Author   |    Speaker   |    Chief Content Officer

Airbnb yesterday launched a short animated film aligned with two things: the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a traveler-inspired story of “belonging anywhere.”

“Wall and Chain” tells the story of a woman named Cathrine who in 2012 brought her father back to Berlin for the first time since he’d left decades prior, before the fall of the Wall. Cathrine’s father, Jörg, had been a guard in West Germany.

In Berlin, through Airbnb, Cathrine and her father booked a place with a friend of Kai, once a guard on the opposite side of the wall, in East Germany. See the result in this short but powerful film:

Wow, right? So how did Airbnb hear Cathrine’s story? Why did it select this story? How much did this cost, anyway? And what are the broader lessons content marketers take from belonganywhere?

I asked Dennis Goedegebuure, who led the effort for Airbnb and headed up a team that included Willow Hill (who Dennis calls “simply amazing!”) along with a long-list of in-house video and sound design people. Here is our conversation, along with my takeaways for content marketers:

Me: First of all, this is a crazy-good story – most brands dream of finding something so rich! How did you find it?

Dennis: Cathrine sent us the story by email all by herself in May 2012. We get a large number of great stories sent to us, from heartwarming to funny to EPIC. This particular one I would call EPIC.

My takeaway: Find a mechanism to allow you to collect customer stories at scale. For example, Airbnb recently launched a platform where people can submit their own stories at

Q: Why this story? There must be a thousand Airbnb stories. What about it did you think would resonate?

A: This particular story goes very deep. There are so many walls in this world, but the toughest ones to break down… you don’t see. Those are psychological walls people carry with them. The narrative of the story is focused on how travel can break down walls through staying in people’s homes, getting in touch with the local culture.

The Berlin Wall has made such an impact on generations of people in Germany, and in Europe. November 9th, 1989, was an important moment in history, when people were, for the first time in 28 years, able to freely travel across the border in Berlin.

This year we celebrate the 25th year anniversary of the Wall coming down, and hopefully we can inspire people to open up their homes and break down more walls in the world.

My takeaway: Tease those bigger stories out of your own organization. Airbnb sells an alternative to hotels, of course. But its marketing aligns it with a richer story than simply “lodging and location.”

Q: How long did it take you? What kind of timeline did you have?

A: I got the realization of the 25-year anniversary back in February. It took me months to get buy-in we needed to do something with this story. It wasn’t until I showed it to our new CMO [and former Coca-Cola CMO] Jonathan Mildenhall in June that it got traction. His creative experience instantly saw the value of the plan, and he gave me all the creative freedom to pursue this. So I’ve been working on this since June.

My takeaway: You need a champion in the C-suite to support an idea you believe strongly in.

Q: Why is the film animated? Wouldn’t it be more powerful to feature the people themselves?

A: This was coming from Jonathan, who came to Airbnb from Coca-Cola. Obviously, he has a lot of experience telling stories through animations. [Animation] brings the story to life in a way that is universal and timeless, as this story is universal and timeless.

My takeaway: The best stories are specific enough to be believable, but universal enough to be relevant. That’s a gem from my journalism school days.

Q: From a business/content marketing perspective, what’s the goal?

A: Short-term, the business goals are around brand awareness, Berlin as a travel destination, and content engagement.

As Jonathan said already somewhere else: “As a community-driven company, we don’t want to just talk about our product, but instead put our community front and centre of any campaign.”

Long-term, this story is so much more powerful, where it can help us in the long term vision for Airbnb, make all 7 billion people around the world feel they can Belong Anywhere.

My takeaway: Have a goal; align your metrics around that goal. Sounds obvious, right? But many companies still produce random acts of content.

Q: Can you give me a sense of budget? 

A: I cannot go into specifics. Our partners VCCP in Berlin and have worked with us on this, and we are putting some smart marketing behind this with our partner Aimclear.

My takeaway: Always share numbers with me when I ask. It makes a blog post stronger if we know budget. (I kid.) (Or do I?) But given that awareness was a key goal, I’d say the ROI on this one was off the charts:

Q: What are the plans going forward, to keep this story alive/give it legs?

A: We are putting the marketing into this piece of content marketing!

We have a smart media plan for the coming three weeks, where we do multilayer segment audience retargeting on all social platforms.

Across the world, we have built 80 sub-segments of audiences, grouped into five main segments. Through managing the cookie pools, we will be able to retarget those audiences who have shown interest in the topic of travel, the Berlin Wall, content marketing, and many others.

My takeaway: Market your marketing, as Jay Baer says. I also love how the timing of this story will help extend the shelf life, as it coincides with the November 9th 25th anniversary.

Q: Will you be releasing other stories?

A: For the 2015 core creative idea, the team is working hard to get the plans ready. Stay tuned, as this is just the start of something special you will see coming out of Airbnb…


This isn’t the first time Airbnb has told true stories well — with a sense of style and art. And clearly, it’s not the last, either: Dennis’s dot… dot… dot… is telling!

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30 Responses to The Airbnb Berlin Wall Anniversary Film: A Q&A with Its Creator

  1. DJ Waldow says:

    Thanks so much and for breaking that down. Watched it with my wife last night and we weren’t exactly sure of the backstory. Love that you take the time to go directly to the source and find out the details. Too bad they won’t share the budget with you.


  2. Cheryl Givan-Hillmann says:

    A brilliant choice…most wonderful marketing. I absolutely love the video.

  3. Jack Vincent says:

    Great video, and meaningful post.
    I was living in Europe when this wall came down, and have spent much of my time there over these 25 years. Europe still has its problems among its political leaders. It’s amazing to see how the people cut through these politics and love each other across borders and, often, defying the powers that want to get in the way. Sure, bias still exists, but the stronger people cut through these and see the human condition beyond languages and borders.
    That’s why this type of content will always touch hearts, and that’s where great marketing/messaging lies, in my poetic opinion.

    • Ann Handley says:

      Thanks, Jack. I appreciate your poetic opinion! Thanks for chiming in.

    • @Jack
      I grew up in The Netherlands, with the iron curtain and the Berlin wall as a constant reminder of Europe being split into West and East.
      When the wall fell, I was 15, and I remember vividly how West- and East Germans fell into each other arms and were so happy they finally could see each other again.

      Having worked on this campaign has been one of the most fulfilling aspects of my career. It’s a real story, where not only the fact that through travel, and experiencing local culture, we can break down walls, also, the walls we carry with us in our minds can be overcome if only we get to meet the “other side”.

      Such a powerful message!

  4. Sadie says:

    Agree with Coach DJ! I love the behind that you were able to get some of the insights behind this campaign and some insider info that there will be more to come from Airbnb. Thanks for sharing Ann!

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  6. María Irene Delgado says:

    What a beautiful video!!

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  8. unbdot says:

    Great stuff Ann!!

  9. Melissa says:

    I somehow managed to see this commercial for the first time on the same day that I saw the controversial Sainsbury’s Remembrance Day/Christmas commercial. My sister lives in London and I live in Germany (and actually recently spent two months living in Berlin in an Air BNB short term rental if you can believe it – I highly recommend it).

    It’s absolutely intriguing that both commercials use the memory of dark events in national histories in a commercial setting, commencing within the same month, and the British one has been heavily criticised as disrespectful, and yet this German one has not.

    One of the main things that is perhaps behind the difference in response is that the commercial about Berlin is presumably going out to mostly non-German audiences as a measure to encourage people to see modern, vibrant Berlin (and experience its history at the same time). It also benefits Berliners quite directly in the sense that it helps invite people to visit their city and serves to update the world with Berlin’s modern identity (still a big desire for Berliners and Germans in general if the opinions of my German university mates are anything to go by). Whereas the British commercial was released in the UK, directly targeting Britons, on a date very close to Remembrance Day when there’s been a very positive response to the memorial of poppies outside the Tower of London. So Britons are having a very direct interaction with it at a very sensitive time.

    What your interview has showed me is that the big difference in response between the two is less the fact that one is animated and the other is a recreation (which is what I thought at first), but perhaps more to do with the fact that AirBNB, as an online portal in itself, obviously has a very big online audience to connect with, and all the data from “cookie pools” as you’ve called them in your article and the information that comes with those goes a long way toward pushing this ad at groups that are perhaps more receptive to the creative idea of combining the darker elements of a nation’s history with a brand. Which is very different from showing it to a mass audience with a personal history of the topic in a television campaign.

    Great blog, really opened my eyes.

  10. Very helpful article. Thumbs up for your takeaways!

  11. Ivan Nelson says:

    Ann, thanks for this excellent story and interview. Like you, I wondered why the video was animated instead of featuring live people. Obviously, there may have been personal reasons that prevented the production with the real people. I have to say that I am perplexed and even saddened that it took a CMO to realize the power of this story and sponsor it. Hopefully for Airbnb, not all decisions need to go through him!…

  12. Great Story – inspires me to tell more of our customers’ stories. Not sure we have heard any EPIC ones recently. But will keep trying to pursue them. It is a bit more challenging in a B2B business and with a limited budget. But, telling stories that are real and resonate with your community helps build and build-up the community.
    Thanks for the interview and sharing the animated video.

    @ Denis – What was the budget? We won’t tell!

  13. Chase says:

    So, Airbnb’s sans-xenophobia is brought to life in this one. Thanks very much, Ann, for sharing.

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  20. Aviv says:

    Thank you for great interview and commentary.
    Did Cathrine book a place with Kai or a friend of Kai?
    The introduction says, “In Berlin, through Airbnb, Cathrine and her father booked a place with a friend of Kai, once a guard on the opposite side of the wall, in East Germany.”
    The video suggests that the host is Kai, not a friend of Kai.
    Though perhaps there is more to the backstory…

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