How Auto Trader sees podcasting as a brand engagement vehicle

The online car marketplace sees its podcast on a par with TV ads

Whether it's commuting to work or picking up the kids, many people in the UK spend a lot of time in their cars, so it's no surprise that it's the third most popular place to listen to podcasts, with 18% of listeners using them to brighten up their drives, according to the latest Rajar MIDAS data.

This wide appeal is part of the reason why online car marketplace Auto Trader decided to make podcasting one of its key marketing vehicles for 2023, partnering with branded podcast agency Fresh Air Production to create Show On The Road - an eight-part series which sees podcaster and presenter Alex Legouix taking celebrities including Gogglebox’s Scarlett Moffatt, Lioness Jill Scott and comedian Iain Sterling on a personalised road trip in their dream car, driving around some of the most important places from throughout their life. 

The goal of the project was to reach out to a broader audience beyond the demographics that have traditionally engaged with the brand, particularly young people and those that aren’t especially interested in cars themselves. 

“Because of our heritage, a lot of people have perceptions of Auto Trader as this old dusty brand that's just for people who like cars,” says Rachel Bickler, senior brand executive for the company. “And actually, that's not the case.”

To drive this point home, the team deliberately selected celebrity guests that don’t really care about cars - and in fact, Bickler says they even had to cancel some appearances from prospective guests who turned out to be a little too close to the brand’s traditional audience of so-called “petrol-heads”.

“Rachel kind of came up with this great phrase partway through the process, which was ‘just enough car’,” explains Auto Trader senior creative James Sims-Williams. “Although we said no to some celebrities who we thought might be very car-focused, we've actually ended up with Francis Bourgeois in particular - who is very interested in cars - and we've actually done a lot of work to minimise those parts of the final product that talk about cars.”

Although Show On The Road is the brand’s first major foray into podcasting, the company has attempted to create a podcast on a number of previous occasions, Sims-Williams says.

“We've kind of had this multi-year process of becoming more and more aware that it's something we should do,” he says, “and we've just got to a point where we're so clear that there's new audiences for us to access, that there was really no reason not to be doing it anymore.” 

Part of the reason why none of the brand’s previous attempts ever made it to release, Sims-Williams says, was the lack of a “concrete idea” for what an Auto Trader podcast should be or who it should be for, which ultimately led the company to partner with an external production agency.

“It's something that really takes quite a lot of resource and attention to do right, so in the end, I think we realised that it's not something we wanted to take lightly. And actually, we didn't necessarily have the specialist expertise in-house to get one off the ground - certainly not in the way that we would want to as Auto Trader, in a way that felt right to go big.”

From the outset, he says, the partnership between Auto Trader and Fresh Air was extremely collaborative, to the point where the two parties were workshopping potential format ideas during the first meeting. 

“I think we felt from that moment, as soon as we stepped out of the room, that we could work with Fresh Air in the way Auto Trader wants to work, which is being very hands-on and collaborative,” Sims-Williams says, “and it's been like that the entire way through the process.”

One of the main benefits of the road-trip format that emerged from this collaboration, says Michaela Hallam, Fresh Air’s director of content, is the vulnerability and candour that it brought out in the show’s celebrity guests. It also led to a number of unique organic moments, such as Scarlett Moffat recognising her former maths teacher out the window.

“You have conversations on a road trip that you wouldn't have anywhere else,” she explains, “and it's allowed us to get stories from people that they haven't had when they've done the sofa circuit or the studio circuit elsewhere.”

However, while it may have been great for the content, this format presented significant complications from a recording perspective. In addition to recording both Legouix and her guest while driving - often in older cars with noisy engines and poor sound insulation - Fresh Air also had to ensure clear and safe two-way communication with a support vehicle, with multiple backups and failovers for all systems. The cars themselves were also a factor; on one shoot, Bickler recalls, the car repeatedly failed to start.

“It is categorically the most technically challenging project we've ever worked on,” Hallam says, “and we've had to evolve and invent to a degree as we've gone. We did so many test runs - our team went round the ‘magic roundabout’ in Swindon several times testing things out.”

The technical setup also included full multi-camera video recording, but while video was built into the campaign from day one, Sims-Williams says the plan was never to publish the show in full as a video podcast. Instead, the footage is being used to create social clips to promote the podcast on platforms such as Instagram and TikTok. 

“We've just really tried to think about each channel specifically,” Bickler says, “and think about how we can make it a branded campaign across all of our consumer marketing and touchpoints, and not just a podcast that sits in the audio space.”

The Auto Trader team put a lot of thought into the campaign’s goals, but while they included targets for things like total downloads and follow rate, more weight was given to depth of engagement, listen-through rate and audience demographics.

The podcast was designed to reach an audience that was 50% female and 50% under the age of 45, and Sims-Williams says that the podcast is already exceeding both of these metrics, as well as hitting over 1.2 million views across the supporting social video content for the campaign. 

“The amount of time that consumers have engaged with the brand in listening through to the end of the podcast is incredible,” Bickler, says. “It massively shows the value in doing podcasting, because we don't usually get people spending that much time on site or with our content.” 

As with most marketing campaigns, Sims-Williams says he would love for clips from the podcast to go viral - and one of the biggest potential drivers of this is an activation the brand has planned for the final episode of the series. Throughout the campaign, the brand has run themed giveaways tied to each guest - such as a series of salsa lessons to promote the episode with Strictly Come Dancing’s Gorka Márquez - and for TikTok chef Poppy O'Toole’s episode, the team decided to do something special.

O'Toole has become known for potato-based recipes, and when she mentioned that she’s always dreamed of owning a Smart Car, Bickler was struck by an idea for a unique competition.

“All I could think about was, how many sweets can you put in a jar? And then when she said Smart Cars, like, ‘oh my god, I wonder how many potatoes we could fit in the Smart Car?’”

The answer to that question is still unknown, apart from the independent adjudicator they brought in to determine how many potatoes it took to fill O’Toole’s Smart Car to capacity. When the episode is released, listeners will have a chance to guess; whoever gets it right will win the car itself.

It’s an unusually large-scale activation for a branded podcast, but Auto Trader has approached the campaign with sizeable ambitions, according to Sims-Williams, going far beyond a line on a media plan. In fact, he says, the company envisaged the project as a multi-series endeavour from the outset.

“We've always had our eyes on this being a longer game where we develop something over multiple series. So although we've not commissioned a second series, yet, it's something that's always been in our heads. And it's something that, certainly with the success that we're seeing already, we think we will want to build on - and potentially soon.”

“We've had the same vision and ambition with this as we would any other campaign,” he says. “We want people to see this in the same way we want people to see a TV ad we've made; it’s that important.”