I’m a fan of travel lodging company Airbnb and a frequent guest. The quirkiness of the company and the warmth of its users, who rent out their apartments and houses to strangers via online listings, offer a welcome break from traditional hotel stays.  I’ve had hosts pick me up at the airport, drive me to meetings and cook me dinners.  The uniqueness of each Airbnb experience is what I enjoy most—and what has propelled the company to a $10 billion valuation, with over 500,000 listings in 34,000 cities across 190 countries.

The hotel industry disruptor rebranded last Wednesday in an effort to expand its image beyond that of a simple lodging booking site into a product that delivers an entire travel experience. The rebranding kicked off with a video chat broadcast live from the living room of Airbnb's first-ever listing: the apartment of its founders, Brian Chesky, Nathan Blecharcyk and Joe Gebbia. Joining them for the chat was their first Airbnb guest.

It’s not often you see a company’s executive team converse with its consumer base in such a relaxed and informal setting. There’s a lot banks can learn from Airbnb’s rebranding effort—particularly in its use of personal narrative to drive a sense of belonging and community.

First of all, stories matter. Each of Airbnb’s founders offered a personal story of what the company meant to them.  Gebbia recounted his Airbnb stay with a Buddhist monk in Japan, while Blecharcyk recalled his host in Norway regaling him with songs. The founders seemed authentic and enthusiastic as they discussed their experiences, serving as a reminder that they are proud users of their own product. 

Likewise, bank product managers, marketers and developers must know their product offerings inside and out.   More importantly, they should share their product stories both with customers and internally. The ways that people actually interact with products in their everyday lives can’t always be identified in product design, development and testing. Bank employees must have a personal understanding of the day-in, day-out use of products that happens outside the sanitized walls of most banks.

Moreover, creating a feedback loop in which bank employees discuss their own product stories can help drive product enhancements and reveal opportunities for fresh innovation. Banks should ensure that they provide a means for this type of internal feedback—including the negative stories. For example, BBVA’s internal website “Beta Testers” provides a portal for employees to test-drive products, provide feedback and identify defects on early versions of the company’s new apps.  This has resulted in product tweaks prior to launch and the introduction of new product solutions.

Second, customers’ voices matter.  It is human nature to question the authenticity of brand stories delivered by employees, no matter how sincerely those stories are delivered. That’s why the most compelling stories during Airbnb’s relaunch came from their users, not the founders.  The short video of three different Airbnb hosts sharing their stories and experiences can and should be used by Airbnb as standalone spots for their brand.

Banks should reach out to their customers, find the great storytellers and let the customers be their voices whenever possible.  Listen closely to what customers have to say: it’s surprising what they find of value.  Fifth Third Bank’s re-employment program, which assists customers in their job search with one-on-one coaching, online training and webinars, has tapped into this concept with great success. The bank shares their customers’ stories about the program via Facebook and its own website.

Lastly, local matters.  Airbnb stressed the entire lodging experience while discussing their site’s expanded "Discover" section, which now takes into account more data about the user’s current location and previous searches to provide a Pinterest-like visual display of nearby listings and other popular destinations.  Chesky also emphasized Airbnb’s ability to provide users with unique neighborhood knowledge, thanks to hosts that suggest outings and restaurants that guests would have otherwise never learned about.

Location can be difficult to address in banking: the growing digitalization of the industry has made it harder for banks to be seen as part of a community. But banks will have to get over the hurdle, because there's plenty they can do.  For example, Virgin Money has launched “Money Lounges” throughout London that focus on everything but banking.  Styled after Virgin’s highly successful airport lounges, these centers focus on providing Virgin Money’s customer base with a centralized, local gathering area with free Wi-Fi, conference rooms, and access to iPads and other amenities.  The basic concept is a “customer capture and engage” approach. 

Umpqua Bank in Portland, Ore., has also achieved a well-deserved reputation for being community-focused. The bank routinely opens its branches to the local community, hosting Boy Scout and Girl Scout Troop events, financial training, and other local activities. 

Both Umpqua and Virgin recognize that customers value the entire relationship experience. Banks that focus on local integration will make significant inroads in addressing this need.

Sam Maule serves as a consulting manager at Carlisle & Gallagher Consulting Group.  He joined the firm in June 2011, focusing on the cards & payments community of practice.