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The Rise of the Branded Podcast: How and Why Retailers are Creating Their Own Shows

Branded podcasts are becoming an increasingly popular marketing vehicle for retailers.

Nearly 125 million Americans now listen to podcasts monthly, according to eMarketer. Perhaps more importantly, Insider Intelligence estimates that the time this group of listeners spends with their podcasts is 53 minutes per day. Now imagine if even a portion of that time was spent with your brand, and you begin to see the appeal of the branded podcast.

Podcast listening is still growing in the U.S.

The ultimate point of any marketing is not to get in front of people, it’s to earn trust,” said Jay Acunzo, host of the podcast Unthinkable and a brand consultant through his firm Unthinkable Media, in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “Podcasts in particular combine two things that do that. One is this ability to serialize your content, in other words to hold attention over time. The other is that podcasts add in voice. Podcasts are one of the most intimate mediums because it’s just you and a voice in your head.”

Sephora, eBay, Walmart, Blue Apron, Shopify, Trader Joe’s, Hugo Boss and Amazon are just a few of the notable retail names that have debuted their own branded podcast series. American Girl even took it a step further earlier this year and launched a whole podcast network. But launching your own podcast can be a tricky endeavor, especially when the ultimate aim is promotion. Today’s consumer is notoriously resistant to being “sold to,” especially in forums where they expect to entertained. Strike the wrong tone with your podcast, and you’ll strike out, fast.

Retailers such as Mattress Firm, Nordstrom and goodMRKT are finding success with their branded podcasts through a strategic approach that includes:

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  • Having the right expectations at the outset — “podcasts are not a top-of-funnel growth approach,” advised Acunzo;
  • Focusing first and foremost on storytelling, not selling yourself;
  • Mining the data generated by podcasts to deepen their understanding of how customers perceive and interact with the brand;
  • Recognizing tertiary benefits like the consumer awareness that comes from promotions for a podcast (even if people don’t ever tune in); and
  • Understanding the signals of success for what is often a hard-to-measure, slow burn-style marketing product.

‘A Trust and Relationship Accelerant’

We humans are pack animals — it’s our nature to want take part in things we see other humans benefitting from. That is part of the reason podcasting is so effective as a marketing medium — when done well, it creates that sense of community that all humans desire, with your brand at the center. For this same reason though, brands must do some soul-searching before jumping in — just because others are doing it isn’t enough to make a podcast a right for your brand.  

First and foremost, brands must recognize that this is not just another digital marketing product: “Podcasts and anything serialized are meant to go beyond grabbing attention and actually hold attention,” said Acunzo. “It’s not top-of-funnel, it’s about straightening your funnel. If someone spends 10, 30, 45 minutes a week listening to human voices that represent a brand, they are way more likely to trust and love that brand and hasten down the funnel — a podcast is a trust and relationship accelerant.

If brand awareness and community-building are your ultimate aims, then a branded podcast is worth considering. But if your goal is more tactical — customer acquisition or conversions — your time and money might be better spent elsewhere.

“It’s important for brands to take a really hard look at [whether] a new original podcast is the right approach for what they are trying to do,” said Isaac Kaplan-Woolner, Supervising Producer of Branded Audio at Vox Creative in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “A podcast presents a really unique opportunity for a brand to walk the walk on their values and connect in a really authentic way with an audience. No other medium has that same power, the intimacy of being in your ears and presenting real human stories that the listener can relate and connect to.”

That’s what Mattress Firm was looking to do with its branded podcast Are You Sleeping, which was produced in partnership with Vox Creative. The 10-episode series, which debuted in April 2022, showcases unique sleep stories such as sisters with a rare “short-sleep gene” and a woman who composes music in her sleep, interposed with insights from experts and community-sourced questions.

“Anything like this always starts with our brand purpose, which is helping people sleep well so that they live well,” explained Jefferson Burruss, Senior Director of Brand Strategy at Mattress Firm in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “When you combine expertise with the authenticity of a podcast, it resonates with people and they begin to trust us. With that trust we earn authority — we’re reaching more people and helping with more than just buying mattresses.”

Mattress Firm kept its own presence in the series very minimal — company employees didn’t host or guest on the podcast; in fact, the only time the brand was mentioned was in “brought to you by” messaging and in mid- and post-roll ads.

“This was not a project on its surface about selling mattresses,” said Kaplan-Woolner. “First and foremost it was about connecting with people and showing them that Mattress Firm cares. The most important thing is to actually connect with people — if we can’t do that, this podcast has no chance of success. We were not here to give answers; we never wanted to be prescriptive like, ‘Here are the 10 things you need to do to improve your sleep.’ [On any branded project] we always lead with what we think would just make a great podcast and see how we can match that with clients’ specific goals.”

First Thing’s First: Who’s Your Core Listener?

To zero in on what kind of content will enable this kind of connection for your brand, Kaplan-Woolner advises brands to start by identifying their core listener: “I like clients to name them. Who is this person? Why are they listening? What are they getting from each and every episode? Then make every content decision focused on that core audience and radiate out from that point.”

Acunzo agreed, saying that in identifying that core listener, brands need to go “beyond demographics and understand psychographics,” asking themselves what are the “emotional reasons somebody would care about your brand?”

For cause-based retailer goodMRKT’s branded podcast, goodMRKT Live!, Co-founder and Chief Brand Officer Harry Cunningham has two core audiences. The first is the people shopping his store who want to learn more about the brands and their causes, but the second is entrepreneurs who may have an idea for their own brand. “Every question [on the show] is asked and answered with both of those targets in mind,” he said.

Make Sure You Have Something to Say

Perhaps the cardinal rule in this space is, don’t make a podcast for the sake of having a podcast — make sure you really have something to say, and that it’s something people will want to hear. In most cases that means your podcast likely won’t be about you or your brand.

“My favorite question to ask brand partners is, what do you think, among the audience you’d like to serve, is broken about the status quo?” said Acunzo. “For example, the way we cook as parents is broken, we’re going to create a show that solves that pain point. This way you become a participant in your audience’s lives and community, not just a promoter. [The other way to look at is], what key themes do you want to own outright in the market, so that when people think of these themes or questions or ideas or needs, they think of you automatically.”

The six-part American Express series The Next Chapter doesn’t focus on finance or credit, rather, it features book authors who are also entrepreneurs. Taking the form of a book club, each guest is asked what the next chapter of their book would be. Hugo Boss’ new podcast series Behind the BOSS features artists, creators and athletes delving into what drove them to become their own boss.

That’s not to say that a brand-focused podcast can’t work. The successful Trader Joe’s series Inside Trader Joe’s, currently in its 11th season, takes listeners behind the scenes at the beloved grocery chain. Some of the podcasts American Girl is planning for its network pull from that brand’s existing content, in particular its book series. The new Nordstrom podcast, The Nordy Pod, is hosted by company President Pete Nordstrom and is all about the legendary department store and its reputation for stellar customer service.

“Having our own platform gives us the opportunity to tell our story in different ways — through conversations with our customers, our employees, fans of the brand and our brand partners,” a Nordstrom spokesperson told Retail TouchPoints. “It’s allowed us to highlight those unique-to-Nordstrom stories that so many of our customers have, and to bring the specialness of the Nordstrom experience to life in a way that feels authentic to who we are as a business.”

For all of these brands, storytelling is built into their DNA, so telling that story through the vehicle of a podcast feels natural. This is especially true for goodMRKT, where storytelling is a central part of the brand experience: “We actually call our associates storytellers because they’re expected to really know the stories of the founders and the brands, so it made sense for us to use the podcast to continue to tell the stories of our business partners,” said Cunningham. “Through the way that we tell these stories, the way that we talk about the brand, we want people to feel like they’re part of our tribe or community.”

What Does Podcast Success Look Like?

Even if you’re personally sold on the idea of a branded podcast, sometimes the biggest hurdle can be selling your team on the idea — and later, showing the results. “Podcasts are not really built to spread very easily — they don’t rank on search directly, they can’t be shared very easily to social,” said Acunzo. “[Think about it like] building a basketball team. You have your 20-points-per-game scorers, but you also have the folks who enable those players to score. If you have a team full of shooters, you’re going to have a bad team, but podcasts are not the scorers — that might be the direct response vehicles that have very simple metrics that you can measure. Still, you need the things that set up those winners.”

Of course, podcasts do have success metrics — listener numbers, downloads, subscribes or follows, repeat listeners, anecdotal feedback. Even so, drawing a direct line between a successful podcast and hard business results is difficult.

To assess success Acunzo said brands should also pay attention to “the things you have to earn and can’t buy. I can buy traffic, I can’t buy repeat visitors. I can buy downloads, I can’t buy episode completions. Measuring those things that can only be earned will give you that signal that you have something.”

Podcasts also have other tangential benefits that brands may overlook. “One of the values of a branded podcast is that you can get longitudinal data that you don’t get with a lot of other media buys,” said Kaplan-Woolner. “You can measure how your audience interacts with your brand and thinks about the topics that you’re bringing up over time. You could approach this as a massive audience and brand study, and it would be worth it in and of itself for all the information that you take away and apply more broadly.”

This is exactly what Mattress Firm plans to do now that its series has ended. “We just don’t fall off a cliff at the end and say, ‘Well, that was great,’” said Burruss. “We’ll compile that information and pull insights that we can apply elsewhere in our consciousness, content strategy or marketing messaging.”

And even if the worst happens and you end up with a flop, Kaplan-Woolner said there’s still value in the effort: “A lot of brands don’t consider the value of the wider media buy that should go along with a branded podcast,” he said. Millions of people are now aware that Mattress Firm cares enough about your sleep to have made this podcast. Whether they convert to a listener or not, [the very fact of its existence] is valuable to have it out there.”

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