Did you notice Hilton, Airbnb, and VRBO duke it out at the Grammys?

Besides Tracy Chapman’s amazing performance, another thing stood out to me at this year’s GRAMMYs: Three big travel players, Hilton, Airbnb, and VRBO fought hard to position themselves against each other and even threw some punches in the process. 

Hilton’s been a partner of the GRAMMYs for three decades so it’s not surprising to see them do a commercial and it’s probably why you saw Airbnb and VRBO show up as well. After all, Taylor Swift and Beyoncé have taught us that traveling concertgoers are willing to pay big bucks to see the biggest stars, to the point that it causes local hotel prices to skyrocket. 

Watching big companies duke it out and try and define their positioning and differentiators in a 30-second ad, is always fun. Here’s what went down and my take on how successful the companies were in positioning themselves.

The Hilton GRAMMY Ad

Hilton played a commercial showing Icelandic artist Laufey staying at a Hilton, playing an intimate concert for members of their rewards program, Hilton Honors.

Most of the ad is a montage of Laufey quietly playing the guitar and humming in a hotel room with a voiceover delivering the message:

“Hilton Honors creates experiences that bring artists and fans together.”

"and tonight is no different"

“When you want to stay in the music, it matters where you stay”

Ending with the tagline: “Hilton. For the stay

Our take:

It’s a nice concept and a well-produced ad that felt more like a brand ad than communicating a clear differentiation. It’s typical for big brands to do “top-of-mind” ads, but I think Hilton is missing a big opportunity to stand out. It feels like they are more worried about Marriott than the likes of Airbnb, who you’ll see in a bit is going straight after hotels in their ad.

Touting the Hilton Honors program isn’t super convincing. “Hilton Honors creates experiences that bring artists and fans together” — Does anyone really believe they will get an intimate concert if they stay at Hilton? I mean, what are the chances of that?

My least favorite part is the tagline. The ad is trying to create a unique, intimate experience with an artist, yet the tagline: “For the Stay”, feels cold and transactional. It reduces Hilton and the hotel to a checkbox. Sure, the double meaning subtly communicates that you are staying at Hilton because of the quality, but it is too vague. Especially given the competition from challengers like Airbnb.

In my opinion, they should have focused more on the intent of the sentence “When you want to stay in the music, it matters where you stay”. Granted, this is too vague, but it’s getting to the right point. If you are going to a concert (and paid hundreds or thousands of dollars for a Taylor Swift ticket), you don’t want to worry about your accommodation.  

With the rising frustration over hidden Airbnb fees, chores you have to do as an Airbnb guest, and last-minute cancellations. Why not double down on that? There’s a huge opportunity to bring Airbnb customers back over to hotels, especially concertgoers who are clearly willing to pay extra to see their favorite artists.

It can be hard to be a challenger brand in your communication when you have been one of the market leaders for so long and you may just be hanging onto your existing market share. However, Airbnb’s rise has been phenomenal over the past decade, and while their revenue is less than Hilton’s their market cap is significantly higher. So when they experience a change in customer sentiment, that’s your opportunity to claw back market share and tout the reason we stay in hotels — the convenience, luxury, and knowing what you get every time.

Especially, when Airbnb is going after you in their ads.  

The Airbnb Grammys ad

Airbnb decided to go after its biggest competitor, hotels. The ad focuses on why you’d want an Airbnb instead of a hotel room. With an animated ad and a voiceover delivering the message: 

The ad starts out with a sign being hung on a hotel door, with the words “somewhere in a hotel” followed by: 

“When you share a hotel room with a kid, you also share bedtime with your kid”

(Sad clarinet plays)

“But if you get an Airbnb, you get to pick your own bedtime”

(happy music)

Tagline: “Some trips are better in an Airbnb”

My take: 

This is a clever ad. It focuses on a specific situation where you may not want a hotel (when you are traveling with kids) and pencils out why (you don’t get to enjoy the evenings in the same way). Airbnb knows they can’t beat hotels every time, but they can carve out certain segments of hotel stays, and this is a relatable situation for many people, and a smart move by Airbnb.

The VRBO Grammys ad

Finally, we got VRBO. While Airbnb threw shade at hotels, VRBO took a swipe at Airbnb and the tech giant’s prior push to promote unique places you can book on Airbnb. Like Farmstays or spaceships.

The ad starts with a shot of a barn, and a car driving up a dirt road before person 1 says, concerned: “This looks like an actual farm” followed by person 2: ”It looked cute on the app”.

The ad then proceeds to show clips from farm-stay-nightmares with dogs in RVs, pigs in tents, and angry roosters in your living room as the music gets increasingly more stressful. The ad and music stops abruptly and the voiceover steps in:

“Meanwhile at a VRBO” 

“When other vacation rentals aren’t what they are cracked up to be”

“Try one where you know what you’ll get”

Payoff: “Relax, you booked at VRBO”

Tagline: “VRBO - Private Vacation Rentals”

My take:

This is in many ways a great ad. The concept is brilliant — having booked something you were excited about only to discover it isn’t what it was propped up to be. Many of us have been there and it is such a relatable situation. It is also clear jab at Airbnb, but in a fun way that doesn't reflect poorly on VRBO.

The only point where VRBO loses me is at the end. While “Relax, you booked at VRBO” is decent,  I wish that was followed up with something that specified why and how VRBO guarantees you don’t have the same experience on their platform. Sure, they don’t offer farm stays, but this situation isn’t exclusive to farm stays per say. It’s about broken promises and realities not meeting expectations. They just show a generic tagline "VRBO - Private Vacation Rentals”.

Instead of a generic tagline, they should elevate their “book with confidence guarantee” (I found this somewhat hidden on their website). The guarantee helps screen hosts and rebook if your stay doesn’t meet expectations. It’s a great value proposition, and with an ad like this one, a tagline of “book with confidence. Guaranteed” would be a much better fit.

And the GRAMMY goes to...

I think Hilton is missing a big opportunity to positioning their offering against their biggest threat, Airbnb, and the message they went with is itself a little unclear and vague. VRBO is SO close, great concept, great execution, really nailing the positioning, but failing to drive home the message. Airbnb took a clear positioning against hotels, and drove home the message with a clear, concise, and compelling message, that was relatable and easy to follow — and that's music to my ears.

Need help nailing your positioning and messaging?

I help startups nail positioning and messaging so your go-to-market engine runs as fast as possible. Connect with me on LinkedIn and learn how I can help you unlock growth.


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