Of Avatar and Branded Podcasts

Why brands need to respect podcast listeners.

By: Jen Moss, Chief Creative Officer at JAR Audio


Over the holidays, I finally went to see Avatar: The Way of Water.

Despite the uncomfortable, and outdated white saviour narrative, I admit I loved the whole immersive experience of virtually exploring not only another planet – but another element: water.

The underwater animation scenes are simply breathtaking.

The story inspires us to think about the integrity of worlds different from our own.

And if the humans from this story, or “Sky People” as the Na’vi call them, have anything to teach us, it’s this: If you land your spaceship on an alien planet, you should try not to be so obnoxious.

These days, more and more brands are entering the podcasting space, and I couldn’t be happier about it. Brands can and should play a vital role in the important conversations of our time.

But for some brands – the foray into podcasts feels, at first, like a journey to another planet.

Here’s why

If you’re a brand just getting into the world of audio storytelling, it’s a very different ecosystem than the corporate world you might be used to.

Different rules apply.

For one thing, the act of listening, itself, is a highly sensitive act of co-imagining.

Podcast creators form a bond – an unspoken contract with listeners – to “picture” the scenes they are describing, to listen all the way through, and to return to the show more than once.

Maintaining this bond is a fine balance.

You don’t want to make assumptions or overstep – yet you do want to make a good impression with the “locals.”

In this case – the locals are your audience – and if you listen closely to them – they will tell you exactly where to go and what to do. Ignore them at your peril because audiences now have some 5 million podcasts to choose from.

They do not need you.

So, the question becomes: what do they need?

Building an audience requires different rules of engagement to –say — selling fashion or real estate. To build an audience and navigate the audio storytelling space effectively, you need to remember three things: be authentic, offer real value, and stop selling.

Be authentic

In audio storytelling, authenticity matters more than it does in other media.

It was Fred Rogers who once said, “Listening is where love begins.”

This has always struck me as true, and I try to keep it in mind in all the work I do with brand clients.

Because audio stories are “broadcast,” literally, right inside the audience’s head (between the ears), there’s a kind of sacredness to them. It’s why, at the first sign of manipulation, a listener stops listening. Audiences develop deep, personal trust-based relationships with podcast hosts. They respond well when hosts speak directly to them and can demonstrate curiosity and human fallibility.

Podcasts can be immersive, imaginative, and tightly produced. But just as often, they can be casual and conversational, inviting audiences to feel part of an “inner circle.”

Offer real value

Audiences will go where their own needs are most consistently being met. This is often an adjustment for brands, who are used to thinking “what’s the best way to explain what we do, or what we offer.” We call this the megaphone approach – and it does not work in podcasting.

To be effective podcasters – brands must ask questions more along the lines of, “What does my audience need from me?” or, “Whom am I talking to — and what kind of stories do they like?” “What larger conversations matter to this audience, and how well is our brand positioned to facilitate them?”

Brands may wonder what kinds of needs podcast audiences have compared to their regular customers.

Well, for one thing, you cannot assume an audience member knows or cares to know about your brand’s products or services.

Unlike a customer – who checks out your brand because they presumably already want to buy something – audiences may just find you in passing, or as part of a “research phase” prior to buying.

Audience needs can be loosely grouped into the categories of “education” and “entertainment.”

If you can offer both at once, audiences are twice as likely to stick around.

Stop selling

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again. And again. And again. Nobody wants to listen to a 30+ minute ad.

This means brands need to learn to tread lightly on brand presence within the content of their shows.

Sure, you can make it clear who is sponsoring the show, and you can choose to sponsor great shows that demonstrate your brand’s values in action. But avoid getting too granular about your products and services within the sacred walls of your podcast. Doing so can cost you your audience.

Podcast landing pages can track conversion rates – thanks to new digital tools. But it’s something of a moot point because podcasts are not geared toward conversion rates. Podcasts are all about brand lift, brand trust, and brand recognition. Ideally – you want the audience to say “wow – that was a great podcast. Interesting… it was sponsored by BRAND X.” The expectation is not that they will then immediately run to the nearest virtual marketplace to buy your product.

Rather, the expectation is that the next time they need a product or service such as the one you offer, they will remember your brand in a positive light.

If podcasts were a TikTok video script — think:

“Brand halo, yup. Audio sales pitch, nope.”

All of this does not mean podcasts can’t help your brand. Nor does it mean you can never advertise on a podcast. In fact, according to 2022 stats – newer podcast listeners are 19% more likely to tolerate relevant ads than “O.G.” listeners.

All I’m saying is – when you first arrive on Planet Podcast, it’s easy to misstep.

After all, brands are used to making their branded offerings as clear as possible and driving relentlessly toward sales.

Yet these very tactics, so effective on a website or billboard, will result in slow and painful death in the land of the podcast.

To sum up 

It’s important to bring the right mentality to your podcasting expeditions.

You’re there to offer value to the listener, full stop.

They define what that value is – not you.

You are not there to sell to them, fool them, or otherwise manipulate them.

If you’re unsure what your audience wants and how to give it to them, consider hiring a local guide in the form of a branded podcast company or another professional audio storyteller.

Enjoy your time on planet podcast – tread lightly – learn from the locals.

Don’t be like the “Sky People” in Avatar, and above all — don’t be obnoxious.

How can you effectively plug your brand in your podcast? Click here