Last year, General Electric saw a glimpse of marketing's future in entertainment by harking back to the past. The brand teamed with its agency BBDO New York, Giant Spoon, and Slate's Panoply to launch the GE Podcast Theater with an eight-episode, fictional sci-fi thriller podcast called "The Message." The pod, utilizing storytelling techniques reminiscent of 1940s and '50s radio, was a hit, garnering millions of downloads, and a shelf-full of industry awards.
Following up a blockbuster, as any band or film director can tell you, is no guarantee of success. And now GE gets to find out if "The Message" was a one-hit wonder. The brand has unveiled its second podcast, "LifeAfter," which it describes as a "Her meets Ex Machina" AI adventure, pondering the question of what happens to our digital identities after we pass, and what role AI can play in the grieving process.
GE's head of media innovation Alexa Christon says the goal and process behind "LifeAfter" follows very closely to that of its predecessor, to tell a really good story that touches on a theme reflecting on the company's work in science and technology. For "The Message," that was sound-based medical treatments, but this time the broad theme revolves around digital twinning.
"Obviously it's completely fictional in the podcast, but from a business standpoint we talk about digital twins as the virtual twin of a physical product," says Christon. "Like a jet engine will have a digital twin of its physical object, so as that object performs and does things, the digital version will do the same thing. So from an industrial standpoint—gas turbines, jet engines, those types of big iron we talk about—the digital twin is crucial in how our customers and how we will manage efficiencies in those big iron products in a virtual way and in a virtual space."
Christon says the success of "The Message" really put a skip in GE's creative step. "I think we saw there's really a white space in storytelling, and we're pushing that even more in this second podcast," she says. "What we learned is that while the space is flooded with content, there still isn't a defined space for this fictional, dramatic radio-style storytelling, and people are really enjoying it. We also learned that people feel this one-to-one relationship with their podcast hosts, and in this space, it's almost literary, in that you set the stage, create this platform and listeners are imagining it with you, and that's compelling and exciting."
It's a basic tenet of branded content which too often, too many marketers ignore—it's the quality that generates the audience reaction you're hoping for, not the number of times you can fit a brand mention in. By being up front and clear about its involvement—it's called GE Podcast Theater, after all—then stepping aside and letting the story do the work, the brand is fostering a valuable trust with listeners.
"This is a very interesting space where people are making a very conscious choice—you have to download a podcast, you have to subscribe and listen, and creating that relationship is something that brands in general covet. How do you create that relationship? How do you provide that 'value'?" sats Christon. "The brand coming across as providing a really entertaining experience that people find fun and smart, is something we've been really excited about experimenting with."