Creating a Cult Brand w/ Douglas Atkin

Douglas Atkin is beyond legit. Douglas authored The Culting of Brands: Turn Your Customers into True Believers and is the Former Global Head of Community at Airbnb, the architect behind Airbnb's Cult-like brand.

Douglas sat down with us at The Gathering in Banff, Alberta Canada to talk about.... What else - BRAND!

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Announcer: Hide your kids; lock the doors. You're listing to HRs most dangerous podcast. Chad Sowash and Joel Cheesman are here to punch the recruiting industry right where it hurts; complete with breaking news, brash opinion, and loads of snark. Bottle up boys and girls, it's time for the Chad and Cheese Podcast.

Joel: You guys good?

Joel: All right, rolling.

Chad: Hit it.

Chad: Oh, just so you know, this is explicit, so we're probably throwing bombs around every now and again.

Douglas: Okay, good.

Joel: And with that ... We should actually put that in the podcast. Hey guys, what's up? It's Cheese from the Chad and Cheese Podcast, part of our Banff series of podcasts-


Joel: ... interviewing people much smarter than us. It's been very humbling to have people come in the booth. I have a little bit of a confession. I have read your book.

Douglas: No.

Joel: Yes, it's been a long time ago-

Douglas: Yeah, it was.

Joel: ... and I can't remember much of it, although you combined religion with brands and how that cult following was important. So, let me introduce you real quick. We have Douglas Atkin with us. Douglas is the former Global Head of Community at Airbnb. That's former. What's present for you?

Douglas: I burnt out after four and a half years, and moved 7,000 miles away to Tuscany, where we live in an ancient house.

Joel: Sounds awful.

Douglas: I know. It's tough, it's tough. We make very good olive oil and wine, and relax.

Chad: That does sound relaxing.

Douglas: It is relaxing, yes.

Chad: I like that a lot.

Douglas: Of course, there's loads of good food and wine and whatnot.

Chad: Oh, so we saw your presentation yesterday. I mean, first one right out of the gate just blew everybody's doors off.

Douglas: Ah….

Chad: I mean, it was awesome; very well put together.

Douglas: Thank you.

Chad: So, for me, what resonated was that you created a brand that was a holistic brand that was top .... I mean, I don't want to say top down, but it was focused on every different aspect, whether it was hosts, any type of users, but also internally-

Douglas: Absolutely.

Chad: ... not just for employees, but also the recruiting process. What we're seeing so much in our industry is that there's a fracturing that's happening, and there's an employment brand that's actually growing out of HR and it just doesn't seem organic.

Douglas: No.

Chad: Can you tell our listeners how you dealt with that at Airbnb, and also give us kind of like a thought process of this whole kind of non-organic thing that's happening in HR these days?

Douglas: Yes. Well, as much as I can talk about that. So, where this all started was, I explained this in the talk, is that I came into Airbnb in a weird way, and I came ... I met Joe; we got on. He invited me out to give a talk to the employees at Airbnb HQ in San Francisco, which then was about 150 people. When I left, it was about two and a half thousand. So, I did that, and I'm sort of an expert, I guess, on community and talked about that. Then, they asked me to come back for a gig for three and a half weeks in a couple of weeks' time, and I thought that was going to be about community. So, I show up. I lived in New York; showed up that evening and saw Brian, who's the CEO/Co-founder, again, and he said to me, "Hey, you know a lot about branding. Can you help us figure out ours?"

Douglas: And I went, "Ugh." Well, I haven't been in branding for six years. I've been in the community space for then, but I said, "Leave it with me. I want to think about that and come back to you tomorrow morning," which I did. I said that instead of doing that, what I think we needed to do was take a step back and figure out what the purpose is of Airbnb for its community, and by community, I mean everyone. I mean the hosts, the guests, and the employees, who were also hosts and guests, and for the outside world because once you figured out ... The reason why I said that is because, clearly, there was an incredibly passionate community of devoted employees and users, and I said we need to find out why. What is it? What role does Airbnb play in their lives that makes them so committed and identify with Airbnb so closely?

Douglas: So, if you can figure that out, we can figure out what the purpose of Airbnb is, and then we can ... Once you have that, you can figure out everything. You know what brand, what products you should launch and which ones he shouldn't, who you should hire, who you should not, how to train people. You know what companies to buy or merge with and ones to avoid because it's the rudder that guides the ship. Also, you can figure out what the brand is, right? But if you just start at the brand, that's like the temptation is it's going to get stuck in the marketing department and be an external thing only, whereas if it's the purpose, it starts with the founders and the CEO, goes from the inside out. It goes from inside of the company, the employees, and then out to the users and out to the rest of the world.

Douglas: In fact, in the end, I had this little slide, which I showed right at the end of my presentation called Inside Out, and it was like a bullseye with employees in the center, then hosts as the next level, who are our partners in providing the service to guests, who are the next level, and the next level after that was the rest of the world. So, that's what we did, and to get insight on what the purpose was, I and some others went out and spoke to over almost 500 employees and hosts and guests around the world to figure out what role it played.

Douglas: They never said these actual words, but basically it ended up being this idea of we exist. Our reason why is to create a world where anyone can belong anywhere because we learned that what Airbnb guests want is not to be a tourist. They do not want to be ... That's a dirty word. They want to be an insider. They want to be a traveler who gets the inside track on the neighborhood to know almost as much as the locals, and that's exactly what hosts want to do for them. They want to take them from being a stranger in a strange land who's never been to Tokyo before, or wherever, and make them feel at home, and equip them to feel at home by saying, "Go to this restaurant, not this. Here's a bus pass. Go to these neighborhoods. This is a great cafe I spend time in." So, they very, very quickly go from stranger to feeling at home.

Joel: I want to stop you on one point when you said you had interviewed 8,000 employees, or how-

Douglas: No. No, no, no, no.

Joel: No, not 8,000.