The Airbnb rebrand – lessons from a thorough immersion process

Ahead of his session at November’s Festival of Marketing, Airbnb head of art department Andrew Schapiro tells us how a heavy immersion process helped Airbnb define its new branding

Designers are no longer relegated to creative departments. In today’s landscape, design thinking has surpassed buzzword status and is valued in every stage of product development and business strategy. MBA students clamour for courses that teach design thinking, eager to learn methodologies that might help future employers gain market share and relevance.

But research and immersion are disproportionately weighted towards product and service design in many companies, and their value is underestimated in identity and branding projects.

Research and immersion were essential to the success of Airbnb’s recent rebrand. We learned first-hand that investing in a thorough research phase leads to more innovative work and greater efficiency.

Stakeholders tend to weigh schedules in favour of creative development and research often does not extend beyond competitive analysis. But a truly thorough process focuses on company immersion, co-creation, and product use in addition to competitive analysis.

After choosing DesignStudio as a partner, the most controversial conversation was around the length of this external team’s immersion phase. Ultimately, we looked to another successful partnership for inspiration. The previous year, a team of architects moved into the Airbnb office and worked full-time alongside our teams for months while designing our new San Francisco headquarters.


The results were so insightful that we asked DesignStudio to model the process.

Shared values, close collaboration, and transparency defined our partnership with DesignStudio and led to creative work that was unanimously embraced by stakeholders, celebrated by our company, and recognised by the media.

Immersion does not simply mean spending time in a client’s office and attending happy-hours. We learned that engaging employees at all levels of a company can lead to unexpected insights and broader buy-in when the final product is complete.

DesignStudio interviewed Airbnb employees in San Francisco and nearly a dozen cities around the world. The team gleaned a deep understanding of what defines our culture (intrinsically tied to brand) and understood the impact a new brand would have on all aspects of the company. The process also built relationships to the work that bridged our many global offices, ultimately leading our global teams to feel ownership of the work rather than to feel disconnected.

When your community helps define your product experience, consider them stakeholders in the project much the same as you would employees. In our case, it was essential that DesignStudio spent time with Airbnb hosts and travellers. What better way than to travel the world – to 13 cities – and administer the entire process?

Perhaps the greatest learning from our experience is the importance of opportunities for external and internal teams to co-create early in the process. Sharing individual visions for the brand, constructing an understanding of the brand landscape and collaborating on a visual mood-board together led to strong alignment and respect that endured throughout the relationship between our internal team and DesignStudio. Building trust in initial meetings unleashes creativity and makes difficult conversations easier down the road.

Ultimately research and immersion are an investment. External teams can add capacity and expertise to branding projects, but the early stages of the process should be shaped with as much attention as any product or service design project.

Time invested in building alliances, providing access to internal resources and developing a first-hand experience with the product (or community) pays off in hours and dollars down the road. Not to mention the intangible value of bringing dozens of non-designers into a creative process that is fundamental to any company’s well-being.


Andrew Schapiro is head of the art department at Airbnb. He will be speaking at the Festival of Marketing, which will be held on 12-13 November in London. For more information visit

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