Know your customer. Know your audience.

Airbnb wildly miscalculated this week when they ran an ad campaign designed to shame the city of San Francisco for collecting the standard 14% hotel tax from the peer-to-peer vacation rental service. The company, which launched in San Francisco in 2008, erected posters and billboards around the city with smug suggestions as to how the tax money might be spent, including keeping the library open later, feeding expired parking meters, cleaning public parks, and installing escalators on all the city’s hills.

San Franciscans weren’t amused and quickly took to social media to respond. With a ballot measure on the horizon, which, if passed, would limit the number of days Airbnb hosts could rent their home within a given year, the timing couldn’t be worse.

Airbnb Tweet
Airbnb Tweet

6 things airbnb got wrong:

1. They made incorrect assumptions about their customers and their community.

2. They failed to understand market sentiment.

3. They were condescending and smug. Even people who like you, don’t like you when behave like that.

4. They made their own customers look bad by association.

5. They overvalued their own reputation.

6. They didn’t think about context.

Running a bold and daring campaign is risky. When it works, it pays off hugely. When it fails, at best, it’s simply forgotten. At worst, it can seriously damage your brand.

Airbnb took a risk. They are a young, disruptive company, a pioneer in the sharing economy. When you’re innovating on this level and changing the way business gets done, you’re bound to make mistakes.

As author and entrepreneur Seth Godin said, “if failure is not an option, then neither is success.” So we can give Airbnb credit for taking a risk. And for recognizing they got it wrong. (They promptly apologized and are removing the offending campaign.)

How much damage was done? We may get an idea when voters go to the polls in November to decide the ballot initiative that Airbnb has spent $8 million fighting.


Usman Sheikh

Founder and CEO

xiQ, Inc.

Usman Sheikh is the Founder and CEO of xiQ, Inc. Prior to founding xiQ, Usman was a Vice President with SAP, SE where he had first-hand experience with ABM and B2B Sales. Usman has worked in over 40 countries and lived in Singapore, Germany, and the United States. Currently, he resides in the Silicon Valley, San Francisco Bay Area.