Couchsurfing, AirBnB, User-Generated Brands and Authenticity

This article looks at UGBs (User-Generated Brands) and how those brand identities are created. UGBs are also known in the academic business as “co-production” business models: where customers produce the product along with or for the firm. With AirBnB and Couchsurfing (just like with YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other such sites), customers create as well as consume the inventory. Their engagement is key to the business model, and therefore one can argue they are also co-creating the brand as well. This is the claim of our article for this post “User-Generated Brands and Social Media: Couchsurfing and AirBnb” by Natalia Yannopoulou, Mona Moufahim, Xuemei Bian in Contemporary Management Research.

Yannopoulou and her colleagues use discursive and thematic analysis to examine the brand identity of Couchsurfing and AirBnB. Specifically how their brand identity is co-produced by their customers. Discursive analysis examines the use of language (in this case visual and written language) to discover themes that comprise the brand identity of these two companies. Authenticity was found to be one of the themes in these brands, and likely in other UGBs.

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Objective: Although the potential for fraud is high on these web site, Couchsurfing and AirBnB take steps to mitigate that risk. Use of high quality photographs, user testimonials and ratings, and (in AirBnB’s case) an “insurance” plan, attempt to mitigate perceived risks in using the service. Admittedly, Yannopoulou doesn’t address objective authenticity that much in this paper, mainly because they are looking more at brand identity rather than product.

Constructive: The challenge of opening up your private space to a stranger (whether for exchange or profit) is met by fostering the consumer collective as one of reciprocity and friendship. This also constructs the brand as warm, friendly and welcoming. This is augmented by offline meetings when they occur. The more satisfying the offline encounters are, the more the brand identity is enhanced for creating them. The growing exchange and sharing economy is based on the idea that trust within a collective is possible. These sites use tokens to attempt to ensure that level of trust, such as peer reviews, photos and user ratings.

Commercial: There are two questions with commercial authenticity: are you what you say you are and are you true to yourself? When the content of a business is shaped by their customers, ensuring accurate customer representation is important. Both services do that to the extent possible in such a service. The communications on the web site are written in “talking” style, encouraging a feeling of intimacy and informality. The former addresses the first question; the latter attempts to address the second. Both seem to be challenges well met in the analysis.

Existential: In this we are striving for consistency, so customers know what to expect. At the same time, a sense of agency should not be interfered with; imperfections and quirky details create the impression of uniqueness and humanity within the consistent whole. Conventional travelers stay at hotels. The experience these UGBs offer are not only more cost effective. They have the potential to be considered premium experiences because they allow a traveler to embed themselves as locals in another location. The promise of this kind of existentially authentic experience is one of the brand positions of the UGBs. The variety of contributions from their users contribute to it in an authentic way, through their thousands of individuals stories, testimonials, offers, information and photos.

Take Away
Overall, this article makes a contribution to marketing and tourism more than management. Its place in this journal may mean it is overlooked by some in the marketing and tourism communities, which would be a shame. The analysis of how customers co-create brand identities through co-producing content and inventory for business is an enlightening one. There are more and more businesses competing for that space on the internet. The ability to draw premium content from customers enhances the ability to draw customers to consume that content. With UGBs, content is king.

The key authenticity issue for this type of UGB, however, always remains with ensuring objective authenticity. Are individuals offering the kind of accommodation they claim to be offering? Are the photos accurate? The element of risk with these web sites is perceived to be higher than the element of risk involved in traditional accommodation options. Sites like these are doing all they can to mitigate that risk in the exchange and sharing economies being developed by these web sites.

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