution to the marketing industry.”
Against a backdrop of months of headlines exposing the missteps and broken trust of Silicon Valley anchors such as Facebook and Uber—even as the technologies they create become more pervasive in our lives—today his much-anticipated consultancy launches seeking to infuse founder-led tech companies with the power of brand and purpose.
Twenty First Century Brand, cofounded by Mildenhall, who stepped down from his post as CMO of Airbnb—itself no stranger to controversy— last year, officially unveils today the details of a bold plan to strengthen technology companies with deep dives into and articulation of mission, meaning and cultural benefit—beyond the mere nuts and bolts of the products they create. The consultancy’s cofounders are Alexandra Dimiziani and Neil Barrie.
It comes at a time when tech giants Facebook, Uber and Google work to distance themselves from a series of scandals, and accomplished brand-focused and consumer-centric CMOs like Antonio Lucio and Rebecca Messina assume top marketing posts at such companies.
“We call ourselves Twenty First Century Brand, and we’d like to work with 21st Century companies,” Mildenhall said, in speaking about the specifics of his consultancy for the first time. “We are working with the world’s most innovative companies—those that are genuinely shaping the way that society gets inspired, creates, shares. These innovative companies are changing societal behavior.” It launches with Airbnb, Airtime, Pinterest, Peloton, Thrive Global, GoDaddy and WeWork as founding clients. They’re examples of the kinds of companies the consultancy will seek: all pre-IPO but late stage, Mildenhall said; they have “significant industry reputation, reasonable resources and a very clear agenda in terms of their place in the world, but they may need real help in unlocking the company mission and the associated values,” he said. “We focus on the brand, the role of brand, and how it can guide the community, the product and ultimately what the marketing of that product will be.”
Twenty First Century Brand’s goal is to help companies use marketing to drive growth of financial, consumer, cultural and employee value.
It’s arguably a necessity now as never before for tech brands, which are waking up to the fundamental strength of branding: “People decide which brands to buy and which ones to stick with based on how they make them feel. That’s why brands aren’t in the business of selling products—they’re in the business of forging close emotional ties with their customers,” according to brand-building expert Denise Lee Yohn.
Indeed, an accessible and “human” brand can help tech companies survive. That’s increasingly true among younger generations of consumers who want to buy from and participate with brands that stand for more than just pushing product.
Historically, however, “there is an innate skepticism in the valley for brand and marketing,” said Dimiziani. In the wake of Facebook and Uber it became clear that a strong brand can help weather storms, but also that brand is a financial asset on the balance sheet. It can create tremendous value for companies pre-IPO, she said. There’s been “an awakening to the power of brand and how it can drive business growth.”
Dimiziani is Airbnb’s former global marketing director, and Barrie was previously chief strategy officer at TBWAChiatDay.
Dimiziani has worked with Mildenhall, widely viewed as a dynamic and passionate marketer, on and off, including at Airbnb, since 2006. “Idealogically we’re very well-aligned,” she said. “We have enough commonality that we can communicate telegraphically but have enough differences that we can challenge each other.”
Barrie also worked with Mildenhall and Airbnb, as the company’s creative agency. “It was great to work with the founder of a fast-growing tech company,” Barrie said of his time working with Airbnb and founder Brian Chesky. “We distilled a very simple reasoning for why there is a business case for building an iconic brand.”
Now Airbnb is a Twenty First Century Brand client. Chesky confirmed in an email that “We are already working with Jonathan. He consulted with us on a recent project and has been advising us on how, as Airbnb works to bring magical travel to everyone, our brand can encompass our new offerings while remaining true and authentic to who we are,” he said, adding, “[Mildenhall] is a brand-builder, first and foremost, and he builds them through creative storytelling. He has a very contemporary point of view and knows how to bring brands into pop culture relevancy by adding meaning to create a deep emotional resonance.”
Chesky also referred to the historical resistance to brand-building among tech companies, something Twenty First Century Brand seeks to overturn. “I don’t know that the industry has seen brand as a big, important long-term strategic investment. Instead, there is sometimes a bias towards performance marketing. Companies rarely seem to hire brand marketers, and when they do, they often expect results such as an immediate growth hit very quickly,” Chesky said.
“Historically, brand and its impact have not always been the easiest thing to measure,” he added. “Not everything that matters has a readily available metric—especially things like whether people love something and how long it can take to achieve that. But brand is often all about where the world is going and anticipating that and being in front.”
Twenty First Century Brand current and prospective clients must meet certain criteria: They must be built on technology, community-driven and culturally significant—innovative companies with influential brands, Mildenhall said. “They are changing societal behavior.”
In addition, the consultancy will work only with founders or CEOs, enabling it to dig into the mission, value and “brand blueprint” of a company, he said; doing so “can truly create a huge momentum in the company’s ability to scale and grow in a very purposeful way.”
Mildenhall equates the rise of brand in Silicon Valley to the rise of design a decade ago. “Now companies like Airbnb, Twitter and Facebook have design departments with hundreds of people in them because they’ve understood how design can become a competitive factor,” he said. “Now everyone is turning their attention to brand.”
Mildenhall has staffed his consultancy with “some of the world’s most geeky marketers,” he said, citing examples such as the former head of marketing at Postmates and the former head of growth at Lyft. “My team is made up of marketers that have been bloodied by practice—they understand how challenging it is to get marketing excellence accepted and scaled within organizations,” he said. “People who have incredible differentiating passion points. That leads to the primary value of Twenty First Century Brand: diversity, cognitive diversity, our ability to create harmony out of people who are from very different socioeconomic, academic and cultural backgrounds,” said Mildenhall, who has been outspoken about the need for diversity in Silicon Valley. “When our clients see how powerful the diversity within our company can be, it inspires them to act upon some of the diversity opportunities they have within their organizations.”
His concept testing, meanwhile, stemmed from offers to join other Bay Area startups as CMO. Not inclined to do so, he instead floated the idea of his consultancy, which was met with enthusiasm.
The former Coca-Cola marketer is excited about European expansion. In June, the consultancy will open in London and be helmed by Barrie. “Coke if anything helped me really understand how to develop global strategies and brand positioning that would drive huge global scale and deep cultural relevance,” Mildenhall said.
Barrie will oversee the London-office launch by the end of Q3 2019. “The tech world would benefit from a few more dominant players from the other side of the Atlantic and their approach to building companies and brand,” he said. “There are a lot of impressive businesses coming out of London and Paris in particular,” adding that he and his team are “already talking to [and] aligning with investors and more ambitious VCs.”
For Arianna Huffington, working with Twenty First Century Brand has been an opportunity to “crystallize our brand blueprint.” Indeed, Huffington, who founded wellness company Thrive Global—which has counted Airbnb as a client—and has known Mildenhall since his Coca-Cola days, said she wanted to be the consultancy’s first client. “They helped us go beyond ending the stress and burnout epidemic to unlocking human potential, which is at the other end of ending the epidemic,” she said. “It has been great to have our brand voice in the form of a blueprint that can be a North Star for product and engineering teams and editorial teams to strive for,” she added. “They’ve been amazing creative partners to help us see what was core to our brand and why we were so passionate to our mission.”
She further explained the disregard of brand and breakdown of trust that pervades the California tech industry. “Much of what’s talked about with Silicon Valley isn’t specific to Silicon Valley, but a lot of the dynamics of our business culture—including the parts that are broken—are magnified in Silicon Valley, which is why the conversation is often focused on the tech world,” Huffington said. “And what’s broken is trust,” she said. “The starting point for a tech brand is no longer an assumption of good faith, of virtue, of the idea that your product is going to help me. That good faith now has to be earned, and authenticity and trust are the core elements of that process.”
Looked at through a wider lens it all speaks to the rising influence of brands and marketers in culture and society, a point reflected in the annual Forbes World’s Most Influential CMOs list.
“More people know brand platforms than they know political platforms,” Dimiziani said. “With that power comes an enormous sense of responsibility. I have always struggled in my life between doing business and doing good, and I saw them as mutually exclusive goals,” she said. But with this, “I saw an opportunity to work with brands that have the ability to change the world and together make sure that’s a world for the better.”
Added Barrie, “A lot of founders have ideals, but if the tech is the dominant driver of company behavior, then it is easy for the founders’ ideals to get lost. Twenty First Century Brand can really provide a kind of human constraint so that the ideals don’t get lost and get codified into the operations. We’re trying to help these companies really wield their influence in a way in which human value is in sync with commercial value.”