Product placement could start infiltrating podcasts. Here’s how one network is experimenting with it

Scripted-fiction network QCode has run “in-universe” ads with the likes of Bud Light, Johnnie Walker, and HEB.
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Illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Photos: Getty Images

· 5 min read

As product placement overtakes your favorite TV shows and movies, the marketing tactic could also infiltrate a seemingly unlikely medium: podcasting.

Product placement often involves characters on screen sipping from cans of Coke, sporting Nike kicks, or scarfing down KFC. But podcasting lacks visual cues, making it tricky to naturally insert brands into content without naming them outright.

QCode, a podcast network known for its scripted-fiction podcasts led by actors like Rami Malek, Gina Rodriguez, and Demi Moore, is working on figuring out how.

“We think about QCode as an entertainment company,” Steve Wilson, QCode’s chief strategy officer, told Marketing Brew. Since product placement is so entrenched in film and TV, “it would only be natural that this would become part of the podcast landscape as the world of podcasts continues to grow.”

While QCode is still in the early days of experimenting with product placement—known at the network as “in-universe brand creative” in its current form, according to head of sales and brand partnerships Rich Eiseman—brands including Bud Light, Johnnie Walker, and HEB have already permeated a few of its shows.

Crack open a cold one

Alcohol brands are perhaps a natural fit for audio product placement, since drinking is a fairly auditory experience. The cracking open of a can or bottle. Liquid being poured into a glass. The lip smacking or satisfied “ah” that accompanies the first sip.

“As a regulated industry that can’t necessarily advertise everywhere other brands can, product placement allows alcohol brands to expand their channel mix and reach,” said Laura Correnti, partner at Giant Spoon, the agency behind podcast projects such as GE’s The Message, which included an “in-universe product integration” of GE tech decoding a message from outer space within the context of the sci-fi pod, according to Correnti.

Electric Easy, a QCode podcast starring actors Chloe Bailey and Mason Gooding, is set in “futuristic Los Angeles,” primarily in a bar. It was practically begging for alcoholic beverage product placement, and QCode found a taker.

Three episodes of the pod kick off with characters trying Bud Light Seltzers, of course, to rave reviews. The scenes last about two minutes before a more traditional ad kicks in to announce that the pod is presented by Bud Light Seltzer Retro Tie Dye.

Johnnie Walker ran in-universe ads in a different QCode pod, Listening In, a psychological thriller that stars Rachel Brosnahan and heavily features the presence of a smart speaker. Episodes begin with the sound of ice cubes and liquid hitting a glass before a producer asks a smart speaker to play the podcast.

“Playing Listening In, presented by Johnnie Walker blended Scotch whiskey,” says a fictional voice assistant. Glasses clink, and the show begins. Again, the format combines the typical “presented by” podcast ad sponsorship model with QCode’s more native in-universe strategy.

These kinds of ads do sit somewhat separately from the podcast’s actual story, hence the “in-universe” identifier that’s used to differentiate them from true product placement. QCode plans to offer traditional product placement in the coming year, Eiseman told us.

Can it cut it?

QCode has worked with audio research and analytics platform Veritonic to help measure the performance of its in-universe ads, according to Eiseman. He cited brand lift as one metric that could indicate success in these cases, but added that “every campaign is a little bit different depending on the KPIs coming from the brand.”

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Giant Spoon’s Correnti told us in an email that brand awareness, perception, and consideration are factors that the agency has taken into account when measuring product placement in audio, as well as “correlative conversation and conversion.”

Hank the Cowdog, a QCode children’s pod starring and executive produced by Matthew McConaughey that features a campaign for Texas-based grocery chain HEB, performed well on the conversation front, according to Eiseman.

It was one of the first projects that got the QCode team thinking about the potential for product placement, Wilson added, since the network put special thought into how to best interrupt the story with an ad, considering mostly children would be listening.

The campaign consists of a branded jingle about Hank reacting to his mom coming home with HEB grocery bags, and apparently became an earworm for some young listeners.

“We actually started to see it showing up on social, in reviews,” Eiseman said. “There’s one review we love, they’re like, ‘We’re from Ohio, my kids have no idea what HEB is, but they will not stop singing the song.’ So I think it really caught on.”

Not only brands, but other marketing agencies are eyeing the strategy. Sonic branding agency Made Music Studio is “talking to all of our existing clients about QCode integration opportunities,” John Taite, Made Music’s EVP of global brand partnerships and development, said in an email, although no deals have yet been finalized.

“There’s this really cool opportunity, as brands focus on what they sound like and their sonic identity, to natively integrate them into the [podcast] worlds in a different way,” Eiseman said. “We’re talking to a number of really prominent brands that have some of those beloved sonic logos that we want to build into our worlds with deeper integration.”

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