Learning from Airbnb’s Great Wall Fiasco

Courtesy of Airbnb

Last week, Airbnb gave the world one of its most ingenious ideas ever.

This week, they’re having to scrap those plans after a wave of online backlash.

Over the course of just a few days, the real estate giant cancelled a well-intentioned contest aimed at promoting sustainable tourism in China. Applicants were asked to discuss the importance of breaking down cultural barriers, all the more relevant given the current geopolitical climate. The prize? Four lucky winners would get to spend the night on the Great Wall in a fully furnished guard tower, all expenses and roundtrip airfare included.

What could have happened? Some might argue Airbnb has a target on its back, but in reality they just forgot to do their homework. Like déjà vu, Airbnb experienced the exact same frustrations many brands coming to China face. Yet, most refuse to learn. Lucky for the rest of us, there are critical lessons embedded in their failure.


Lesson #1: Be open about your intentions

Airbnb’s first gaffe was its lack of transparency around the use of the Great Wall. The company’s intention was for this to be a one-time event. Most observers, however, interpreted it as a new, permanent piece of lodging on China’s top historical monument. It would be the same as opening a hostel inside the Lincoln Memorial. Of course this is going to ruffle feathers.


Sina Weibo

“The Great Wall is a cultural heritage site. Can it be used as a guesthouse just like that?”


Regardless how clear you might think your messaging is, always go one step further to keep it watertight. That means understanding cultural contexts, language, and laying out all possible reactions. When it comes to consumer packaged goods, the same premise holds true. Always think about what the consumer need is, how your brand addresses it, and what communication aspects are most favorable.


Lesson #2: Know who’s who

Although they were working with one of China’s largest tourism firms, Airbnb forgot to loop in the elephant in the room. That’s right…they didn’t inform local authorities about any of their plans. Once the government department in change of that part of the Wall heard about the company’s plans, they immediately shut them down. Not only had nobody thought to tell the powers that be, they didn’t think it important to apply for permits either.


Sina Weibo

“I just want to know if the Great Wall is a historical relic or not. Does any government department have to approve this kind of activity?”


When it comes to working in China, navigating bureaucracy is just part of the game. It’s critical to work with partners on the ground who know the proper channels of authority, latest regulations, and how to ensure your product’s success. More so than anything else, however, is the need for ethical, transparent operations. If someone asks for a little extra cash to grease the wheels, run the other way.


Lesson #3: Beware the netizens

Airbnb hit the trifecta by not only aggravating the government and everyday citizens, but also spurring the anger of China’s netizen army. For the uninitiated, netizens are the country’s group of online super-users. They are prolific in their consumption of the Internet, and a force of nature when it comes to social commentary. A vast majority of the louder ones are highly nationalistic.


Sina Weibo

‘“This is an ill-conceived and culturally insensitive idea.”


Court the netizen. Having them on your side can do wonders for a brand or product. The opposite, as in the case of Airbnb, can also ring true.


For companies, products, and brands exploring the China market these three areas are easy to trivialize. The common thinking is this: with so many potential customers in the market, even having a fraction against you really isn’t going to hurt the bottom line. While you may be able to get away with this for a while, China is no longer the wild west. Misguided communication, misinformation on partners, and a missing consumer base are a recipe for failure in a modernized China.