For most brands, culture-defining moments can be hard to come by. For iconic brands like Airbnb, it’s in their DNA. And as its VP of Marketing, Nancy King has been instrumental in helping the brand achieve that status, disrupting the face of tourism as we know it and with initiatives like the “Made Possible by Hosts” campaign. In this episode, Nancy shares the importance of integrating marketing and product within an organization, why brand purpose is more than a business opportunity, what she sees for the future of Airbnb—and more.
Heather Stern: When it comes to the topic of disruptive brands, it’s hard not to talk about Airbnb. What began as a single bed-and-breakfast in San Francisco is now a global platform that connects more than one billion guests to over four million hosts around the world. Airbnb has not just transformed the way people travel. It has changed the game on how we think about digital experience design, brand value creation and the power of community.
Today I’m speaking with the woman who has been instrumental in the brand’s growth, Nancy King, Vice President of Marketing. Nancy has been with the brand since 2015 and is behind some of Airbnb’s most defining moments, including the recent Categories campaign and Made Possible by Hosts, which served as a pillar of Airbnb’s IPO narrative.
Nancy is a fervent believer in the importance of purpose being central to the DNA of a company, and she is a brilliant marketer who sees her role not just rooted in communications but also in driving how a business operates, innovates and makes its mark on culture. She’s a very busy woman, so I’m grateful that she was able to take some time today to talk with us. Without further ado, welcome Nancy.
Nancy King: Thank you so much, Heather. I’m happy to be here. And what a flattering introduction.
Heather: Well, it’s all true. I didn’t make any of it up. And I remember, when we met at Airbnb’s headquarters in San Francisco, just how open and humble and insightful you were. So, I was really excited to make this work. To start, I know you, your husband and your two sons have explored many different Airbnbs around the world. Which is your favorite, and what’s on your wish list?
Nancy: I can definitely tell you my favorite. When my husband’s brother got married, we found this Airbnb in Italy, which was like right in the center of an old, kind of historic square. It had stone steps, a winding stone staircase to get up to it, and the listing itself was so amazing. The host had all of his grandmother’s paintings decorating the entire space—this incredible collection, maybe a hundred paintings in this home that was probably built sometime in the 1800s. It felt like I was traveling back in time. So that was definitely my favorite.
We have a new category called The Arctic. If you look at some of the listings in that, they are unbelievable. Someday, I want to take my kids there to the sort of end of the Earth, stay in a dome and see the Northern Lights. So, that’s on my bucket list for some day.
Heather: That sounds amazing and a good lead into the category’s campaign and the continued evolution of the brand. Tell me about the campaign. Tell me what you’re excited about as it relates to the campaign and what you hope it does for the brand.
Nancy: So, Categories has really been a long time in the making. One of the things that our CEO, Brian Chesky, said back in 2016 was, ‘Finding a great Airbnb is like finding a needle in a haystack. You never know whether or not you’re going to find the perfect thing.’ So, there was a multiyear project to build out the taxonomy for Airbnb, because we have such diverse inventory—and it was hidden. There was a huge engineering project over the years to try to classify and understand all of the different inventory, which is what made Categories, from a product perspective, possible. From an advertising perspective, what I’m most excited about is that people have no idea what we offer. There’s a lot of legacy perceptions of us being more like a couch-surfing brand. There are perceptions that we’re only shared accommodations. So, it was such a gift to the marketing team when this [Categories] launched, because it allowed us to showcase some of our most interesting inventory with a product experience that allowed people to find it for themselves.
We did research before the work launched, and what we heard over and over again, which was so exciting to me, was: ‘I had no idea Airbnb had that.’ From a marketing perspective, it was so simple—just tell people and show people the categories that we have. So, we launched that work last May and have gotten a great response to it. We’ve seen big shifts in perception of the brand. So, it is really kind of perfect example of product and marketing working together to deliver something new.
Heather: Well, I think that was the thing, when we met, that you had talked about. And I don’t know if this was at the beginning of your career at Airbnb but, at some point, there was a shift where it was clear that you felt, in order to really move the needle, that marketing has to be embedded with product and it can’t be in these silos. Was that a conscious change at that time? And how was the business oriented, broadly, in order to deliver on that promise?
Nancy: Absolutely, it was a conscious change. I think it was a great output of what we went through during the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, we were organized much more like a lot of tech companies. We had verticalized teams with their own set of OKRs and everybody running toward their individual goals. The pandemic forced us to radically simplify and to say: If we’re going to do one or two things, what are they and how do we all work together? So, we completely changed the way the organization works. We functionally integrated. We focused on a handful of products. We developed a product launch cadence. So, twice a year we ship new products, and we work together. I work on a team with our head of product, our head of design, our heads of creative—and it has been so much more fun, because what you can do when you work together is so much bigger than what you can do working individually. We spend far less time debating whose idea is better or what should get funded. We go all-in on bigger things. I think, in many ways, it was probably the best unintended outcome of a really hard period that we went through during the beginning of the pandemic.
Heather: I can’t help but ask, what was that like for you? Obviously, we all were grappling with it—but you happen to be in the travel industry, and that was hit so hard. I’m interested to understand how this resurgence is now taking place, but what was that like and what did you learn from all of it?
Nancy: I think I learned I need far less sleep than I thought! But I also think what I learned, and what’s always been so appealing to me about Airbnb, is that it’s never just been a job. When everything was sort of falling apart, we didn’t know what was going to happen to our business. The passion that the people at the company brought to try to forge a path forward was really incredible. It was a crisis, but it was a crisis that brought people together. We were all worried about so many things. Probably like many people, when you look back, you’re like, ‘Wow. It really helped me figure out what’s important, helped me figure out how to prioritize things in my life.’ I feel sort of appreciative of where I am now after going through all of that.
Heather: There’s a sense of when you go back to that time, which wasn’t actually that long ago, well, we got through it. Obviously, different people were grappling with different circumstances; but we are resilient as people, and I think there was a desire to kind of make things better—as you said—to focus on what’s important. Which brings me to what you were mentioning about some of the positive changes that came out of that.
I also heard Brian talk about the pandemic, how it sharpened the brand’s focus and got back to your roots and what’s truly special about Airbnb. We’ve had conversations about purpose and how purpose guides decision making. Tell me about that idea of getting back to the roots and the role that purpose plays, as you’re making decisions about what to do, what kind of stories to tell, what kind of products to bring to market?
Nancy: Absolutely. I think, fundamentally, we have always been a brand about belonging and connection. And getting back to our roots, in my perspective, meant recognizing the critical role that our hosts play in delivering that. Without our hosts, there is no Airbnb. We have four million people, who open up their homes to millions of guests around the world and create these experiences that you can’t have anywhere else. Remembering that and recognizing the importance of it was very grounding. That’s what led to our Made Possible by Host campaign. We don’t know if people are going to travel. We don’t know if people are even able to travel. But let’s highlight what our hosts make possible and this world that has been created because of people being willing to do this, to try something different and to do something that not that long ago, people said, ‘That is a crazy idea, why would you ever do that?’
I think another thing that we realized was that talking about purpose isn’t enough. If we want to deliver change in the world, let’s do that in really tangible ways. So many brands over the past five or six years have woven purpose into their narratives as a business opportunity. For Airbnb, it was never about the business opportunity; it was about the mission. Some of the things that we’ve done that I’m most proud of are our nonprofit team, which is called airbnb.org, during the African refugee crisis and at the beginning of the war in Ukraine. They did a ton of work to open up homes to people who were fleeing or who didn’t have a place to live. For me, that is how purpose is still deeply woven into what we do—but not as a marketing message, as a company strategy.
Heather: As you said with the tangibility, it’s not what you say but what you do—and making decisions that, in some cases, might go against profitability or certain KPIs but are the right thing to do based on what you fundamentally believe in, what your values are. I think people recognize that. And I am sure, within the organization, that passion that you saw during the pandemic continues; because people certainly want to do work that they’re passionate about, that they can have fun with but that has meaning to them. So, it was really, really amazing to see that and to see the brand pivot into that and continue to build that side of itself.
Nancy: So many people across the company raised their hand and were like, ‘I don’t know what you need, but I’m willing to do something to help.’
Heather: That’s amazing. Let’s talk a little bit about the changes that you’ve seen. You joined—in what must kind of feel in ‘Airbnb lives’ like many, many lives, right—in 2015. What has changed the most, and what has stayed the same?
Nancy: That’s a really good question. People in tech always say the expression ‘growth mindset, and I think I’ve always approached my job as, ‘can I learn something?” When I joined Airbnb in 2015, I wondered if I was going to be bored, because I had left a long career on the agency side. And I definitely learned that there is nothing about it that is boring. I joined because, as a person, I make decisions probably more intuitively and emotionally than many people’ but it was a company in a category that I could sell all day. I feel great asking people to travel. There aren’t a lot of things that I would be excited to sell to the world, to be honest. [Airbnb] had a vision for the world that aligned with my personal values and my experience using the platform. And the people that I met during the interview process were the kind of people that I would want to spend my time with. So that’s really why I made the decision. I didn’t know that I was getting onto a rocket ship. When I joined, for reference, we had 24% aided awareness in the United States. We’re now this massive and iconic global brand. Everyone knows Airbnb; but, at the time, it was still kind of a crazy idea.
Why I’ve stayed is that it just continues to evolve and change. I mean, there is never a moment when there aren’t new and different challenges, I feel fortunate that I have continued, throughout my time here, to have been given opportunities to grow and stretch. I started by leading our first brand strategy and consumer insights team, and that’s how I got really immersed in defining the brand and defining our positioning and our first global campaign. After that, I worked on our product team. I worked on building out a merchandising function, which was with an engineering team, to be able to do localized campaigns—and now in leading marketing. I’ve sort of been a student of the company and the brand for so many years, and I keep getting opportunities to take on more. So that’s why I stay. It continues to be challenging and exciting to me.
Heather: How many people were at the company when you joined? And, roughly, how many are there now?
Nancy: There were definitely less than a thousand globally when I joined. A lot of those were people outside of the United States, getting markets off the ground, new countries, post-recruitment, sales teams. Now, I think there are probably close to 6,000.
Heather: Wow. Amazing. Do you still feel like it’s a startup? As you said, think about how ubiquitous it is now, how you can’t imagine it not existing, yet it really is a young brand. Do you feel like there’s a startup culture and that has remained? What is the ethos, the day-to-day feel?
Nancy: You know, it’s a little bit different. At the beginning it was a startup culture in that everybody was willing to do anything to move the business forward. There was just so much hustle and ambition to do things that seemed impossible, and somehow people pulled them off. Now, I think it is a different version of a startup mentality. What’s great about it is that creativity and ideas are at the core of what we do. And, to me, that makes it feel like it’s always clay that can be molded. There’s always an opportunity to shape and evolve and grow.
So, I think that is similar to what you find at a lot of startups. It is not a rinse and repeat. Every year’s roadmap has slight changes to it. We’re just kind of doing the same thing and trying to make it a little bit better. It is like creating totally new things all the time, so that is exciting to me. It can also be exhausting, because it is constant reinvention. But I do think that it still feels in many ways like a startup, because there’s sort of a possibility for anything to happen.
Heather: I think, at the core, there’s a sense of optimism too, right? Like there’s a world out there, it’s there for the taking, and we’re here to remind people what it’s like to experience something totally different and new. And, as you said, go to the end of the Earth or go back in time. As I continue to see some of the properties and some of the experiences that you offer, it makes me smile. Some of them are outrageous, but it’s fun—and I feel like we need more of that in the world.
Nancy: I think, by nature, people want to explore and discover. Just look at the course of history. That’s what people have been doing forever. And now we live in a world that’s been mapped and photographed and every inch of it discovered, and Airbnb actually created this new layer of the world to explore. I think that’s really exciting to people—to be able to discover things, to be able to go to places that were formerly off limits. You weren’t allowed to go to somebody’s apartment in Paris before. You weren’t allowed to go to these places, where there are no hotels. There’s no other reason to visit. And I think it triggers something in people that’s very intrinsic to who we are as humans, and it’s exciting. I do think that’s part of why we continue to be successful.
Heather: So, in terms of what you oversee now in your role, it’s the global brand performance marketing and the marcom teams. There’s a lot of talk about how marketing continues to evolve and is increasingly being tasked with, quite frankly, the kinds of things that you’re already doing. How has your view of marketing—and the team and the talent required—changed or is changing? Tell me a little bit about the art/science craft of marketing and how it’s evolving.
Nancy: The biggest change that’s taken place has been bringing product and marketing together. We say that we are a product-led, brand marketing team. We start with the product, and our role is to educate people about those products in order to drive growth. So, that’s a huge change; and that is where the marcom team, which manages all of our launches and works with the product team and brand marketing, came together. That’s sort of the big step one.
And the second thing is—in many organizations and certainly in the early days of Airbnb—it felt like the relationship between performance marketing and brand marketing was a zero-sum game. It was competitive between two teams within the same company; now, we work as one team. They are an extension of what we’re doing on the brand side. They’re also an insights generator for us. What are people searching for? What is resonating? What pages are people visiting? Which categories are interesting? So, we work in a much more integrated way now, too. You know, what I’ve realized is that it fundamentally reduces the total workload and allows us to say, ‘Let’s do one thing.’
Let’s use Categories as an example. Let’s do one thing, with excellence, across every channel. What does that mean in terms of our paid marketing? How do we change our SEM strategy? What are the emails that we send? Every touchpoint? And so, that is great. It means that I’m really proud of this body of work that we put out into the world. And it makes sense from a consumer perspective—who don’t see things linearly, who don’t see them in the way that we want to see them. They happen upon them at different moments in time. But that cohesiveness has been probably the biggest change, the thing that I’m really excited about and that has been hard, in the past, for us to do.
Heather: And focus, I think, is really hard. I think we’re just pulled in so many different directions— chasing that and chasing this and throwing things up against the wall, hoping something sticks. And this notion of saying, let’s do one thing with excellence across all the channels, in everything that we do is, takes discipline and a real focus on where you’re going. I applaud that, because the impact is so much greater than all of the little discrete things that are coming out of left field.
I want to talk about a study that you had done—I think it was a few years ago—on what makes a brand iconic. There were five key attributes, and one of them was about driving culture. And there was a lot of talk about really not just observing, not just like participating in, but shaping culture as a brand and knowing what your audience values—and being a brand that they pull in versus a brand that pushes out. I’m just curious about that study. What were some of the other insights, and how have you taken that and applied it to what you’re doing at Airbnb?
Nancy: Good memory! That feels like a hundred years ago. A lot of shaping culture at Airbnb comes from our CEO, because he is instinctively someone who can look to the future and identify opportunities and believe in those opportunities. I would go back to Categories; in the early days of Categories, we were working on flexible travel. And we saw this emerging trend, where people were going to different places than they’d ever gone before. People didn’t feel comfortable getting on a plane. They were picking a place within driving distance. They were going to towns they had never heard of. They were staying longer, because they could work remotely. And very early, we identified that as a big opportunity. The world is changing, and the way people are traveling is changing. So, our product roadmap was built on the insight that we want to make it possible for people to explore the world in these different ways. I think that’s an example of seeing what was happening, making a bet on it and seeing if we could actually legitimize and catalyze some of those behaviors.
I don’t know how you felt, but sometimes I would feel guilty going and working somewhere else. Or I’m supposed to be here, but there’s this like long-standing idea of what work is supposed to be and where you’re supposed to be and what being a responsible employee is. That meant being in the office all the time. I think what’s happened since that beginning of the insight is what’s led to Categories. It’s led to a totally different search paradigm that we’ve built, which allows people to search for more flexibility for longer periods of time—for a month at a time. That’s a great example of us taking insights about how the world was changing, using those to try to shape and influence culture.
Heather: It’s amazing to have that kind of inspiration coming from the top. So, building on Brian Chesky and the leadership and the inspiration and the vision that he brings to the team, I saw that he had once said what makes Airbnb so revolutionary isn’t what it is today but what it can be. Again, it’s that idea of possibility and continued evolution and change. What do you see for the future of the brand? What’s on the horizon? What excites you about the direction that you’re going?
Nancy: I think that if you take our core model of hosting, of people offering parts of their lives or selves to other people, it becomes clear that there is sort of an infinite runway of opportunities for people to do that. How do people monetize different things in their lives or experiences? Product is an example of an evolution of our business model into a new space.
One of the things that I remember from 2016 in one of my early meetings with Brian was that, at our core, we’re not just a traveling company; we’re a living company. I think that is a really interesting thought for how our brand evolves. You’ve seen during the pandemic an increase in people staying in Airbnbs for 30 days or longer. These behaviors around the platform that have evolved us from a long weekend or a couple of days of holiday to a way to live in a different place—will that be the future of the company? I have no idea, but that’s an example of how we are evolving beyond being a travel brand into something that can offer a lot more to people.
Heather: Has there ever been an instance where you put something out there, whether it was a product or a campaign, and it just missed the mark? Where it didn’t do what you thought it was going to do? I think we often talk about and celebrate all of the successes, but the things that miss the mark or that didn’t quite go the way that we expect can also be really illuminating lessons. So, is there anything like that you can share?
Nancy: Of course. I have a long list of things.
Heather: What if you were like, “no, everything I’ve ever done performed exactly as I expected!”
Nancy: Then I would be a liar. Of course, there are lots of things. I think one thing we’ve been talking about recently—and looking back at how we talked about hosting, and this goes back to maybe 2018, 2019—is that we wanted the world to know how much we believed in hosting and how important it was. In doing that, I think we positioned hosting as something more like a calling. Looking back, it’s easy to see how intimidating that is. People don’t want to take on a new identity. They want to try something new. They want to make some extra money. They want to see if this idea of putting their place on Airbnb works. I think it’s clear now that, inadvertently, we actually raised the bar to entry rather than lowering the bar to entry. And we talked to people about it. When people become hosts, there’s sort of a transformation. They come for very functional reasons and stay for very emotional reasons. So, marketing the sort of emotional reasons to people—before they understood that it was too big of a leap and seemed too weighty to say, ‘Come find your passion doing this thing’ —so we’ve really rethought how we introduce hosting to people. We have some new work that’s coming out later this year, where you’ll see a different take on how we talk about hosting.
Heather: It’s such a great example, because it is nuanced. And I think a lot of marketing is putting out images that are aspirational and that are trying to create demand and interest. But if you take it one step too far…and so, it was, almost to your point, kind of scaling it back and just pivoting it. That’s a great example. Thank you for sharing that.
You’ve had obviously an incredible career at Airbnb and prior, as you said, had been on the agency side and worked with some incredible brands. You once said that it’s refreshing to hear when people’s journeys aren’t just these meteoric rises. They are a series of learnings and changes. I’m just curious, when people come to you, as I’m sure they do, for advice on things like: How did you get to where you are? Or what advice do you have for me if I want to get into this space? What are some of the things that you tell those mentees or those who are kind of looking for that silver bullet—which doesn’t exist, to your point?
Nancy: I tell people that they need to find the one thing that they’re excited about and really lean into it. I think we all have a tendency, as you said earlier, to spread ourselves across too many things and then not deliver real impact on any of them. I’ve had the benefit of being able to find things that I’m so passionate about and focused on, and I kind of use that to prioritize away some of the noise. I think that that is both more satisfying to people and also gives people permission to say ‘no’ to things, which is incredible.
I think that it’s easy to believe that saying ‘yes’ to everything is the path to success, and it’s not. It is the path to being pulled in too many different directions. As a leader, I love it when people come to me and say, ‘This doesn’t seem like a good idea. Do I need to do this?’
I think the second thing is to find somebody to advocate for you. I started my career believing very much in a meritocracy; and if you just work harder than everybody, you will be seen. In some ways, that’s a good path. But I think you need somebody who’s looking out for you. So, finding that person who can mentor you or who can champion you really matters.
Heather: Absolutely. And, you know, another thing that we’ve talked about is the changing of the tide in really pushing for inclusion and diversity and leaders who may not look like the leaders who came before them. I think having someone like you in the role that you’re in is just going to help the door stay open for others who hadn’t been able to get into that room, right. I agree with you that you can do everything right, but there is something about having an advocate and having someone who will also push you and challenge you. Finding that person isn’t always easy, but I think continuing to look for that person is important.
Well, I like to end each episode with a question that is kind of fitting for the fact that this is all about iconic brands, iconic leaders. So, my question to you is, who is your icon?
Nancy: I love this question. I feel like I have so many people that I admire in the world, but the one that comes to mind—who is most relevant to this chapter of my life—is Diane Arbis. I don’t know if you know her. She’s a photographer. She was a photographer. She has passed away. I learned about her early in my career. It was in the ’90s, when I was working in advertising, and my boss had a collection of Diane Arbis artwork. What I found so compelling about her was that she photographed marginalized communities—people from the circus, people with deformities. Really, she was a pioneer in representation and was someone who, so early on, used creativity to normalize others. I feel that, in many ways, we’ve operated in a similar way at Airbnb. And it is a testament to how creativity and representation and seeing people for who they are can really evoke change in the world. Someday I want to own a Diane Arbis photograph. I just love her.
Heather: Note to those that are listening in on Nancy’s life…like, get together and gift her one of those!
Nancy: I’ll play this for my husband before my next birthday.
Heather: Exactly. I want to thank you so much. It’s been so good to connect and talk with you, and what I’ve always been struck by is that there’s no BS with you. You’re just really thoughtful and honest about what you love and what you’re doing and why you’re doing what you’re doing—and it’s clearly paying off for the brand and for your teams.
I’m excited to hear that, when you do get to the end of the world with your husband and your two boys, you could tell me what that experience was like. I just wish you and the team only good things, because I think you’re doing really important work. So, thank you so much, Nancy.
Nancy: Thank you so much, Heather. This was really fun. I appreciate the invitation.
Talking about purpose isn't enough if we want to deliver change in the world.