Predictably, people are leaping to the conclusion that the whole thing was a terrible idea. In the long run, though, this could be one of the best decisions Airbnb's ever made. The sexual jokes might not have been what its founders expected, but in a weird way, this is kind of the point.
Airbnb's logo is supposed to be a Rorschach test — and that says all you need to know about its future.
The icon, which the company's calling the "Bélo," cleverly contains a few distinct elements: A heart, a location pin, a … weirdly enthusiastic person, and an A, for Airbnb.
The hope is that people will start appropriating the symbol and start using it everywhere — even in ways that may be unconnected to Airbnb itself. The company's even introduced a Photoshop-like tool that lets you customize your own Bélo. If the icon takes off, people might even forget that Airbnb was the one that started it all. And wouldn't that be great for Airbnb?
Laying claim to a universal kind of appeal might help Airbnb win over new members and potential investors, not to mention those pesky regulators who have made the company's life so hard thus far.
"When people – outsiders – view Airbnb, I’m not sure they see belonging as much as they still see rooms in front of that cute little blue logo," said Brian Chesky, the company's chief executive, as he revealed the rebrand Wednesday. "So if we’re to be understood as a brand and as a community, we need to communicate this idea of belonging to the world."
This story that Airbnb's trying to tell about itself — that it wants to be a source of belonging, whatever that means — marks a momentous shift for the business. It wasn't long ago that Airbnb's execs were shouting from the rooftops about the economic benefits the start-up was bringing to various cities. Turns out that's not quite enough. Money only talks so loudly, it seems.
Part of what we're seeing is an acknowledgement that sharing just isn't all that compelling a commercial argument. And it's not just Airbnb that thinks so. You see it reflected across the sharing economy, from Lyft taking a professional tack by getting rid of its fluffy pink mustaches to Uber's ambitions to become a logistics company. This isn't to say that sharing is a bad way to do things in an economy; just that it's a little harder to sell as a concept.
What's easier to sell are the things that make sharing possible: Community. Platforms. Purpose. Sharing doesn't spring from nowhere. It's a byproduct of these other things. And now, sharing-economy businesses are discovering that these ideas are much more universal than "the sharing economy," which has always been kind of ambiguous and controversial, particularly in places where the business model rubs up against incumbent groups and regulations.
If sharing is a byproduct of a well-functioning platform, then Airbnb's logo serves as the perfect proxy for that expression. It doesn't really matter what people see in the logo, or how it evolves, so long as it's used. Yes, Airbnb's giving up some control over its brand, departing from the convention in tech where company images are controlled down to the pixel. But you could manipulate the logo beyond recognition and Airbnb would still be winning, because you — and not the product — would be living out the company's value claims.