Why Airbnb’s “Strangers” Ad Works: Cultivating Empathy In Marketing

Not all stories need words. If you practice cultivating empathy in marketing, your audience will be hooked on a feeling rather than a phrase.


Directed by Kim Gehrig, “Strangers” is somewhat of a master class in storytelling. Empathy is at its core, bolstered by cinematic sound effects and literary devices such as suspense.


With 40k and counting plays on Vimeo alone, think about how many people this ad touched globally, all without the use of dialogue.


So what can we learn from it? How did Gehrig’s ad rise above the countless others out there?


Building suspense 

The ad begins in darkness, as most horror flicks do. Naturally, we wait with bated breath for the Airbnb to be ransacked or for unsuspecting guests to be axed.

Suspense must build slowly to be effective, so we are teased with all sorts of horror tropes: heavy footsteps, ominous wind, creaking doors, the scratching of nails, a screaming kettle, and so on.


The scene is set. Things are looking grim.


Tonal shift

You might be wondering what suspense has to do with empathy. In this case, the answer is: everything.


Because after we, as viewers on the edge of our seats, assume the worst of these fearsome creatures, buying into the horror theme, the lights come on.


We see that we were wrong as the tone shifts, jumpstarting our empathy. The “monsters” aren’t so scary, and they’re not there to harm any guests, they are the guests.


They’re renting the house to have fun as a family, same as anyone else. They even wipe their dirty feet off on the doormat to be respectful of their borrowed home.


Subversion of expectations to promote empathy

By subverting our expectations, Gehrig pushes us to feel sorry for the “monsters” we so quickly judged as being threats.


We are flooded with remorse, understanding, and compassion, consequently experiencing a more robust sense of empathy for them as they enjoy their sunny day.


If the ad had been lit from the get-go, we may well have empathized with the creatures but not nearly to the same extent.


Mirrored experiences 

Empathy is further deepened when we see pieces of our own experience mirrored in someone else’s.


The creatures dance in the kitchen, pick wildflowers, watch movies, and take vacation selfies. How can we not root for them when they are just like us? It’s a selfish human instinct but a valuable one to be cognizant of while crafting your own stories.


In less than three minutes, we become invested in a family of hairy guests, only to find out they were humans all along, presented to us as mysterious creatures because we didn’t know them.


It is a beautiful representation of the unfortunate way in which many of us see strangers or view that with which we are unfamiliar.

Memory aid 

Empathy makes stories stick. Think of it like a memory aid.


I came across “Strangers” months ago. It struck such a chord that I never forgot it. And still, after watching it more than once, I smile as if it’s the first time. That is the power of cultivating empathy through storytelling.


Because I was so instantly fond of the creatures, their story, albeit fictional, took up permanent residence in my brain.


Airbnb conveys their message clearly, that being to welcome strangers with kindness not wariness. Empathy drives the message home.


Tied into that plea for hospitality is the call-to-action: rent out your home to strangers using Airbnb. And who wouldn't want to do so after watching such a moving ad?


Extending cultivating empathy to brand storytelling

If you want your content to make an impact, take a page from Gehrig’s book and infuse it with empathy, the beating heart of stories.


Emotional marketing is everything.


You sell granola bars? Why should I care? But if you show a lonely child making friends during recess by sharing his granola bar, I’m right there with you.


By cultivating empathy in the brand stories you tell, you can humanize marketing and connect with a wider audience.


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