CBI Case Study: Airbnb Makes Itself at Home on Chinese Reality Show

Zhou Xun contemplates her journey in Japan while staying in an Airbnb property

Over the last few years, Airbnb’s China strategy has seen the company focus on increasing localization to secure a foothold in the country’s booming sharing economy. Although Airbnb began operating in the market as early as 2012, it only opened a Chinese office in 2016, just as a number of domestic rivals such as Tujia and Xiaozhu appeared, with significant funding behind them to challenge the overseas home-sharing giant. 

But rather than go the way of Uber in China, Airbnb has doubled down on the market, prioritizing its China expansion as one of its four key business sectors (the others are its core home-sharing offerings, its tourism-focused “experiences” and a move into luxury rentals). The company adopted a Chinese name, Aibiying (爱彼迎, literally “welcome each other with love”), expanded its local staff and secured funding from major Chinese investors, including state sovereign-wealth fund China Investment Corporation. 

Airbnb’s China marketing efforts have emphasized the quality of its listings, aiming to show the company’s sensitivity to local culture and trends in tourism. Most recently, it has launched a multifaceted campaign highlighting China’s cultural heritage, featuring artisans from across the country sharing their knowledge as Airbnb experiences, a related documentary film, and a collaborative exhibit of modern artists at the UCCA Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing. 

With its title sponsorship of the second season of Tencent Video series “Adventure Life” (奇遇人生), Airbnb has scored a leading role in a high quality production with plenty of celebrity star power behind it. The documentary-style series follows Chinese stars on journeys to far-flung locations around the world, exploring their relationships with those they encounter along the way. The series targets China’s burgeoning outbound tourism market, and Airbnb’s extensive network of properties around the world is a distinct advantage it holds over its Chinese rivals. The show also highlights the range of unique opportunities available through Airbnb experiences, another area where Airbnb has outpaced its competition. 

Travelers under the age of 35 account for 60 percent of Airbnb users in China, and the content of the series reflects the company’s findings that this younger generation of Chinese tourists is more interested in obtaining meaningful experiences from their travels than in checking off a list of sites — they seek to explore the scope and depth of their lives and those of others through travel. “Adventure Life” serves this need by focusing on “slow travel” and the deep connections forged in the process of activities such as cycling through Canada with a 72-year-old man, creating a crop circle in England, or spending a week studying the subtle art of the Japanese tea ceremony. 

Each episode sees major domestic stars such as actress Zhou Xun, social media celebrity Angelababy, and model Liu Wen and staying in properties that are listed on Airbnb and interacting with their hosts and others who provide experiences through the platform. The show offers lessons in how Airbnb works to viewers who may be unfamiliar with the concept of overseas homestays and experiences, highlighting the celebrity participants in the process of using the app, checking in to homes, and bonding with their experience hosts. 

Airbnb’s visual branding is fairly subtle throughout, eschewing the obvious signage that is a hallmark of much Chinese reality programming in favor of an occasional Airbnb-logo pillow, key fob or shopping tote. An Airbnb logo usually appears on the lower-right corner of the screen, and text banners appear at intervals on the bottom of the screen to direct viewers to Airbnb’s app for promotions and additional information.

Airbnb’s collaboration with Tencent extends well beyond the series, leveraging Tencent’s dominant presence in entertainment and social media to deepen Airbnb’s marketing of the “adventure” concept to its target millennial and Gen Z audience. Airbnb and Tencent’s QQ Music have partnered to promote Chinese music through online and offline activities. Airbnb launched an “adventure guide” on its platform, featuring an “Adventure Homestay Festival” with “adventure coupons” worth RMB 1000 ($142) and chances to win stays at the homes featured on “Adventure Life,” along with an interactive WeChat game. Offline activities have included “adventure concerts” at Beijing venues and a “coffee adventure” campaign with local roastery chain Seesaw Coffee. Airbnb previously partnered with Tencent to have its services built into WeChat, which became an important distribution channel for Airbnb in China.