JvM Green Papers #7

No branded blockbuster

How brands produce successful podcasts.

Related Expertise:Brand, Audio, Content Marketing

Julian Krohn
Creative Director/Music, White Horse Music GmbH

Brands have missed the boat when it comes to the audio revolution. If you’re not able to recognize your own opportunities for communication, you’ll get the short end of the stick in the future. An article on old-fashioned views and a lack of experimenting. 

Podcasts are the medium of the moment. Just a few weeks ago, on June 25, 2020, Christian Drosten’s podcast on the coronavirus won the Grimme Online Award. This NDR production was honored in the category “Information” for its excellent Web content. Plus, it won the People’s Choice Award. The Grimme Online Award, which is not endowed, has been on the scene since 2001. Not all awards are a reflection of the latest media trends like the Grimme Award. It’s often the case that developments, which got rolling long beforehand, serve as the basis for awarding shows that set new standards or which appear at just the right moment – like in the case of the Drosten and NDR collaboration. By June, the coronavirus podcast had been accessed by over 40 million people.1

But podcasts had been popular before corona, with an audience of millions in Germany. Today, 13 million Germans listen to weekly podcasts.2 Jan Böhmermann and Olli Schulz had an audience that was just as big as Böhmermann’s popular TV show, back in 2016 during the Erdoğan affair.3 And they’re not the only ones drawing in such a large crowd of listeners. Felix Lobrecht or Klaas Heufer-Umlauf also enjoy top-of-the-charts success. Unlike for video, the listeners’ numbers are still not yet transparent, but the German Top 10 titles hover around the mid-six-digit level.4 Although top markets like the UK (16 million listeners5) or the USA (111 million6) already offer a much more diverse range of programs, it doesn’t mean the German market has to lag behind. On Spotify, more than 12,000 podcasts are available in the German language7, and of these just a few are by German brands. But none of them are of any noteworthy success. 

At the same time, it’s entirely clear: The podcast as a medium wants to be captured. But while some brands don’t want to understand this, others simply lack the courage. Brands have the ability to finally celebrate podcast success, but for this to happen, these things come first: 

  1. Rethink the medium now!

  2. Use the entire playing field! 

  3. Take the brand off the leash!

  4. Leverage the momentum!

In the hope of building up more courage, of gaining attention, and of inspiring dialogue for podcasts, we would like to shed a brighter light on this topic.

A brief cultural history of the podcast

Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey portrayed an extremely realistic picture of aerospace in the year 1968. At the heart of the main plot was the spaceship Discovery, which was home to the smaller orbital gliders designed for outside work. The EVA pods aptly served as the namesake, naturally in 2001, for Apple’s iPod. 

The iPod was the agile outdoor unit of the mother ship, Mac. It revolutionized the mobility of music, and the music industry along with it. Audio content quickly became popular in addition to music. Stemming from the desire to make radio shows portable, the podcast was born (iPod + Broadcast = Podcast). 

After Napster had been closed down, Apple owned the leading audio platform. In June 2005, the company took advantage of the budding trend and added podcasts to its iTunes. On the very first two days, two million downloads*. of podcasts were recorded. In the month to follow, George W. Bush became the first US President to have his own podcast. Comedian Ricky Gervais was so successful with his first season on iTunes that he celebrated his first commercial podcast success at the start of 2006, when he offered his once free podcast for £0.95 per episode.

* To the article

1. Rethink the medium now!

The earliest podcasts in the 2000s were very much like conventional radio formats. Many broadcasters used the podcast technology to make live shows available to a listenership at a later date. Shows by podcast producers, who suddenly found themselves with a stage they never had before, defined the style. For example, DJs now no longer had to compete for the few broadcasting slots at radio stations, and the booming blogger scene of the time was free from the chains of publishing houses and could now not only write and publish independently but also distribute their words in an audio format. The promise at the time was: Digitalization will democratize publication. Everyone anywhere in the world could produce content at all times and broadcast or publish it. Including audio content. 

 A result of this was the numerous digital talk formats, which started in 2002 and that continue to define the only meaning of podcast for many media users. Many who think of podcasts today probably still picture something like a portable radio talk show.

But podcasts are much, much more than that. A radio play, a documentary, even instructions on how to meditate – all of this can be produced as a podcast in an entertaining and informative way while being creative and multifaceted. But although this has been technically possible for quite some time now, the automotive and food industries, along with the technology industry, continually broadcast the same and, unfortunately, banal digital radio talk shows about their own products. But how can they change this for the better?

2. Use the entire playing field!

Three characteristics of quality have stood out more than others in the nearly 20-year history of the podcast. In an adapted form, they are also suitable for branded podcasts. 

How to: Narrative

The Talk. While in Germany, the “talk with experts on current events”, so to speak, continues to be the dominating form of narrative8. This type of podcast talk is just one of many options for many areas of the international market. Frequently, talks focused on a certain direction are successful, such as The Infinite Monkey Cage (UK), in which the physicist Brian Cox and the comedian Robin Ince use their talks to communicate complex scientific topics to a broader audience. 

The Documentary. In the English-speaking world, the podcast charts largely consist of documentaries and reportages. This trend is slowly moving to Germany, too.9 The content is filled with editorial information and varies basically in the quality of its preparation. A perfect example is the award-winning podcast This American Life. It uses a reportage-like format to report about revitalizing car dealerships on Long Island, or it focuses on the value of American libraries in society in the form of a feature story. The episodes are underscored by essays and short stories. 

The Fiction. In addition to mixed formats or the formats mentioned above, there are fiction podcasts, which make up the third important pillar. Big podcast productions like Wondery or Gimlet are already producing longer shows that are similar to the very popular radio plays in Germany. The author Melanie Raabe managed to climb to the top of the iTunes charts with her thriller Der Abgrund.10 And the streaming provider FYEO has put its focus on fiction ever since it was launched. Spotify was recently able to win over a host of German celebrities for its podcast series Susi.11

How often: Frequency

The frequency is what basically differentiates the character of a fiction podcast from that of a radio play. Even today, they are usually broadcasted weekly, which sets podcasts apart from other audio categories in a big way. Audio books, for example, are only published about once a year, even when they are sequels. In contrast, the frequency of radio play broadcasts lies somewhere in between. An example: Die drei ??? has about six episodes a year (with some differences over time).12 In addition to the weekly shows, there are also some shorter podcast seasons, similar to those for TV series. Both fiction as well as documentary formats are broadcasted in this way. One of the pioneers was Serial (USA, 2014).13This true crime documentary series covered a single criminal case that was picked apart bit by bit during the course of an entire season. The series defined a new style. When it was canceled in 2018, many similar concepts had already become established.

How long: Suspense

The length of suspense has a huge influence on how podcasts are listened to. The average length of a podcast is about 40 minutes.14 This makes it suitable for many uses, but not all. Whether for sports, household chores, sleeping, or the commute to work – each listener has different demands on the content, as well as on the length of the format itself. Take, for instance, Spotify. At the start of 2020, the audio streaming service, which originally came from Sweden, launched the Daily Drive playlist.15 It mixes very short podcast episodes (under ten minutes) with the individual listener’s favorite music. The offer is an answer to the growing need to also consume short bits of content. And it is Spotify’s way of reacting to an emerging development: A wide selection of entertainment leading many consumers to the limits (and often beyond) of what they normally can enjoy.16

At the same time, however, we see very long narrative formats being successful, catering in part also to a contrasting need. In the gaming segment, episodes that are up to three hours long are on offer in Germany – such as from the YouTuber Gronkh or the Pen & Paper podcast. Joe Rogan recently signed a deal worth millions with Spotify.17 In his (with exceptions) daily podcast, he talks with a different celebrity guest, frequently for up to five hours. His topics range from Tony Hawk to Elon Musk to Bernie Sanders. 

3. Let the brand off the leash!

All three characteristics offer enormous potential for concepts beyond the traditional dialogue. The medium doesn’t just provide stories centered on the brand – it creates an intimate and intensive connection to the audience. Listeners actively choose podcasts18; they are neither surrounded by complex interfaces nor by distracting messages from people around them, and they can dedicate their full attention to the podcast. Why is it that in the area of branded podcasting, so few innovative and experimental ideas are tried out?

Successful content marketing is difficult to realize with audio, similar to the case of customer magazines or the usual video formats. Only what is genuine is successful, and normally this means stepping back and finding a topic that matches the brand, then developing content centered on this and that offers true value. 

Examples from GE, Microsoft, or McDonalds show: It works. GE led the US charts with an interactive fiction podcast.19 Microsoft, in contrast, produced a documentary format about its vision for the future in various areas of life.20 McDonald’s didn’t take itself too seriously when it broadcast a series about its Szechuan sauce.21These brands found approaches that were unusual and surprising. 

4. Leverage the momentum!

As a creative agency, we at Jung von Matt have been handling both the creative as well as the technical aspects of podcast production for many years now, with the aim of being able to make a long-lasting positive impact on the brand. And it’s a matter of course that audio content needs space for experimenting, along with a strategic guiding principle. 

If you want to make a brand an experience on an audio level, you have to build up expertise. This is a long-term challenge – after all, podcasts need time to be successful. This entails building up an audience bit by bit and then keeping it so that the value of the podcast can fully unfold for the brand. The strategic consultants at WARC published a survey in June 2020 that was based on 6,400 campaigns. It proved that a decisive factor in the marketing effectiveness of a branded podcast is in its ability to remain on the scene.22In other words, its creative commitment. 

The client’s clear commitment to want to tread this long path with us in the area of audio was also a starting point for our most recent work with BMW – as well as our common goal to tell strong stories. While other brands often address existing enthusiasts, BMW wanted to reach a listenership that was interested in “new mobility” and which had a different, modern, and maybe also critical view of cars. It was about showing them that mobility of the future is an interest that we all have. 

The result is Hypnopolis. It’s a sci-fi crime podcast with a fiction format. The coping with the future, the development of characters, and the main story itself offer huge potential for manifesting the brand. At the same time, the product is put as far away backstage as possible, in order to give the full stage to the best entertainment possible. 

The creation of the podcast – from the strategy and idea, to the search for an author and the script, to the production, music, special effects and campaigning – took ten months and signaled the premiere of a new kind of creative process for both sides. The season finale will be broadcast at about the same time as this article is published, constituting the next step on our audio path. One which we had already tread with the Einschlafpodcast for the underclothing brand Mey, or Über Geld spricht man nicht for the Sparkasse bank, to name just two – with the goal of communicating the brand in a credible and stand-out way, while providing added value. 

Topics of the next two articles:

  • Part 2: Brand Voice 2.0.

  • Part 3: New Audio Economy

  1. Behind the scenes of Coronavirus Updates; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DxxY_SrWbRA

  2. https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/1116858/umfrage/haeufigkeit-des-hoerens-von-podcasts-in-europa-und-usa/

  3. The podcast Fest & Flauschig has a six-digit listenership; https://omr.com/de/podstars-interview-podcast-vermarktung/ In contrast to the rating for Neo Magazin Royale; http://www.quotenmeter.de/n/101512/quotencheck-neo-magazin-royale

  4. https://omr.com/de/podcast-influencer-top20/

  5. https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/1116858/umfrage/haeufigkeit-des-hoerens-von-podcasts-in-europa-und-usa/

  6. https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/1116858/umfrage/haeufigkeit-des-hoerens-von-podcasts-in-europa-und-usa/

  7. https://www.spotifyforbrands.com/de-CH/news/dmexco-recap-why-germany-is-listening-up-to-podcasts/

  8. Podcast charts and Spotify and Apple podcasts in calendar week 29 in Germany: five interviews with experts, three comedy shows, and two documentary and reportage podcasts; https://chartable.com

  9. Podcast charts and Spotify and Apple podcasts in calendar week 29 in the USA: three documentary and reportage podcasts, three talk show podcasts, three comedy shows, and an interview with an expert; https://chartable.com

  10. http://www.itunescharts.net/ger/artists/podcast/melanie-raabe/podcasts/der-abgrund/

  11. https://meedia.de/2020/06/30/wie-spotify-aus-sandra-susi-macht/

  12. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liste_der_Die-drei-%3F%3F%3F-Folgen

  13. https://www.deutschlandfunkkultur.de/us-podcast-serial-kritisch-ambitioniert-und-konkurrenzlos.2156.de.html?dram:article_id=428630

  14. https://blog.pacific-content.com/podcast-episodes-got-shorter-in-2019-69e1f3b6c82f

  15. https://www.welt.de/kmpkt/article202813904/Daily-Drive-Das-neue-Spotify-Feature-und-die-Zukunft-des-Radios.html

  16. https://www.ard-werbung.de/fileadmin/user_upload/media-perspektiven/pdf/2018/0218_Domenichini.pdf

  17. https://www.wuv.de/medien/spotify_gelingt_podcast_coup_mit_joe_rogan

  18. https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/1054118/umfrage/gruende-der-nutzung-von-podcasts-in-deutschland/

  19. https://www.fastcompany.com/3053982/how-general-electric-created-the-hit-science-fiction-podcast-the-message

  20. https://news.microsoft.com/podcast/

  21. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jasonwingard/2019/08/30/a-mcdonalds-podcast-innovation-by-imitation/

  22. https://lionslive.canneslions.com/creative-effectiveness-ladder

Jung von Matt 2020