Why we’re not interested in making your brand’s 10-part lifestyle podcast

The team behind Waitrose’s chart-topping show Dish on how brands can engage with audio

When an email from Waitrose marked ‘branded podcast pitch’ hit our inboxes at S:E Creative Studio HQ, we felt equally excited and nervous. Excited, because Waitrose makes great content like the Waitrose Weekend newspaper, and nervous because branded podcast briefs are rarely great. Was this going to be another great disappointment?

In my experience, most branded podcast briefs get developed because somebody in the marketing team loves podcasts (not a bad thing) and they have some campaign budget left to be experiential. Then they ask: “Can you make an eight-part series, like Desert Island Discs, but about our brand instead?” 

But this brief had a different ambition. Waitrose said: “In three years can you build us the UK’s number one Food and Drink podcast?” The team recognised that it could establish a new kind of relationship with its audience, and build a new loyal fanbase through high-frequency conversation. In a highly fragmented world, where it’s hard to win the loyalty and attention of anyone, podcasts offer something unique and valuable: regular, undivided audience attention. 

And so Dish was born. Hosted by broadcaster Nick Grimshaw and Michelin Star chef Angela Hartnett, it aims to feel like you’re part of an intimate dinner party with Waitrose food and recipes and entertaining chat from celebrity dinner guests such as Stanley Tucci, Alison Hammond, Chris Evans, David Harewood and Mary Berry.

We undertook a lot of initial research as part of the journey of launching Dish a year ago - and after serving up three seasons of 30-minute episodes, we’ve picked up some tasty insights for advertisers along the way. 

Focus on the fans

If you want to make a successful podcast, study how the market behaves. The majority of successful podcasts are long-running shows, because it takes time to establish an audience, and quick wins are rare unless you’re Peter Crouch. Podcasts are not an easy medium to casually sample. It’s why so many have loyal listener communities, and so much of the market is driven by word of mouth. True fans can’t stop talking about the podcasts they love. Successful short-run shows are only produced by a handful of brands like BBC Sounds and Gimlet, who have the time, investment and risk profile to produce well-researched, highly impactful shows that drive both buzz and the news agenda. 

On top of adopting an 'always on' format, many successful shows are now also franchises with major social followings, and they build loyalty through multiple touchpoints like live events and merchandise. A franchise becomes a virtuous circle, building more opportunities for fans to engage with the show. The stronger the relationship you build, the more they talk about you, and the more you attract other listeners.

Invest in production values

It’s hard to stumble upon a podcast, but there are other ways to reach potential audiences beyond word of mouth, and social media can help serve up content samples to like-minded people, so create video content that can compete on social channels if you want the benefit of a platform’s distribution. Investing in the visuals is key. We record Dish in a TV studio, and film it in social media format so our content travels. Audiences like it, and so do algorithms; every week, we generate over 500,000 organic video views across key social platforms.

The problem with podcasts is that anyone can make one, anywhere, with inexpensive kit; crafting a well-researched, visually interesting conversation costs, but it’s worth it. If you want to grab listeners, put the audio craft front and centre, work with experienced people who can create tight, impactful conversations, and take time in the edit. There’s a lot of lazy air in many shows out there, but the average listening time is around 30 minutes, so why are so many so long? If listeners complete your show, they’re more likely to come back, so give them the satisfaction of episodes with a clear start and end. The podcast market roughly follows the Pareto principle: 80% of the audience listen to 20% of the shows; you’re competing with the top 20%, so act like it.

Serving Dish listeners with just the right amount of Waitrose

Podcast audiences can be skeptical, and not many brands succeed in this space. So be authentic, treat your audience with care, and let the brand come through the conversation naturally. Mainstream audiences don’t want to listen to ads, so ensure your content doesn’t sound like one - on Dish, we consciously avoid carrying the kind of sonic branding you often hear in adverts.

Instead, we let the content speak for itself. Waitrose is known for its high-quality produce and exceptional customer service, so through our host Angela, we provide the kind of food expertise Waitrose is famous for. The recipes that Angela cooks up on the show fit our audience’s lifestyle and budgets, and when she talks about the food, it’s obvious to listeners that it’s come from Waitrose; because the show delivers a Waitrose-type experience, we don’t need to brand the hell out of the content. Also, our initial audience research helped us to match the kind of convivial tone that our Waitrose-shopping listeners want to create when entertaining friends at home. 

We're still not quite the biggest food and drink podcast in the UK, but we're not far off. And through patience and planning, Waitrose achieved its listener targets two years ahead of schedule. Every week we’re growing and learning, as we refine our guest choices and menus. It’s proof that brands can break through to mainstream audiences in the podcast space, if they learn from the market.