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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!

More awesome and explicit knowledge brought to you by Uncommon - let Uncommon automation help cut your recruiter sourcing time by 75%.


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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.

Douglas: Up to ... Well, at that moment, this is in late 2012, it was 400, four to 500 of employees, hosts, and guests.

Joel: Okay. So, I think most companies ... My perception is most HR departments, they get together and they think, "What is our brand?" I think what you did that was really smart is you actually asked the employees, "What do we want to be? What's it like to work here?" And then from that, you created an employment brand that was within the main corporate brand. Would you agree with that, and was that driven by HR? Who came up with that strategy?

Douglas: Well, it wasn't even an employment brand. There was no HR department when we got there. There was one woman from Apple who was overworked. There was no HR department. There was a group of people who still exist called ground control, and their job was to create a fantastic employee. They were to be the hosts of the employees, basically. They put on amazing events and just made everything work, and they still live their now; and nothing to do with kind of health plans and all that stuff.

Douglas: So, what I wanted to do was figure out what Airbnb was as an entity for everyone, so employees, hosts, and guests equally.

Chad: One brand.

Douglas: One brand.

Chad: Not an employment brand.

Douglas: No.

Chad: Not a host brand.

Douglas: No.

Chad: One brand.

Douglas: One brand. It's more than a brand, if you like. It's a huge community of millions of people who have this mission to create a world where anyone can belong anywhere. Now, when it comes to the employees, and this is four years later, this is the last thing I was doing, we had grown from 150 people in HQ to about two and a half thousand, and that puts huge pressure, of course, on the culture. The culture was very strong, palpable, and famous, actually, within Silicon Valley. People wanted to join Airbnb because of the culture, but it was looking a little bit wobbly.

Douglas: What I did is I went back and spoke to employees, over 300 of them all around the world: people who just arrived, people who been there for four years, to try and diagnose why the culture was feeling a little fractured and what to do about it. What I found was that we had this banner mission of creating a world where anyone can belong anywhere, but there some people feeling like, employees were feeling like, they no longer belonged here in Airbnb because some things had been happening, things like there was a perception that we were hiring people too fast, that they were mercenaries, not missionaries is what we call them. We call them believers. I mean, this is what Brian and Joe, Nate, call believers.

Chad: Cool.

Douglas: So, believers in the mission of this is more than a job, this is more than a company. It's a mission to change the world. So, there was a perception that some of the leaders who been hired weren't on the mission. They were there simply for their own benefit and to make their quarterly numbers, all these things. So, I went back to the founders, and said, "We need to fix this. We value the culture." In fact, Brian used to quote what Peter Teal said to him. Peter Teal was the Co-founder of PayPal and stuff.

Douglas: He was an investor. He invested $200 million into Airbnb in 2012, I think. When he handed over the check to Brian, Brian said, "Can you give us a piece of advice?" The one thing he said, Peter Teal said, to safeguard his $200 million investment was "Don't fuck up the culture."

Joel: Wow.

Chad: Ah.

Douglas: So, we kept saying ... I had to go back and say, "The culture isn't fucked up, but it's wobbly and these reasons." So, and then we ... and the other reasons also was the values were very, very good. People were there for the values and everything, but they weren't quite right, as I mentioned in the talk. So, I had to go back to the founders and say, "We have to change the unchangeable. We have to look at these six values and find out if they're true and core or not." I did all kinds of techniques to get to that, working with employees, and we ended up going from six to four because some of the values were aspirational and not core, not real. They were creating cynicism about all the values because they were saying, "We've got this value, but I don't see you living it." You asking me to do this, and you're saying, "Hey, embrace the adventure, and work all weekend."

Douglas: Well, that's not the meaning of the value.

Chad: The walking on water value, right.

Douglas: Yeah, right, right, right. So, anyway, had to fix all that. I guess to your point, though, is that we never saw a division between the employees or the hosts or the guests. It was all one community because the employees were hosts and guests, and some of the hosts would have loved to work for Airbnb as an employee. So, there was no division between inside or outside, but I knew that if we didn't get the mission bought into and understood and delivered and the values from the inside first, then we could never deliver them authentically externally either.

Chad: In what you do or what Airbnb does now, which I think is amazing, through the interview process, you have more of like cultural process people who can veto anybody who's coming in. So, you've got this superstar marketer who's coming in, but somebody can actually veto that, and say, "No, they're not somebody who"-

Douglas: Happened to me. I was trying to recruit ... We just started this program I called firestarter to train and mobilize our hosts to become political activists to change their local laws so that they would be legal because we'd started to get with Uber and the others this whole new economy that was bumping up against old laws that didn't recognize it. So, we had to get the laws changed. The best way of doing that, we felt, was through our community. So, I hired loads of grassroots organizers from the Obama Campaign of 2008, 2012 because they wrote the playbook on grassroots organizing. That's how he got elected. There's this one woman I ... was going to be fantastic. We were going like parachute her into Seattle I think it was, and she was very good at getting the host going and everything else. I wanted to hire her full time; she'd been a consultant. She was interviewed like everyone else is interviewed.

Douglas: So, if you're an engineer or a marketing person or a partnerships person, you'll probably have six to eight interviews to assess how good an engineer or marketer or whatever you are, but then you also have two core values interviews by people who are not in your discipline. They don't care about marketing or engineering or anything. All they care about is to see if you're going to be a cultural fit, and what that means is do your personal values align with the values of Airbnb and all of us inside Airbnb? Are you one of us? basically.

Douglas: So, this woman was fantastic grassroots organizer, but there was an engineer and a product person, I think, was the core values interviewer. They said, "No, this person is not." I was initially furious. I go "I really need her, to parachute her into Seattle." Then, I said, "Nope, it's absolutely right." They have veto power. So, the core values interviewers, and there's now about four or 500 around the world, have ... They do regular jobs; they are engineers or marketing people, but they are especially good at finding out whether you'd be a cultural fit, and they have veto power.

Joel: One of the ... You showed a video that was, essentially, a commercial in your keynote. Much of our audience has probably seen it. As you were coming up with the vision and the advertising, what did that do to recruiting? Did you see a spike? Did you see a more qualified candidate based on your values? Talk about that.

Douglas: Right. So, we had sort of nailed the purpose or the ... We call it purpose, mission, or vision at Airbnb. I know people get their knickers in a twist about whether something's a vision; I don't give a damn. It's our reason why, okay? It's the thing that we're here to do for the next hundred years.

Douglas: Anyway, so we nailed that by about early to mid-2013, and the first exposure it got externally was when we, in 2014, launched our new logo, what I call our equal opportunity genitalia logo, which is-

Chad: There's a whole in there for everybody.

Douglas: There's a whole in there for everybody. Exactly, yes. I mean everybody.

Joel: I hope my mom's not listening.

Douglas: So, the goal for that ... First of all, belong anywhere was used to brief the designers, the external design company, to come up with the logo. So, that was it's first job. Second, though, was Brian and Joe and Andrew Shapiro, this guy who led the design group, wanted to make a symbol, not a logo. The difference between a symbol and a logo is a logo is a graphic design. A symbol is a graphic design with meaning attached, okay? So, like I said, like the dove of peace or the crescent of Islam or whatever it is, lacrosse. So, we launched this new logo because before, I didn't know if you remember, Airbnb was sort of like a cursive, pale, pastel blue, and white thing. It's a bit of a weak logo, actually. So, we launched the new symbol, which we call the Belo after belonging with the meaning, and we expressed that in this homemade video internally, which talked about we're not just a travel company. We believe in creating places where people feel safe and secure and at home and can be themselves wherever they go. It's all about belong anywhere.

Douglas: So, that launched it, okay? That was the first thing. Then, we did, not long after that, a commercial called Mankind, which is quite controversial; "Is mankind" was the start of the commercial and went on about "find out by going and staying with our hosts who are the epitome of that." Then, we did this other commercial, I think, a year or so later called "Don't go there, live there even for a night." "Don't do Paris, live in Paris. Live with the local, learn from a local," and then we launched experiences. So, yes, I don't know because I wasn't running HR. I didn't have exposure to all of that, but very quickly people knew we were all ... We stood for belong anywhere, and everyone learned about our values pretty damn quick if they were being recruited.

Joel: Outstanding.

Chad: Well that, my friend, I think time-wise ... You have a helicopter to catch pretty soon.

Douglas: Well....

Joel: Tuscany is calling.

Chad: Yes. We definitely would love to come to Tuscany and do this even more in depth. That would be wonderful.

Douglas: Let's do it with a bottle of our wine.

Chad: Exactly, yes. Some bread and-

Joel: So, for our listeners who don't know you, where can they find out more, buy your books, buy your wine, whatever. Where should they learn more about you?

Douglas: Well, we just keep our wine for ourselves, actually. We don't produce that much. I don't know, actually. I'm sort of hiding at the moment because I'm tired and burnt out, and I'm not working.

Joel: Okay. Don't find Douglas everybody.

Douglas: No, no-

Joel: He doesn't want to be bothered.

Douglas: What I'm going to do, though, is on the subject of purpose and mission and values and stuff, I've already written what was going to be a draft for another book, but I've decided not to do a book. I'm going to do a not-a-book, and a not-a-book is a series of sort of longish blog posts, which I'm going to post on Medium over the next few weeks and podcasts like this.

Chad: Awesome.

Joel: So, find you on Medium? I guess would be where you want to-

Chad: On Medium, yes, but give me ... Let it be three or four weeks time to kind of knock them into shape and put them up.

Joel: Fair enough.

Douglas: Okay.

Joel: Fair enough.

Chad: Then, reconnect and maybe we'll have another conversation about those. That'd be awesome.

Douglas: I would love to. Yeah, yeah. Awesome.

Joel: Thank you, Douglas.

Douglas: All right. Thanks very much, guys.

Chad: Thanks, Douglas.

Douglas: Cheers.

Chad: Later.

Tristen: Hi, I'm. Thanks for listening to my stepdad, the Chad, and his goofy Friend, Cheese. You've been listening to the Chad and Cheese Podcast. Make sure you subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts so you don't miss out on all the knowledge dropping that's happening up in here.

Tristen: They made me say that.

Tristen: The most important part is to check out our sponsors because I need new track spikes, the expensive shiny gold pair that are extra because ... Well, I'm extra. For more, visit

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