How Toyota uses podcasts to reveal its human side

The company launched a digital radio show to highlight important behind-the-scenes stories. The program offers significant lessons for brand managers and communicators.

Toyota podcast lessons

When Toyota decided to launch a podcast in 2018, the company had modest aspirations.

“We always looked at Season One as a pilot,” says Eric Booth, senior manager, external communications for Toyota Motor North America. “We were trying something new, and if it didn’t work out, then there is always a lesson to be learned.”

Fortunately for Toyota and its podcast “Toyota Untold,” the show took off, with over 30,000 downloads over the first season and a 4.5 star rating on iTunes. Now the show is entering Season Two with a revamped format and restructured production staff.

For communicators looking to launch a podcast, promote brand journalism and engage external and internal audiences, Toyota’s story is a trove of tips and lessons.

Why a podcast?

With something as intensive and demanding as producing a podcast, it’s important to get team members excited and engaged so they go above and beyond to create your content. In Toyota’s case, the idea for a podcast came from an internal team member who loved and consumed the format on his own.

“We put together a small team,” says Booth. “Everyone raised their hand who wanted to participate in the project, and from there we put together a lot of research and presented to our CCO, Scott Vasin, who loved the idea. He’s always pushing us to do new things and think innovatively. As far as we knew at the time, no other automaker was doing [a podcast].”

One key thing helped the podcast get off the ground: The project was a labor of love for everyone involved.

“It’s not our full-time job,” says Booth. “This something we are interested in doing.”

The internal team consists of two hosts (Kelsey Soule and Tyler Litchenberger) and two producers (Alison Powell and Sharon Hong), but it wasn’t always that way. When the show launched, everyone was doing a little of everything, which Booth likens to a youth soccer game where all the kids cluster around the ball.

Having only two hosts “really helps” Booth says. “We needed our hosts to connect with the audience a bit better and so to be able to tell more personable stories.”

Toyota works with an outside production company, Crate Media, to edit and distribute the show.

“We’re not experts in this,” says Booth. “They obviously have experience in producing podcasts, and so working with other clients they are able to inform us on what works, what doesn’t work. They obviously produce the podcast [and] edit the podcast. … We are able to get some insights from them based on their experience with other clients.”

Stories that work

Booth describes pulling the curtain back to reveal the personality and excitement that power the automaker.

“It’s trying to humanize and bring a face to Toyota,” he says. “A lot of people see these big brands, and they don’t realize that there’s a lot of the people that work for these companies that are passionate and enthusiastic, not only about (in our case) cars. Behind that there are some many things that Toyota is doing in our community, advancing safety and technology, future of mobility—you know, these bigger ideas out there.”

Booth adds that the podcast is a fantastic way to work on stories that won’t fit into quick-hit content formats.

“A lot of times these stories aren’t told or able to be told given short formats,” he says. “We can have guests on, either internal or even external guests, to help tell some of these cool stories about what we are doing here at Toyota and Lexus.”

One story that deeply resonated in Season One was that of Allyn Pierce and his “Marshmallow Toyota.”

“You may remember the brutal wildfires in Northern California last year and Allyn Pierce who owned a Toyota Tundra,” says Booth.

“He worked as a nurse at one of the local hospitals there, and as his community was burning to the ground he used his Tundra to take patients and employees to drive them down the hill to get them to safety, because emergency crews were having a hard time getting there.”

Pierce shared a picture of the crispy truck on social media, and the image took off. Toyota gave Pierce a new truck and brought awareness to the needs of the fire-ravaged communities in northern California. Then, the podcast team shared the remarkable story with its new platform.

“It turned into this fascinating story on social media, and we then interviewed him for the podcast, and that got a ton of listens and downloads,” says Booth.

Other stories that worked for the team was a show about the new Toyota Supra and Toyota’s advocacy for people with disabilities as part of the “Mobility for All” campaign.

Low risk, big reward

The podcast requires a relatively small cost for the company to engage their audience on important topics that are generally undervalued by top executives.

“Frankly, from a numbers perspective, this really isn’t a big investment,” Booth says about getting buy-in from the number crunchers.  “It’s pretty grassroots. We don’t have a full-time staff dedicated to it. This is in addition to our day jobs.”

That doesn’t mean that the team doesn’t have goals.

“We look at this as a platform to inform, engage and entertain,” says Booth.  “We certainly did that with Season One, and now we are into Season Two.”

Which metrics indicate success? Booth starts with the 30,000 downloads the first season achieved and hopes to boost that number for Season Two.

“We want to increase our downloads and subscribers,” says Booth. “Through the Apple platform there was some good feedback on there and a good rating on that. We obviously want to continue that.”

However, some benefits are harder to quantify but no less gratifying to the production team.

“We’ve heard from people globally,” says Booth. “We’ve heard from other big-name brands outside of the automotive industry who have said, ‘We want to start a podcast; can you walk us though how you were able to do it?’”

The success has been a welcome surprise. “I think we are having this impact that we weren’t thinking of,” Booth says. “We just wanted to do something fun and neat and different.”

Short and sweet

For communicators who want to launch their own podcasts, Booth recommends paying careful attention to performance metrics.

“We realized that [in] Season One we ended up with very long episodes,” he says. “Most of them were over an hour long, and in that hour we combined multiple topics. What happened, unfortunately, was that listeners started to tune out about halfway through, and by doing that they missed some really good content at the end.”

For Season Two, the team decided to break things up, keeping each episode tightly focused to hold listener attention.

“We’ll focus on one topic per episode, and we will make it about 30 minutes long,” Booth says. “Hopefully, right there we will see some listeners stick around.”

Booth also argues that a regular posting cadence is better for expanding an audience.

“Rather than launching every three to four weeks, we now have a planned schedule through the end of May that we will be launching an episode every two weeks,” he says. If that’s successful, the team might try to publish weekly.

A few quick tips

Booth has a couple of concrete pieces of advice for would-be podcasters.

“Be as planned as you can,” he says. “Have a team structure in place to help divide and conquer the various responsibilities from hosting to producing.” He says that when his team was doing a little of everything, the work became too much, especially because podcasting was a passion project on top of their regular responsibilities.

“In general, have fun with it,” Booth adds.

He also suggests you lean into your organization’s inherent strengths.

“Use your experts inside the company,” he says. “We’ve done that before, where we have one of our internal subject matter experts on along with an external guest, and it’s a nice play there on whatever topic.”

However, he says, don’t feel constrained by your product line or industry focus.

“Explore different avenues and subjects beyond what your company is known for,” he says. “In our case, it’s cars, and they are very important, and we will continue to tell the car story, but what’s behind the brand? Peel that onion a little bit, and go a little deeper.”

You can listen to episodes of Toyota’s podcast “Toyota Untold” on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and Google Podcasts.

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