Localize and digitize are the ubiquitous directives typically launched at international companies keen to gain a foothold in China. But beyond opening a Mainland office and creating the requisite social media accounts, what do these terms mean? Airbnb may have crept into China’s travel scene slowly (and somewhat haphazardly) since its official 2015 entry, but its manoeuvres over the past year evidence a growing China-savvy.
The home-sharing pioneer opened a Chinese office in 2016 just as domestic rivals Tujia and Xiaozhu, backed by strong domestic funding, entered the market. Unlike the retreat of other western technology brands such as Uber, Airbnb has committed to the market and listed expansion across China as one of its four key business priorities.
The name change to Aibiying, which roughly translates as “welcome one another with love”, was a strong start. Next, it expanded its local staff and secured funding from major Chinese investors, including China Investment Corporation, the state sovereign-wealth fund. On the marketing side, the company’s Chinese team ensures it stays attuned to local cultural trends and tastes.
A collaborative exhibition of modern artists at Beijing’s UCCA Centre for Contemporary Art showed the willingness of Airbnb to probe unusual avenues for brand building. This ambition was developed through a campaign that featured Chinese artisans sharing their knowledge as part of the ‘Airbnb Experience’ program, a move that smartly connects the company’s brand with Chinese cultural heritage. A documentary followed with the second season of “Adventure Life” being co-produced by Tencent Video, an affiliate of the China tech-giant.
“Adventure Life” captures the journeys of Chinese celebrities to destinations around the world and explores the relationships they build along the way. The show emphasizes Airbnb’s key advantages over its domestic Chinese competitors; a global presence and the “Airbnb Experience” program. Travelers under the age of 35 account for 60 percent of Airbnb’s China users and the show’s focus on “slow travel” reflects the viewpoint of these tourists who long for more than mere list checking.
Viewers can fantasize about cycling through Canada with a 72-year-old man, creating a crop circle in England, or studying the art of a Japanese tea ceremony. Each episode features a major domestic star such as actress Zhou Xun, social media celebrity Angelababy, or model Liu Wen. The stars stay in Airbnb listed properties and interact with their hosts and locals.
Airbnb’s collaboration with Tencent extends beyond the series and leverages the company’s dominant presence in entertainment and social media circles. Airbnb and Tencent’s QQ Music have partnered for promotional purposes and Airbnb launched an “adventure guide” on WeChat with “adventure coupons” worth RMB 1000 ($142) and chances to win accommodation. Offline activities have included “adventure concerts” at various Beijing venues and a “coffee adventure” campaign with local roastery Seesaw Coffee.
The hurdle for international companies entering China often rests in balancing global status with local understanding. While it may be early in the race to dominate China’s home sharing market, Airbnb’s ability to localize its brand in China while continuing to project the truly global reach of its product may well see it come out on top.
Edited by Richard Whiddington