7 -min. read

“Is it balls? Is it a vagina? Is it balls in front of a vagina?”

Not exactly the response you’d have anticipated as you ready to announce the fruits of a year-long collaboration with one of the world’s leading design studios. Gizmodo’s reaction, though, was one of the more tame. It’s over three years since Airbnb broke the internet with a new brand identity and the birth of their Bélo symbol; but the only shocking thing that we remember is how bad their branding was prior to July 2014.

The then-controversial marque is said by its creators to encompass the values of belonging. A ‘community symbol’ that anyone could draw. It is an expression of Airbnb’s core sensibility, a “symbol that, like us, can belong wherever it happens to be.” It’s par for the course these days to have a brand that extends way beyond logos and typefaces, and Airbnb’s rebrand was about significantly more than their Bélo – which is why the dust quickly settled, and the shareconomy giant joined old-hands like Nike and Apple in the world of the ‘lifestyle brand’.

Airbnb Brand

“Customers”, says marketing professor, Bernd Schmitt, “want to be entertained, stimulated, emotionally affected and creatively challenged.” Furthering the brand’s grip on its community and the intensity of their brand ethics, co-founder and CPO Joe Gebbia announced last summer the creation of Samara, their own in-house innovation and design studio; its first project was an installation created in collaboration with Japanese architect, Go Hasegawa.

Designed and built for an exhibition in Tokyo, the Yoshino Cedar House – built by craftspeople from the place that inspired it – now occupies a permanent plot back in that small rural town; its people manage the home as an Airbnb, the first of its kind to have a dedicated community development fund that directly supports local artisans and artists. Why does this matter in a story about branding? It is a project that entertains, stimulates, emotionally affects and creatively challenges. Like the Yoshino community it supports, travellers and those invested in the brand can experience a personal connection – the project promotes the sense of belonging that Airbnb’s co-founders are always so keen to stress.

“Samara”, says Gebbia, “will give us even more space to apply what we’ve learned over the last eight years and create new services for connection, commerce and social change within the expanding Airbnb community.” In ‘community’, the San Francisco-based brand have found their ‘duck’.

Yoshino Cedar House
Yoshino Cedar House

“More than five years ago”, wrote Schmitt in 2012, “I stayed for the first time in the Conrad Hotel in Hong Kong. In the bathroom on the rim of the bathtub, they had placed a bright yellow rubber duck with a red mouth. I fell in love with the idea (and the duck) immediately. It’s the one thing that I always remember when I think about the hotel, and it becomes the starting point of remembering the entire hotel experience. Every company needs to have a duck for its brand. That is, a little element that triggers, frames, summarises, stylises the experience.”

Schmitt is right. Great branding, great design and marketing, is about finding that duck, and giving it wings. Where Airbnb have community and belonging, the Hans Brinker Budget Hotel has “suspect smells and indifferent housekeeping”. After 45 years of no-frills incompetence in Amsterdam, the hostel celebrated a new opening in Lisbon with an upfront campaign from celebrated communications agency, KesselsKramer. “Same Lack of Social Skills, Different Accent”, shouted one brilliant poster. If you haven’t got it, flaunt it.

Hans Brinker Budget Hotel
Hans Brinker Budget Hotel

There is a tendency in branding and design to assimilate the current zeitgeist (pull up the web presence of any number of recently conceived millennial brands from hospitality’s global giants for Instagram-informed proof), but it is those who are comfortable in their own skin, those who already have their ‘duck’, who succeed with the greatest aplomb.

Shaped by the seedy neon lights of its neighbourhood – which has “always attracted bad boys and artists, musicians and adventurers” – Paris’s Le Pigalle carry themselves with a defiant swagger; a fashion-conscious sensibility that runs from its website to Instagram account, and even on to the bathroom shelves, where the hotel’s suggestive motif extends to its custom toiletries. Graphical branding is minimal and languid, photography suggestive and alluring. “With neither a monument nor a meeting point”, says the hotel of their ‘hood’, “it lacked a spot that really reflected its tawdry values, brazen spirit and musical energy.”

Le Pigalle, Paris
Le Pigalle, Paris

Swapping the brash independence of cutting-edge fashion for the sex appeal of international catwalks, designer and model duo George Gorrow and Cisco Tschurtschenthaler’s decadent tropical brutalism at The Slow, Bali, is another project that knows exactly who it is. Scroll through that Instagram feed. They don’t step a neatly pedicured toe out of line. Annoying, isn’t it?

There are those who’ve created a visual language that would be difficult to translate outside of its native land: The Michelberger Hotel’s chaotic anti-branding could surely only work in Berlin, and perhaps only Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg at that; Oddsson’s ice-cool, design-heavy clinicalness feels so very Reykjavík. And then there are those who have transcended their locality…

Much-lauded on these pages, Canberra’s Hotel Hotel come off like a slightly impenetrable Berlin contemporary art gallery; their unyielding edginess celebrated in everything they do. And, some 700 kilometres south-west on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, the Jackalope hotel embraces mythology and the avant-garde in a project that unifies identity, architecture, interior and landscaping – Emily Floyd’s seven-metre-tall mythical Jackalope sculpture symbolising a feat of branding that embodies that excellent German term: Gesamtkunstwerk, which translates as “a total work of art”.


Pulling off a Gesamtkunstwerk brand, though, is clearly more difficult than it seems. Take New York’s 11 Howard: a beautiful hotel with a beautiful identity, put together by no less than Wallpaper* and Monocle founder Tyler Brûlé’s Winkreative. Quite lovely it is, and it fits the bill of honouring the hotel’s design DNA, which is, as the designers put it, “a combination of Scandinavian minimalism and New York’s urban edge”. But what’s 11 Howard’s big selling point? ‘Conscious hospitality’: aiming to address poverty and inequality through thoughtfulness, awareness and community. You want to stay because it looks so damn nice, but have they achieved the emotional attachment of an Airbnb; do they spell out their singular personality like Le Pigalle do in fat louche letters?

Stockholm’s Hobo is on-trend and perfectly executed, a creative identity for luring creatives through its doors; Perth’s Alex Hotel is slick and sophisticated with a hint of contemporary spirit; Amsterdam’s Volkshotel is youthful and soaked in independent spirit. Design briefs have been met and exceeded in style, but none will win the hearts of a community; none will achieve the status of ‘lifestyle brand’. But do they need to?

If you are not a Gesamtkunstwerk, and if you want to be different things to different people, then sometimes good old fashioned style might be all that’s needed; especially when trying to have relevance in Chicago and Paris, Dublin and Miami.

11 Howard
11 Howard

Take a quick run through some of the most forward-thinking hotel chains: The Hoxton, Ace Hotel, Generator, Soho House… Each (with varying degrees of success) has an aesthetic that talks to their audience. Each uses interior design, their restaurants and bars, and cultural programming to convey their local personality. “The way something is presented”, says the revered designer Neville Brody, “will define the way you react to it.” By keeping identity minimal and giving your visual personality a backseat, guests are more free to react to their different destinations. At least, that’s the idea.

Whether you are comfortable in your own skin and your identity will run through all that you do, or you’re fashioning a transparent brand that lets your locality do the talking, it’s important to remember Bernd Schmitt’s words: that customers “want to be entertained, stimulated, emotionally affected and creatively challenged.” There is a sense that all Soho House is doing is cocooning you in familiarity – it’s difficult to be affected or challenged by your destination when it could be Rotterdam or anywhere, Liverpool or Rome; similarly, W’s guests are likely to be as equally glam should the location be New York City or the Maldives. In today’s age of seeking authenticity, should brands be about more than the homogenisation of experience?

It’s a tough nut to crack. As the veritable graphic design icon Paul Rand said: “Design is so simple. That’s why it’s so complicated.”

In not being weighed down by creating a visual language for physical properties, Airbnb’s essence is in their hosts and destinations – that’s why their Bélo, a ‘community symbol that anyone could draw’, works so well. Whilst, on the other hand, Hotel Hotel or Le Pigalle’s resolute dedication to their essence is a triumph of carving out your own, individualistic identity. Poles apart, they are united by stimulating and affecting; by challenging and entertaining; by looking within and celebrating what makes you different.

Without a story to tell, and without a personality to eulogise, design is simply decoration.

Hotel Hotel
Hotel Hotel

James Davidson
James Davidson is a contributing writer for THE SHIFT and editor-in-chief of We Heart, an online design and lifestyle magazine that he founded in 2009 as a personal blog and now receives over half a million monthly views.

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