As Harrods becomes the latest fashion retailer to turn to podcasting, Drapers investigates whether the medium is a game-changer or a gimmick.
Candidly discussing her life and career with a young, hip presenter on the first episode of PLT: Behind Closed Doors in January, you would be forgiven for assuming radio and TV presenter Maya Jama was starring in yet another podcast by another ambitious millennial. But the nine-part series of audio shows that can be streamed or downloaded, featuring interviews with “the biggest names in fashion, music, entertainment and culture” is not run by a duo in a bedroom.
In fact, is it produced by PrettyLittleThing, the Boohoo Group-owned young fashion brand. As Drapers went to press, the podcast was still number one on iTunes, although PrettyLittleThing declined to give numbers of downloads or listeners.
Podcasting creates a more personal and human relationship with a brand
Petah Marian, senior editor at trend forecaster WGSN
A growing number of brands are using the increasingly popular audio form – Harrods launched a podcast, with broadcaster Mariella Frostrup, this week – and with good reason. The number of weekly podcast listeners in the UK has almost doubled in five years – from 3.2 million (7% of adults aged 15 and above) in 2013 to 5.9 million (11%) in 2018, Ofcom reports. The increase is across all age groups, but the steepest growth is among young adults aged 15 to 24 – around one in five (18.7%) listens to podcasts every week. Almost half of podcast listeners are under the age of 35 (49%).
Over in the US, last year department store Barneys New York launched an in-conversation-style podcast celebrating fashion, style and culture featuring creatives such as Rick Owens and interiors designer Jonathan Adler. Last month, Saks Fifth Avenue followed with a live recording featuring beauty industry leaders at its New York flagship. The series will be made available to listen to online. Neither retailer has provided audience figures.
As a marketing tool, the podcast offers many benefits – for example, it provides an effective way to build relationships with customers.
“Podcasting is a good way for businesses to express what it is that they stand for and reach the kinds of people that they see as reflecting those attributes,” says Petah Marian, senior editor at trend forecaster WGSN. “It creates a more personal and human relationship with a brand, which is something that younger generations are seeking out.” Marian adds that it allows the brand to talk at length in an interesting way around the lifestyle they are trying to sell.
Consumers are buying stories – and podcasts are a very effective way to tell those stories
Tom Webster, podcast expert and vice-president of Edison Research
Tom Webster, podcast expert and vice-president of Edison Research, agrees: “While other forms of marketing generally offer reach and brand awareness, podcasts are a wonderful vehicle for engagement – making your current customers lifetime customers. Increasingly, consumers are buying stories – and podcasts are a very effective way to tell those stories.”
Sharing stories is the focus of Marks & Spencer’s podcast. Launched last summer, it offered a behind-the-scenes look at the business and talked about issues such as sustainability and the horse-meat crisis.
“There’s a huge growth in the popularity of podcasts,” says M&S’s corporate PR manager, Rachel Silver. “We have so many enquiries to the press office, we thought: ‘How can we direct people to somewhere they can hear more in-depth stories and hear from experts?’ It’s about giving people information about how the business works and access to things they haven’t heard from us before.”
She adds that the podcast is “experimental”, and M&S is evolving the second series, which will run this spring: “The first series was all about sustainability. For the second series we are going to go deeper behind clothing and we’re thinking about what sort of things they want to listen to. For example, we might look in one episode at how we make our school uniforms. It’s a bit of an experiment.” Again, M&S declines to provide listener or download numbers.
Compared with TV campaigns, podcasts can be relatively inexpensive, but they need to be a medium-to-longer-term investment, warns Matt Deegan, founder of the British Podcast Awards and Radio One podcast producer. “Great podcasts work over time – they are not an instant success. You need to budget for 15 to 20 episodes. In terms of cost, it varies. You could film a TV ad on your phone, but it won’t be the best quality – it is the same with podcasts. You can do it yourself, you can bring in freelancers or you can use a production company.
“At the lower end of the scale, for a high-quality production, you are looking at £4,000 or £5,000 per episode but a celebrity host can increase this.” He adds that Apple and Google podcast apps dominate distribution, and getting on to the charts is key to getting noticed: “You need to advertise and get subscriptions to drive your podcast up the chart, so other people will then see it. You need momentum.”
In addition to producing their own content that conveys their values, brands can also align themselves with other broadcasters and reach new audiences
“We’re sponsoring the [women’s site] Midult podcast in March and April, which will say, ‘brought to you by Hush’,” explains Rupert Youngman, director of the womenswear brand. “Then we’re running an event with Mandy [Watkins, Hush’s founder] that will run as a podcast. We decided to sponsor them as we like the tone: quite conversational and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It fits well with the brand.”
And Hush’s own podcast is on the horizon, says Youngman: “I love podcasts and, as a brand, I think they could work really well for us. It’s more of a question of when rather than if.”
Podcasts are also a consideration for young fashion brand Hype, says its co-founder and creative director Liam Green: “We’re concentrating on creating our vlog because Hype is such as visual, design-led brand. Podcasts will likely be rolled out as a phase two, once we’ve established some clear themes across our vlogs. If executed well, they are a valuable media format.”
Return on investment
Nevertheless, the long-term value of branded podcasts is questionable. Asos launched a weekly podcast featuring female entrepreneurs in 2015. Marketing Week reports that it attracted more than 30,000 listeners and 2,000 subscribers, but after 91 episodes, it stopped a year later. Asos declined to comment.
Part of the problem is that it is difficult to measure a podcast’s return on investment. Lingerie brand Freya’s podcast series, When Life Gives You Melons, which launched in 2017 and discussed everything from boobs to break-ups, reached number six in the overall UK podcast charts and number one in the culture charts. It ran another series last year.
Freya promotes particular products during the break in its podcast and monitors their sales performance. Brands can also offer dedicated discount codes and track how often they are used.
Marian also argues that podcasts can be time consuming: “It takes a lot of time to come across as casual and understated. It is energy and time consuming to produce a quality podcast. That sometimes catches people out, and brands can taper off.
“It also takes time to build an audience. If it doesn’t take off quickly, some brands may find it hard to quantify the return on investment. It needs longer-term investment – it is a longer-term play.”
Deegan agrees: “You need to give it six to 12 months. You need to experiment, see what works, what doesn’t and decide what your tone of voice is – that takes time.” He adds that bringing in expert knowledge increases the odds of success: “Expertise is also important: everyone thinks they know how to do everything, but to maximise your chances of being successful, you need to bring in people who know what they are doing.”
A podcast can be a cost-effective tool to build a stronger bond with your customer, but be warned that it takes commitment to transform it from a short, sweet affair to a long-lasting relationship.
The Drapers Verdict
Ever since the wildly popular Serial aired in 2014, podcasts have exploded as a medium and today, five years later, they continue to dominate our media consumption and our conversations.
Brands must find a solid reason as to why they need to be engaged in this cultural zeitgeist – and also ask themselves whether they can produce strong and relatable content for their audience. If a brand can create unique and compelling content that would prick their fans’ ears, podcasts can be a fantastic format for storytelling and forming a stronger relationship with customers.
But even Asos pulled its podcast after a year, perhaps signalling that they are not a long-lasting must-have marketing tool for brands.