Hidden in the basement of the InterContinental New York Barclay Hotel in midtown Manhattan is a deserted tunnel that once transported wealthy travelers to and from Grand Central Terminal during the height of the economic boom of the 1920s. That's just one of the two 20-minute Stories of the InterContinental Life-branded podcasts that have unspooled so far, with more to come in 2017.
InterContinental Hotels isn't alone. As marketers struggle to find creative ways to inure fickle consumers to their ads, General Electric, Tequila Avión, HBO and State Farm Insurance are busy producing their own podcasts, hoping to capture the buzz of runaway hits Serial and This American Life while targeting a captive audience with a light marketing touch.
"You look at the space now, and it's so crowded—not many brands are creating their own editorial content, so we thought it was a point of differentiation," said Georgina Forster, managing director at Mirum, the agency behind the InterContinental Hotels podcast.
GE is another brand going all-in on branded audio. Next week, the technology giant will roll out its second podcast series, dubbed LifeAfter, following last year's popular series The Message that ran from October to November 2015 and netted 4.4 million downloads. In those first eight weeks, an average of 450,000 people tuned in to each episode. After the series ended, the content was listened to another 900,000 times.
Buoyed by that data, GE is going bigger with this year's series—there will be 10 LifeAfter episodes versus last year's eight episodes. And after learning that consumers craved longer content, each episode is 15 to 20 minutes long, up from the previous 10- to 15-minute length. The new series follows a widower who tries to connect with his late wife using voice recordings uploaded to a fictional audio social platform called VoiceTree. References to a piece of GE software called "digital twin"—which is used by the manufacturing industry to create digital versions of heavy equipment like jets by pulling data off of physical items—are sprinkled throughout the show.
"The Serial format works for us—we've built a strong audience," said Andy Goldberg, GE's global chief creative officer. "It's more in the entertainment world than it is in the advertising world."
Don't expect to hear a 30-second commercial pitching GE during the podcast. Instead, Goldberg described the branding as akin to a piece of native advertising. The podcast is labeled as, "presented by the GE Theater," for example, and seldomly references GE's own technology. "We never did a hard sell on a product or a service within it—it's woven into the story naturally where the idea of the digital twin comes to life in the story," explained Goldberg.
For brands interested in podcasting, giving up some creative control is crucial. This fall, Tequila Avión launched weekly podcasts co-hosted by GQ associate editor Mark Anthony Green and The New Yorker nightlife editor Matthew Trammell. The marketer is sponsoring 50 episodes, and in each one, the two hosts talk about art, fashion, music and food while drinking cocktails—although the drinks aren't always made with the brand's product. "When we came in, we said, 'We're willing to sponsor this thing, but I said to the guys, 'I don't want to tell you what to say,'" said Ken Austin, founder of Tequila Avión. "It was more about the audience and the listener versus a brand dictating anything."
Budgets needed for successful branded podcasts can be steep. Often agencies and marketers have to pay production studios that specialize in audio content hefty fees to produce their show, requiring up to mid six-figure investments. Coltrane Curtis, founder and managing partner at Tequila Avión's agency Team Epiphany, estimated that each episode of the sponsored podcast costs $20,000 to $25,000 to produce. "It's expensive because no one's done it before," he said. "It can become pretty pricey for certain brands if this is not their strategy—this is not [just] a 'nice thing' to have."
Max Linsky, co-founder of Pineapple Street Media, which creates podcasts for publishers and brands—including a series for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton—added that the boom in podcasts means that marketers need to up the ante with content that listeners can't find elsewhere. "There is a great deal of awareness that podcasting is getting more competitive every day and that listeners have a ton to choose from," he said. "If it doesn't have some value for listeners, then it's just not going to work very well—it's too competitive of a medium and the barrier to entry to get someone to try a new show is too high to not have it have pretty clear value from the start. It's got to be worth people's time."
This story first appeared in the November 7, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.