While the podcast advertising market is growing, ad performance remains notoriously hard to measure.

According to IAB, the challenge has been “for podcast producers and distributors to offer buyers a set of metrics that is consistently defined and measured equally across the podcast medium”.

As a result of difficulties relating to ad measurement in podcasts, many brands – fashion and beauty retailers in particular – have chosen to create their own podcasts instead of merely advertising via the medium. This allows retailers to gain a more accurate picture of reach, as well as greater control over messaging and tone.

Fashion retailer Pretty Little Thing is one of the latest examples to do this. Its ‘Behind Closed Doors podcast’ went straight to number one on the UK podcast charts upon its release earlier this year. Harrods is another; recently releasing a six-part deep-dive into the meaning of ‘luxury’.

So, what are the benefits for these retailers? Here’s more on the trend and the latest brands to get involved.

Harrods, M&S, Pretty Little Thing

The average podcast episode length is 50 minutes, allowing for an even longer and more immersive experience than video. Podcasts can give consumers a deep understanding of a subject or topic – one that’s usually related to the brand in question.

Harrods’ podcast, which is hosted by Mariella Frostrup, is a good example of this. A brand that’s well-known for its luxury status; the podcast allows for the exploration of luxury as a general theme, involving interviews with people within the creative industry for insight into what luxury means to them. This helps Harrods bring people closer to the brand – perhaps to dispel myths or stereotypes, as well as foster the loyalty of fans of both the brand and others like it.

Marks & Spencer is another retail brand that has used podcasts, in this case to give customers more of a behind-the-scenes look at M&S and the retail industry as a whole.

As well as the history of the high street, some episodes (of the 2018 six-part series) delved into the brand’s Plan A programme, its sustainability plan for 2025. This allowed M&S to show a different side – one that cares about issues important to the British public, something the retailer does not typically convey in its more product-focused marketing and advertising.

Pretty Little Thing has taken a targeted approach to its podcast content, tailoring it to the interests of its core audience (of young women). Each episode is centred around a theme such as feminism, social media, and careers, including interviews with relevant and high-profile influencers and celebrities.

Again, this example shows how brands are able to experiment and expand on their style in a way that other channels do not allow.

The absence of visual content allows brands to build natural relationships and affinities with audiences. Listeners feel they are getting something of real value (be that entertainment, news, or education) rather than a sales pitch.

Did Asos go too niche?

While branded podcasts are becoming more popular, there are still challenges that come along with the medium. One of the main obstacles is the time and investment needed to produce a high-quality podcast, where between 12 to 15 episodes are usually required. Similarly, the pay-off can also be a long time coming, with successful podcasts typically building audiences over time (rather than instantly).

Indeed, there have been cases of retail brands failing with podcast attempts. Asos is one, having decided to cease production of its podcast after just a year in 2016. This is perhaps surprising given the brand’s marketing prowess elsewhere, however it goes to show that podcasts are not an automatic route to success. In this case, the content – which was centred around female business owners – was perhaps too niche for the brand’s rather broad audience.

Another challenge for retailers is to get the balance right with branding. It is important for podcasts to feel authentic and valuable rather than just a vehicle for marketing. This is where natural partnerships also come into play, meaning that brands must pick and choose interviewees or collaborators based on relevancy and natural affiliation rather than overt popularity. The latter could come across as fake and therefore harm the content’s credibility, just the same as an inauthentic influencer post on Instagram might.

A chance for in-store events  

Another reason retailers are investing in podcasts is that it offers them an opportunity to bridge the gap between the online and offline worlds. Some retailers are holding or recording live podcasts in physical retail stores, which creates a ready-made in-store event.

Saks in New York is one such retailer, having launched an in-store residency for its ‘Brains Meets Beauty’ podcast this year. It records monthly podcasts on a special stage in its Fifth Avenue store, inviting fans to come along and experience the interviews. As well as fostering fan loyalty – by offering a unique and exclusive in-person event – the initiative allows Saks to enhance its store experience, creating a more creative environment.

In conclusion…

With 48 million people in the US alone listening to podcasts each week – up from 42 million in 2017 – Saks is one of the increasing number of retailers to capitalise on the growing popularity of the medium. Whether or not retailer podcasts will stand the test of time, or indeed generate large enough audiences to justify further investment, remains to be seen.

However, like video content, the effectiveness of these podcasts is likely to hang on brands investing in high-quality and engaging content – not just jumping on the bandwagon. If they do, there is no reason why podcasts won’t become a regular fixture in many more retailers’ marketing arsenal.