As Airbnb hires the star couple to woo travellers with an appetite to try new ways of doing old things, we speak to Varun Raina on its first wide-reach India campaign.
Nine years ago, the accommodation-sharing online company Airbnb was born in a San Francisco room with three guests - one of whom incidentally was a thirty year old Indian man. At one point, its three founders -Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia and Nathan Blecharczyk even sold cereal to keep it afloat. Defining its core audience as 'head-first explorers', today, it's a community of 5 million homes in 191 countries, and an icon of the sharing economy.
Airbnb's global campaign - 'Live There' was introduced in India in April last year urging travelers to not just 'see' a destination but 'live' there. The aim was reimagine travel, so it highlighted experiences made possible through its community, and used celebrities like Shahrukh Khan and Twinkle Khanna as influencers to start the buzz.
Now, for the campaign's first wide-reach messaging in India, it is actor couple Kareena and Saif Ali Khan (both, incidentally, don't have any official social media presence) helping them widen the base. Them being perceived as as home-sharers may be a bit of a stretch. Or not.
Varun Raina, Airbnb India's marketing manager, says celebrities and influencers help them highlight the fact that even seasoned travellers are seeking newer ways to experience travel.
"Saif and Kareena are an apt choice as endorsers for us as they represent contemporary attitudes, and are one of the most intellectual couples in Bollywood," he asserts.
He adds, "They are also widely respected for their work on screen by their peers as well as the Indian public at large, and are known to be articulate about their preferences and bold choices despite media/public attention. Through the association we also wanted to give travellers a sneak peak into their lives and how they travel."
Backpacking, middle-income millennials are surely an important part of the company's TG- will Saif-Kareena resonate? "With the huge millennial population in mind, our focus is to get more Indians to become acquainted with the value that Airbnb can add,"says Raina, claiming that in the recent past, a number of Bollywood and Hollywood celebrities and artists have chosen Airbnb when they travel.
Last year Wieden & Kennedy was picked as Airbnb's global (creative) agency of record -its India arm has made these three films. The team shares, "It was an interesting brief where the primary focus was to drive comprehension in the India market. We felt that with Saif and Kareena, we have a couple with a strong inclination for travel - and their holidays are always a talking point."
The team wanted to show the couple in a new light, and bring out the essence of 'taking some time off from the usual, and show the excitement of planning a holiday.' "We kept it natural and candid, with them planning their trip by themselves, and how Airbnb makes it all the more simpler. What you see are some good moments showcasing situations everyone can relate to, when thinking of a trip."
The videos have crossed 10 million plus views and counting. Does that reach enable a connect with the relevant audience? Communications consultant Karthik Srinivasan feels the use of celebrities who can afford any/every kind of place anywhere in the world perhaps alienates most target users of Airbnb. "But I do understand their point of view," he says. He adds, "They want to be seen by most Indians, and one shortcut of getting that is-celebrities. Unfortunately, it comes across as disingenuous, with them merely acting out their part."
Srinivasan believes the reason why TripAdvisor and the likes are number one destinations for Airbnb's target audience for travel and stay decisions - is because people trust 'people like them'. "Even if these people-like-us happen to be strangers online," he believes.
"Airbnb is built on peer-to-peer word of mouth, and this idea, oddly, seems to take peers out, replacing them with celebrities. In line with Uber's Virat Kohli-featuring campaign, this continues to demonstrate a lack of imagination from the agencies," says Srinivasan.
Ishrath Nawaz, ECD, Publicis India, feels the execution is nice and natural. "I like the idea of these real interactions - especially with celebrities involved. When pulled off well, they look great. Saif and Kareena playing themselves is good, their chemistry is beautiful.
"However, I would have liked a little more quirk in the banter. Something memorable, something sticky. In trying to be too real, one shouldn't forget the fact that people will still see these as ads. So better crafted dialogues would've helped. The execution does grab attention, but everything else around is too straightforward," Nawaz feels.
He thinks it could work, but barely. "It's refreshing, and to some degree, clutter-breaking, and does the job of telling people about the little things that make AirBnB different. However, I won't score it high on memorability and recall," says Nawaz.
Pooja Jauhari, CEO at The Glitch says, "At the outset the obvious chemistry between Saif and Kareena lifts the very simple creative, making it an easy watch. So from a marketing strategy standpoint, using the couple works for me. People are talking about it, and it does the job on awareness."
"On the other hand however, the focus is on luxury residences, and in my view this alienates backpackers, young and budget travellers- which is a very large pool of options available on Airbnb", feels Jauhari.
Airbnb and the industry:
The 'accommodation industry' has a unique full-circle story. In the 1930s, in the west, luxury hotels were only frequented by the wealthy, while everyone else stayed in boarding houses. In the 1950s, the first disruption in the hospitality industry was in fact by mainstream hotels like Holiday Inn, as travellers wanted predictable, ubiquitous experience. Now in 2018- hotels have been classified officially on the site while 'Airbnb Plus' has been launched as a hotel-like tier, offering a 'standard set of amenities'. With that bit of perspective, we take a deeper look at the India market with Varun Raina.
'Living like a local' is the brand's 'fertile proposition' and globally, messages say "You can have your own home. Make your bed. Cook. Do the stuff you normally do." Does this really appeal to the template Indian traveller?
The concept of home sharing is fast gaining acceptance and popularity in India. This is evident in the fact that over a million Indians have travelled using Airbnb. This in itself a testimony to the new age travellers willingness to experience the world in new ways.
Can you share some insights on the Indian market vis a vis consumer behaviour/habits?
Travel and hospitality are evolving, dynamic industries. Nowadays travellers are open to experimentation, as choices reach an all-time high. A new era of travel and hospitality has emerged, with consumers who are more confident about their choices and preferences.
• Across the globe, Indians are amongst the highest spenders when it comes to outbound travel and some of the most preferred destinations include New York, London, Paris, Milan, Dubai and Bangkok
• Not only this, Indians have moved beyond the idea of annual vacations and now instead plan multiple shorter trips through the year (including domestic and international vacations)
• Another trend is - customised amenities and facilities in accommodation which also determines destination choice. For example, last year we conducted a survey across the APAC region which revealed "basis which we curated the 'Kitchens of Asia' initiative by partnering with renowned chefs in four Asia Pacific markets.
Airbnb India has reportedly witnessed a 200 per cent growth last fiscal here. What's your current push? Are there enough people taking up hosting.
Over the next year, we intend to sustain this momentum and partner with local business and communities, regulatory bodies, state governments and influencers to take Airbnb deeper into markets and build stronger connect with travellers. The success of Airbnb in India so far, is reflected by the growth seen in the host and guest community alike.
At 30,000 listings in India, it's a 115% growth in the past year. Goa- our top domestic destination in India - has over 5,000 listings, with a growth of 259% in listings since 2015 and a surge of 515% in domestic and international bookings. Furthermore, we have witnessed almost 2x growth in the number of nights booked on Airbnb in India since 2016.
In terms of hosts, Airbnb is fast enabling micro-entrepreneurship for home owners across the country, as citizens, businesses and policy-makers are opening up to the sharing economy phenomenon. For several hosts, it's among the primary sources of income.
How will you characterise millennial behaviour here-what drives their travel?
Millennials are on the frontline of cultural changes and they are constantly scouting for bespoke travel experiences. Below are some of the key drivers that we have noticed fuel travel for millenials in India:
• Experiential travel: They now want to build their itineraries, and immerse themselves in the local culture, cuisine, and more
• Personalised travel experiences: Each person's interpretation of hospitality varies, and the common element across categories is the ability to personalise/customise
• International travel and long weekends: Technology has made international travel more accessible and easier to plan, and travelers no longer see planning these vacations as a daunting task.
Over the years many of Airbnb's competitors have consolidated in global markets. Now with online travel aggregator portals and hotels too focusing on experiences, in India, who do you see as competition?
We believe that Airbnb has something for everyone, and that as travel habits and consumer demands evolve, businesses are constantly innovating to deliver to them. This space has immense potential for diversity and it is encouraging to see a shift in the domain, as people increasingly know what they want from their travel experiences.