CULT BRAND: Living Your Purpose w/ Douglas Atkin

Companies know WHY becoming a CULT BRAND is great for business, but do they know HOW?

Best-selling author, cult branding expert and former Airbnb global head of community, Douglas Atkin, joins Chad & Cheese to start unpacking the HOW. Welcome to the new Cult Brand Series of podcasts supported by our friends at Smashfly.

This podcast series is a compliment to Douglas Atkin's Living Your Purpose articles on Medium.


Disability Solutions helps companies find talent in the largest minority community in the world – people with disabilities.

Intro: This Chad and Cheese Cult Brand podcast is supported by SmashFly, recruiting technology built for the talent life cycle. And big believers in building relationships with brands, not jobs. Let SmashFly help tell your story and keep relationships at the heart of your CRM.

Chris Kneeland: Hey everybody. This is Chris Kneeland, CEO of Cult Collective and co-founder of The Gathering of Cult Brands. I'm really privileged today to introduce you to Douglas Atkin. Douglas has played a really powerful role in my personal life in that I read his book about a decade ago, which was called the Culting of Brands. Which really changed the trajectory of my career, gave me the courage to devote my life, my agency to helping other brands create cult-like followings. And I've gone on to study his career and the application of those cult brand principles when he led all of the community initiatives at Airbnb.

Chris Kneeland: And we were just delighted to have Douglas actually on stage at The Gathering in February of 2019 to share his ideas about how every company can improve the way they think about internal engagement and external engagement; if we apply the principles of community building, grassroots activations, the things that create global movements and applying those to creating global companies. So he is absolutely a master of these kinds of principles and I've been his apprentice for several years and look forward to hearing what he has to say.

Intro: Hide your kids, lock the doors. You're listening to HR's 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, buckle up boys and girls. It's time for the Chad and Cheese podcast.

Joel: Oh, yeah. All right. All right. All right. Let's talk some marketing today.

Chad: Yeah, a little bit employer branding, cult brand. Hey, this is

Chad from Chad and Cheese podcast. Today is the introduction to something entirely new that we are calling our Cult Brand series of podcasts.

Joel: I like that.

Chad: I know right. We're collaborating with the team over at The Gathering, the number one marketing and branding event in the world to bring our listeners closer to the people who build and nurture cult brand.

Joel: Love those guys.

Chad: So here's the big question, Joel. Last year, it was an impromptu thing, Ryan Gil said "You knuckleheads need to come to Banff and check this out." What happened to us there that brought us to where we are today and even wanting to have this cult brand series.

Joel: Yeah. And I still don't say Banff the right way either. Just so you know, it's still "braff" to me. But anyways, this thing is a big deal. This is by Forbes, this is the number one marketing conference in the world. You're right. Somehow we got through the cracks and ended up at the show.

Joel: The brands, there are big deals. We're talking Lakers, we're talking Yeti, we're talking Disney. We're talking the biggest brands that people know. I think what really struck me and both of us was how much the brands talked about people and talent and how their employees were ground zero for building purpose, building brand. But yet when we talk to them, there's a real disconnect between HR recruiting and the actual people running the business. So we set out to say, "Hey, how can we fix this?"

Chad: Yeah. And today we're going to start the fix by bringing on Douglas Atkin, former head of global community at Airbnb, partner chief community officer at and author, if you've not read this book, you got to read the book. Author of the Culting of Brands. It is a must read. Douglas, welcome to the show man. Welcome back.

Douglas Atkin: Thank you.

Joel: Live from Tuscany. I love it.

Douglas Atkin: I know it's very hot here. 40 degrees, which is about 105 degrees in your language.

Joel: Holy cow.

Chad: That's ridiculous. That's ridiculous.

Douglas Atkin: It is ridiculous.

Chad: After our first, after our first podcast together, I knew we needed to have you back. And I said, "Hey, we'd like to have you back on the show" and you're like, "wait, wait, wait, wait. I want to be back on. But I have some things that I have to do."

Chad: And you are writing or in the process now of writing a series of articles on Tell us what those are about. Because we're going to dig in deep, but give us an overview of what those are about.

Douglas Atkin: Yeah. So I gave the keynote at this Cult Gathering conference in Banff and the keynote was about basically why you should have a purpose and more importantly, how you operationalize or execute it. And I got some really good feedback from that session, though I think people liked the fact that it was maybe a little bit inspirational but also very practical. We did some really practical things to make sure that we're living with the purpose of Airbnb.

Douglas Atkin: And so I thought, well there seems to be a real hunger for the 'how' if you like. How do you get a purpose? How do you make sure it's a good one and then how do you live it? And so I thought that you can only do so much in a speech of about 45-50 minutes. I thought I'm going to just give it a little bit more detail and tell the story of how we did it at Airbnb. And that's what I'm in the process of doing. It's a little bit like 10 shortish articles, 5 to 10 minutes each about how we found what Airbnb's purpose was and then perhaps even more importantly, how we figured out how to operationalize it, how to live it.

Chad: So from our standpoint, for our listeners, what we're doing is we're doing compliments to what Douglas is doing in the article. So he's writing them down and then we're digging in a little bit deeper. So the very first article is how Airbnb found its purpose and why it's a good one. So that's the one we're going to start with. Joel, go ahead and hit it, man.

Joel: Yeah. Douglas, I'm curious when you, when you walked into Airbnb, they were about four years old according to the first article that you wrote.

Douglas Atkin: Yeah.

Joel: And I assume that there was probably some sort of culture there four years in and I think a lot of employers that are listening to this right now are saying, "Hey we're a 10-year old company. We've been around for five years. I'm going to have to engage on a brand perspective. Talk about how you went into a four-year old company that already had some culture and changed that around. Was that tough to do or what were the steps to get that done?

Douglas Atkin: No, it wasn't tough, I mean it was tough but not impossible. The reason why I think is four or five years old is about the right time to figure out what your purpose is, why you exist. Because you've been in your marketplace for a decent amount of time and you've dealt with the market realities. So that when you put together your business plan and you're making your pitch to your investors about what it is you're going to do and why you're going to do it, quite often, a few years later, it's quite different. Because there's all kinds of stuff that was thrown at you that you'd never expected. So three or four years in is a good time because you know who you are and what you're about. But also importantly, in terms of purpose and culture and values, is that you've accumulated enough people and the interactions between those people have created the culture.

Douglas Atkin: The culture basically is this sort of social soup or an accumulation of all the interactions between all of those people and the principles that are behind how they behave, how they decide things together, how they relate to each other. So there's enough to go on. You're not inventing it out of thin air, there's some stuff there to work on.

Douglas Atkin: But four years is also good because it's not too late. It's early enough in the organization's history to set the foundation for the rest of it's life basically. So it's soon enough and about the right time to commit to these big, big things. Which once you commit to them should never change.

Douglas Atkin: What happened with Airbnb was that I had weird entrance into Airbnb. I think Joe had read my book, the Culting of Brands and a few of my blog posts. And we met for breakfast in New York in September 2012. And then he invited me out to do a fireside chat, which is where they get experts in to talk about stuff that they know about to employees. At the time I was really focused on community and I'd written this book about community, which is about cults.

Douglas Atkin: so I talked about that. Then after that they asked me to come back and work with them for a few weeks, which I did. And when I showed up flying in from New York that night and saw Brian, the CEO/co-founder again, he said, "Hey, you know a lot about brands. Can you help us figure out what ours is?"

Douglas Atkin: And and I said, "Interesting." I was totally expecting a different kind of brief, which was, "Hey, you know a lot about community, can you help us figure out how to make ours better, and bigger, and stronger?"

Douglas Atkin: So I said, "Let me come back to you tomorrow morning," Which I did. And said, "Look, I think instead of figuring out what the brand is, we need to figure out what Airbnb's purpose is."

Douglas Atkin: Because clearly you've got a very strong community here of hosts and guests and employees who are also hosting guests and they're incredibly committed to Airbnb. Why? What difference does it make in their lives? What role does it play? If you can figure out what that is, the reason why you exist, then we can figure out everything else really easily including what your brand is.

Douglas Atkin: But it's really the most important thing you need to get straight in your minds because once you've figured out your why, your purpose, your mission, whatever you want to call it, everything follows. The kind of products you launch, how you design your offices. What kind of people you hire, what kind of people you don't hire, who you merge with or buy or who you don't match with and buy. And yes, what your brand stands for. Because it should really, really go back to that purpose.

Chad: Purpose isn't something that companies are really revolving around as much as they are really profits. Right? It's the other 'P'.

Douglas Atkin: Yeah.

Chad: But your focus was really ground the purpose in an experienced truth. So it wasn't just find a purpose and then put it on a PowerPoint slide.

Douglas Atkin: No, no.

Chad: You really wanted to get deep into this. So tell us what the experienced truth is.

Douglas Atkin: So when I said all this to him, he said, "Okay, do that." And I'm going, "Oh shit."

Douglas Atkin: So in about three and a half weeks with some help of some people at Airbnb. And by the way, there were only 150 or so people in head office at the time in San Francisco. I mean now there's, God knows, 3,500-4,000. So then it really felt like a small startup.

Douglas Atkin: I said, "Okay, if you want me to do this, then what I want to do first is go out and talk to those hosts and guests and employees who feel so committed and find out why and the reason why they're committed."

Douglas Atkin: And the reason why I want to do that is because I think all good purposes are grounded in a universally experienced truth. Meaning that they're grounded in something that's real. The way a lot of organizations find their purpose, by the way, is to take the most senior people stash them away in some expensive offsite site in Aspen or something. They study their navels and they indulge in too much wishful thinking and then they come back with something which is probably not true, but they wished it was and very likely not differentiating.

Douglas Atkin: Because here's the other benefit of finding something that's an experienced truth is, it's true for you, it's true to you. It's a truth about your service or product or whatever it is in the minds of all these people and therefore, is likely to be differentiating.

Douglas Atkin: I mean, if you look at the purposes or the mission statements or the business statements of many, many companies, they almost seem exactly the same. It's like they've taken the same statement and put their logo on top of it.

Douglas Atkin: So in that three and a half weeks, I and this small band of people went out around the world and took to almost 500 hosts and guests and employees and we found out all kinds of really, really interesting stuff.

Douglas Atkin: And eventually found out that basically the truth, the essential

truths, the fundamental ones that covered everything was that the Airbnb guests did not want to be tourists. They thought tourism or tourists was a dirty word. They wanted to be a traveler. They wanted to be an insider. They wanted to go to a place and go to have an experience of some kind in a city like Berlin or somewhere in Bali or whatever, that only the locals experience. They wanted to feel like a local, if you like, the world's local, wherever they went.

Douglas Atkin: And the host wanted their guests to feel that way. They wanted them to sometimes feel almost like part of the family. And so what the host would do was say, "Go to this restaurant, not that, go to this neighborhood, not that one. These are the tourist traps, don't go there. Take this bus, it's better than that bus." So really, really equip them to feel like they belong or in control in this strange place and have this inside view.

Douglas Atkin: So ultimately what I came back with to the founders was this idea of Airbnb exists to create a world where anyone can belong anywhere. You're staying in the home with a local and they are weaving you into the social fabric of this place and making you feel like you belong there.

Douglas Atkin: And wherever you go in the world, even if it's somewhere very strange and unusual, you don't speak the language, it's a very different culture. Like the Western Europeans or Americans going to Japan or China feels a little bit that way. It doesn't matter because you know you're going to belong there because you're going to be in a host's home or stay with a host and they're going to give you the inside track.

Douglas Atkin: So that was the first thing that I made clear that we needed to do and did is ground it in an experience truth.