Why do we hear so little about branded audio fiction? Factual branded podcasts, especially made for companies and organisations, dominate the market, but branded audio fiction far less. So could taking the bigger risk lead to greater rewards?

Like a lot of people I went to see Barbie – and came out considering it a masterclass in using drama to enhance your brand. It clearly worked; Barbie has grossed more than $1 billion at the global box office and is the first do so with a female director, Greta Gerwig. You go girl, etc.

Despite the phenomenal results, it’s insanely tricky to get right. Mattel must be giving themselves arm ache with all the congratulatory back-slapping. Because there’s a lot to balance.

Firstly, the brand must have the kind of values and that can believably work in a fictional context (yes, I know, Barbie?! Bear with me). A fracking company doing a heartfelt story about children saving the rainforest? Erm, unlikely. Cue mass scepticism.

People of a certain generation will remember the Renault Clio commercials featuring Papa and Nicole. Fictional characters with an ongoing family narrative within a series of commercials that ran for six years. It was apparently the most popular car advertisement in history and made Renault one of the “most persuasive advertiser(s) in five European countries in 1994.”

And they did it with a relateable story.

The audience has to buy into it

That’s the case with any story, but audiences know full well when they’re being sold to. Products shown or referenced within TV programmes are regulated or monitored. Undue prominence is distracting. Barbie, fundamentally, is one huge infomercial. But we know that. Of course we know that! Barbie knows that, and Mattel, both onscreen and off, know it too. With Barbie, because we’re all in on the joke, we don’t care.

The people behind the brand have to be comfortable taking a back seat

While Mattel featured heavily in the film, it wasn’t really their story. I hesitate to call them brave – it’s actually quite a cynical decision – but letting themselves be seen as a chauvinistic corporate entity was very smart. See above. Don’t play the audience for fools.

Trust the people who are making your podcast

Of course there’s got to be some pretty thorough back and forth about expectations, story, production… But once that’s done, let the team get on with it. If everyone is briefed properly and communication is clear, problems and misunderstandings should be minimal. However brands with no experience of creative production tend towards opposite extremes. They either completely disappear and become impossible to get hold of, or need to be involved with every detail, demanding multiple changes and insisting on feedback from seventeen different people across the company. And they will ALL have an opinion.

The answer of course, is as always, somewhere in the middle. But ultimately, it’s about trust.


Another sticking point is how the brand might want to be perceived. Are there any negatives in the company’s current perception that could be addressed as part of the drama podcast? It’s a brave brand that hands over significant marketing cash – and then steps back. But if a brand IS brave enough to do that – is secure enough in its identity, its audience, its messaging and potentially what it wants from this, just think what could be achieved. An increase in interest in the product, for starters. An improved reputation maybe, or perhaps – the marketer’s dream, new customers. The subject of the drama should have synergy with the brand – but not be about the brand itself.

But moving on to my real question: Why doesn’t audio do this? Of all the branded podcasts out there – why are so few branded audio fiction?

I’ve been extolling the virtues of branded audio fiction for some time, but it’s not new – there’s just not very much of it about. In 2017, Land Rover created The Discovery Adventures, a binaural podcast which combined fact and fiction to encourage families on trips in their car, to experience places via the series. It won awards. It was very good.

There are plenty of branded podcasts. But few companies seem brave enough to want to try branded audio fiction podcasts. In all fairness, a high-quality audio fiction series would need a significantly bigger budget than a round table chat in a studio once a week with guests talking about your brand.

But wouldn’t drama be more interesting? What genres might fit your brand? Scifi? Mystery? Crime? A soap opera? Does your brand have a real origin story than can be called upon as a starting point for something more? Jack Daniels has used its history and people for years to market their whiskey.

Audible’s announcement today that it has partnered with Nickelodeon to make a companion podcast to its 90s horror kids anthology series Are You Afraid of the Dark? is another step towards branded audio fiction. True, it’s two organisations with a track record in creating content already, but interest is being piqued.

Branded audio fiction podcasts won’t suit every company. It seems to work best for lifestyle products and groceries and I suspect that will be the entry level to begin with. But with intelligent storytelling, great writing, amazing sound design, music and savvy audio producers, you could end up with a bespoke audio fiction podcast for your brand, available worldwide, that’s worth a fortune.  Hellooooo, Barbie’s one billion dollars.

And for a fraction of the cost of your TV advertising budget.

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