Brand Strategy

Brands have been investing in podcasts of their own for years. Here’s why

The branded podcast has proliferated as marketers continue experimenting with audio.
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Illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Photos: Lattice, Southwest Airlines, Ben & Jerry’s

· 5 min read

Everyone has a podcast these days, and brands are increasingly becoming no exception.

Trader Joe’s has Inside Trader Joe’s, a pod that started in 2018 and is still active today. That same year, McDonald’s worked with Gizmodo on a three-episode series entirely about its Szechuan-sauce shortage. General Electric found success back in 2015 with The Message, a sci-fi podcast designed to raise brand awareness among young, tech-savvy consumers.

“The trick is hiding the spinach in the smoothie and making sure that the content itself is something that people really want and are interested in,” Rachael King, founder and CEO of audio production agency Pod People, told Marketing Brew.

So you think you can podcast

Last year, Southwest Airlines debuted Is This Seat Open?, a 20-episode podcast created with LA Times Studios and podcast production studio At Will Media.

The podcast, hosted by two of the airline’s employees, focused on real stories from the company’s history. It was part of Southwest’s marketing strategy for its 50th anniversary, according to At Will founder and CEO Will Malnati.

“They were involved in creating the content with us and coming up with the stories and figuring out who should speak on them, and so they were very much collaborative on that,” Malnati said. “That’s the way that these brands get their DNA into these things so that it feels organic and authentic.”

Malnati said the podcast was a piece of that larger campaign. That can often be the case with branded podcasts, he explained.

In the past two years, Ben & Jerry’s has released two podcasts—Into the Mix and Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America—made with help from Vox Creative, a creative collective within Vox Media.

Both podcasts fall in line with its history of activism and social responsibility, looking to “engage with and attempt to mobilize” an audience the company refers to as “the aspiring activist,” said Jay Tandan, US integrated marketing manager at Ben & Jerry’s, or “people who may not always be proactively finding ways to take action on issues they care about” but are still interested.

“By proactively reaching out to this audience, we’re able to, as a fun ice cream company, engage them in a different way than, say, a Greenpeace does,” Tandan explained. “The audience that we’re really going for is folks who are passionate about these issues, but aren’t necessarily going out of their way to take action.”

Annu Subramanian, executive producer for branded audio at Vox Creative, described podcasts like this as brand builders.

“A podcast is such a big, audacious project that it truly is a solid content play that I really think more brands need to be doing,” she said.

People management platform Lattice worked with Pod People on a show called All Hands, a content marketing play combined with a sales effort, according to Lattice’s Head of Content Annette Cardwell.

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The Lattice sales team, as well as HR leaders at different companies, were finding it difficult to convince decision makers of “how strategic HR could be” in order to convert them to customers, Cardwell said. So she and her team thought a podcast based around interviews with HR leaders and other execs could help change their minds.

It seems to be working so far. Lattice’s salespeople have reported finding fans of the pod on their calls, and it’s also generated positive conversations on social media, according to Cardwell.

“Season one was a growing year,” said Christine Swor, executive producer at Lattice, but downloads have increased by about 150% as of the first few episodes of season two compared to season one, she told us.

Measuring success

Many marketers are still figuring out how to best determine the success of a branded podcast, which differs for every show, according to Malnati. King said “quality of engagement,” like reviews, is as important as downloads.

Doug Smith, director of content at e-commerce solution List Perfectly, said his company has been producing a podcast, The Seller Community Podcast, for about a year and a half, racking up more than 60 episodes with more than 30,000 total downloads.

List Perfectly looks at those numbers to evaluate the pod, but also values engagement indicators like conversations about the show in its Facebook group.

“It’s a great way to tell stories, and it is very cost-effective,” Smith told us. “We do it all in-house.”

Chief, a women’s leadership network that recently achieved unicorn status, started working with Pod People last fall to target an audience it cares about through podcasting: executives. Its podcast, The New Rules of Business, is heading into its second season.

When Chief started its podcast, it was aiming for a similar number of downloads as members of its network. Chief also tracked engagement on its main social platform, LinkedIn, and was encouraged enough by the results to keep the podcast up and running.

“Because [listenership] was steadily increasing with each episode, we were then able to feel confident that if we stay the course, we will continue to see more and more results,” Sharon Yi, Chief's head of editorial and brand studio, said.

In season two, Chief aims to double its listenership from season one by spending to promote the podcast as opposed to marketing it organically.

No matter how brands are using their podcasts, more and more have been factoring audio into their marketing budgets over the past several years.

“They’ve clearly done some market research and have understood that a lot of people who are interacting with their brand on a regular basis are also podcast listeners,” Malnati said. “Podcasts sometimes got the lowest attention when it came to brand spend. Now, it’s actually starting to become more front and center for some of them.”

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