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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.


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.

Douglas Atkin: But here's the other thing that you need to be looking for when you're trying to find your purpose is yes, ground it in a truth, but make it reach for the stars. "Make it" seems an almost impossible vision of what could be. Don't try and paint a picture of the world as it should be rather than it is now.

Douglas Atkin: The reason you need to do that is because the point of purposes and vision statements is partly to inspire people to do the impossible to make them happen. And they do. They do happen. I mean, one of the examples I think of are things like marriage equality in the US.

Chad: Yeah.

Douglas Atkin: I'm a gay man, I've been with my partner for 30 years and 10 years ago the idea of marriage equality seemed impossible. Absolutely impossible. Bush was in power I think at the time, or maybe it's slightly more than 10 years ago.

Douglas Atkin: Anyway, the army accepted gays and the Don't Ask, Don't Tell was repealed, some court battles were won and a lot of people started this movement and worked really, really hard and now it's a reality. So what seems impossible, it's often just improbable, but you just have to work very, very hard to make it real, to make it happen.

Douglas Atkin: And those people need to be inspired every day to get out of bed in the morning and make what the seemingly impossible happen.

Chad: It can't be too impossible though. Right? Because if it feels like there's no way we're ever going to be able to reach it, won't they just shrug it off? Isn't there like a risk of that?

Douglas Atkin: Yes, there is a risk of that. I mean, in a way, you might say a creating a world but anyone can belong anywhere is one of those, perhaps. It seems crazy. But then if you can look at the organization and see what it has been doing and get some confidence. "Wow. They're creative, they're disruptive, they change economies, change human behavior." Like we did basically to get people to trust strangers to the point that they're invited into their homes.

Douglas Atkin: Then you begin to think, well, maybe it's not as crazy impossible as it seems. Maybe we can. And even if we make it happen a bit, the world is better off than it was before. You know what I mean? Even if we were 50% successful over say 10, 20, 30 years, the world's going to be a lot nicer place than it is now. So it's still worth going for.

Chad: We'll get back to Douglas in a minute, but first I had a quick question for Chris Kneeland and about The Gathering of Cult Brands.

Chad: Okay Chris. So what is The Gathering of Cult Brands?

Chris Kneeland: So The Gathering is this annual coming together of what we call enlightened brand leaders. Those brand leaders can be business owners, marketing leaders, HR professionals. Really anybody who assumes some stewardship over how their business is perceived and how it goes to market and how it executes. And we gather together for three days in the secluded 200-year old castle nestled into the Canadian Rockies in the dead of winter.

Joel: It's awesome.

Chris Kneeland: We're sequestered there to both be educated, to learn things about what audience engagement and employee engagement looks like in the 21st century, as well as to celebrate. It's also a bit of a chance to honor lifetime achievement awards, if you will, for brand leaders that have built these iconic businesses that frankly most people don't talk enough about, either in the advertising or in the HR communities. So we like to shine a spotlight on them.

Joel: Do you believe any sized organization can be on this track of finding purpose? I mean, if I'm a regional, small software company say in Chicago?

Douglas Atkin: No, I don't see why not. Absolutely. Well, I mean at the time, but remember when we were doing this, Airbnb was not well known. It was not a household name and there was only 150 of us. We felt like that little regional office you're talking about. So I don't see why not.

Douglas Atkin: I mean you have to measure the will of the founders or the leaders in the company and the rest of the people in the company to do it. And that's one of the first things. The first three people I did a workshop with and interviewed on this journey, was the three founders. And we didn't go on an expensive offsite to Aspen. We went to a guest's home, had a takeout Chinese food and I grilled them for a couple of hours.

Joel: Were any of the employees part of your Q&A? What was some of the feedback from the employees that you got in terms of the purpose? Was it the same as the people opening up their homes to visitors? Talk about that.

Douglas Atkin: Yes, we found a lot of stuff when you're asking about the role of Airbnb. So for example, one of the things that was very clear is that many hosts found it a transformative experience in many, many different ways. Including going from someone who used to work for the man, to being an entrepreneur, mini entrepreneur and having their own business effectively. And they found that a transformative experience.

Douglas Atkin: But that didn't really relate to the guest experience. And so you had to find something which is relatable to the main stakeholders. And for us that is the hosts, the guests, and the employees being the main stakeholders at the time.

Douglas Atkin: Now we've grown with stakeholders to cities and communities and everything else. But that was a different time. And yes, so you have to find something that is common to them all and this idea of creating a world where anyone can belong anywhere.

Douglas Atkin: We knew it was right because almost a year later, Brian and Joe... Brian, Joe and Nate are the three founders. Brian is the CEO. So Brian and I worked mostly with Brian and Joe over those years. Brian, Joe and I went to New York to talk about the new logo that had been developed. And the new logo or symbol, as you want to call it, it was the first thing that we used the purpose to define.

Douglas Atkin: I don't know if you remember, but we had a very humdrum logo before. It was in blue and white and it said lower cased Airbnb. So they wanted something that was going to be more like Apple or Nike that can be recognized without any words next to it. They wanted a symbol that would stand alone.

Douglas Atkin: The important thing about a symbol is it has meaning attached. It's not just a graphic design, it's a graphic design with meaning attached. Like the dove of peace or the Red Cross or whatever.

Douglas Atkin: So the meaning that they attached to it and briefed the design company with was this purpose of creating a world where anyone can belong anywhere. And they came up with the new logo that has been around for the past five years or so. What I call our equal opportunity genitalia logo. There's something in there for everyone.

Joel: You get a lot of heat for that logo. There was a lot of criticism around that.

Douglas Atkin: I know, I know, even in the press. But a lot of fun around it actually. Even The Guardian said "Is It Balls, Vagina or Both," in a headline.

Douglas Atkin: I know. So anyway, before we launched the logo and before we announced our purpose of creating a world where anyone can belong anywhere, Brian, Joe and I went one weekend in April, and let me see, this would have been 2014, to New York and spoke to some hosts and guests in a loft in New York. We gathered together there. And Brian and Joe took them through the development of this new symbol, which we called the [balo 00:22:00], which is short for blogging. And then showed the logo and I and they talked about this whole idea of creating a world where anyone can belong anywhere. And there were tears in the eyes of these hosts of guests.

Douglas Atkin: There's one guy I remember in particular called David, who is a photographer and a Airbnb host in Brooklyn. And he said, "I knew that was what I was doing this for but you've said it exactly right. And it's even better because now I feel I'm part of something bigger than just myself."

Douglas Atkin: And guests said a similar kind of thing like, "Yes, that's exactly it. We don't want to be tourists. We want to feel like we can belong wherever we go that we're the insiders. We're locals."

Douglas Atkin: Actually that night Brian, Joe and I went to several dodgy bars and clubs, got quite drunk. And I remember Brian looking me in the eye at one point saying, "This is the most important day in the history of the company." All of it's four years, five years by then maybe. Because we had figured out what our purpose was and it was resonating with the people that matter most. Which was the hosts and the guests and the employees who we had spoken to before.

Douglas Atkin: But there's a couple of other things though that I want to talk

about in terms of what makes a good purpose. So I just covered number one is grounded in experienced truth. Number two is make it reach for the stars. Make it inspirational and aspirational. Number three is it should be about one, just one, very big thing.

Chad: Yeah.

Douglas Atkin: And the reason why we used to be about one thing is that the purpose is like the rudder that guides the ship. It defines where you're going and what you're doing basically. And so it's a guardrail, it's a brief, if you like. It's a template. It's the thing that says "do this, don't do that." But it needs to be big so that for the next 100 years or 200 years for however as long as your organization exists, you'll never run out of runway of products to launch, services to have, things to do that, that executes your purpose.

Douglas Atkin: And so that's the third most important thing. And a good example of this is, so the first thing we used for the purpose was to design the logo. One of the next things was to launch Airbnb's second big product. The first being staying in people's homes. The second one is hosted experience by locals.

Douglas Atkin: So we launched experiences a few years ago where you don't have to stay in an Airbnb if you don't want to. But you can certainly sign up to learn kayaking or go surfing with a local host who can teach you how to do that or give you an insider's guide around Rome or Paris or whatever it is. That basically extended our purpose to an even greater audience of people making you feel like you can belong anywhere. Because you are getting a local's point of view about something they were passionate about and sharing it with you.

Douglas Atkin: And so that extended the purpose to all these other people. One of the most important purposes of the purpose is to define your product roadmap basically. It's to define what products and services you're going to be launching. So that's the third one, one big thing.

Douglas Atkin: The fourth, I just modified this one actually from the speech I gave in Banff. Because I thought it was obvious to begin with, but then of course it's not. The fourth most important thing is it has to be memorable. It has to be memorable. And the reason why is extremely simple and that is that every single person in your organization needs to know what the purpose is. It needs to be almost tattooed on their foreheads. That's everyone from the person on reception to the truck driver, the cleaner and the chairman and the leadership team.

Douglas Atkin: From top to bottom everyone should know what the purpose is. Because otherwise your organization won't deliver it unless it's being collectively driven by everyone in your organization to deliver it. Therefore it has to be memorable and so belong anywhere, which is what we call it for short or creating a world where anyone can belong anywhere is memorable, is short, is one sentence, is one idea basically. And it definitely works in those ways.

Douglas Atkin: I got a kick out of wherever I went around the world to Airbnb offices or to meet hosts. Everyone knew that that was the purpose. It was belong anywhere. You'd see signs, it would be scrawled up on whiteboards, it would be in presentations, it would be in whatever.

Douglas Atkin: The hosts loved it because it defined, I mean it gave them a role even greater than the one they thought they were having and it's a true role. Which is you're welcoming complete strangers into your home. In the process of doing that, you're bringing down barriers of geography, language, class, gender, sexuality, all of these things to make someone feel like they belong in your home.

Douglas Atkin: So they love this idea of creating a world where anyone can belong anywhere. In fact, now over the past few years, you can't sign up to be a host or a guest unless you sign a pledge that says you are signed up to this mission of creating a world where anyone can belong anywhere. And that also means that you can't refuse people based on gender, race, class, all those kinds of things too. So those are the four key ingredients that I think make a very good purpose. And fortunately I think our purpose in Airbnb has them all.

Joel: Brilliant.

Chad: I think the best part about this is this is just the first conversation we're going to have with you, Douglas.

Joel: Lucky Douglas.

Chad: The follow-up, we're going to do the steps. The next one's going to be the purpose must comes first and we're going to have a podcast specifically around that and then step number two. So this is really a how-to guide on focusing on purpose, brand, and how Airbnb became a cult brand.

Chad: So thanks again Douglas for joining us and I'm looking forward to having you back pretty much going further down this purpose rabbit hole. Thanks so much.

Douglas Atkin: Thank you.

Joel: We out.

Chad: We out.

Douglas Atkin: We out.

Outro: This has been the Chad and Cheese podcast. Subscribe on iTunes, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts so you don't miss a single show. And be sure to check out our sponsors because they make it all possible. For more, visit

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