I was a latecomer to the podcasting trend. It wasn’t until a 16-hour drive to my home state about four years ago that I really got hooked. I listened to the entire season of “Serial” and also started binge-listening to this wonderfully weird fiction podcast.
It started with the words: “A friendly desert community, where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep. Welcome to Night Vale.”
There was a dog park where dogs and people were not allowed and government agents from a vague, yet menacing government agency and angels that can’t be angels because angels don’t exist (but there are tall winged beings, and they’re all named Erika).
Because it’s so distinctive and strange, it’s a place I would know the second I stepped across the city limit. But it’s also a place I see every day in the world around me in little details.
Both those things are true because the creators of Night Vale, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, have built a tangible, engaging world that is both strange and familiar.
Creating your brand is like building a fictional world. You have to invite your reader into a place that you’ve fully realized. There are characters and backstories and inside jokes—all shared with the reader.
Or, at least in this case, your listener. Building a world is easier when you have visuals to paint the picture. Game of Thrones is a phenomenal example of world-building, both in written and television form. It’s rich with characters, story, and context; in addition, it’s become an interactive world where the audience feels as much ownership of the story as the creator.
Building a world within a podcast is harder, because you don’t have visual cues to offer your listener. And so, how podcasts handle world building can teach us a few important lessons for brand strategy.
Using graphics, images, and other visuals is one way to build your brand, but if you rely primarily on visual cues, you may be missing some of the key points of a holistic brand strategy.
For podcasts, good writing is key. If the right words aren’t there, the podcast doesn’t work—it won’t compel the audience to keep listening. And the right words are the ones that engage you in the story and make the sound of a lone voice on the radio into a real, tangible world.
World building helps you determine how to approach your customers and how you can make all your content fit into your brand. Treating your brand strategy like world building can help you create a solid picture in your reader’s mind of who you are and how they can be a part of what you’re offering.
Let’s look at what a strange little desert town has to teach us about building a good brand strategy.
If you’re not familiar with “Welcome to Night Vale,” let me show you around the town real quick. That’s the Moonlite All-Nite Diner and over that way is the brand new Night Vale Harbor and Waterfront Recreation Area. Yes, Night Vale is in a desert. No, there’s no water at the waterfront.
Down that street is Big Rico’s Pizza. Of course, all their pizza is gluten free since the ban on wheat and wheat byproducts after all wheat and wheat byproducts turned into venomous snakes.
Old Woman Josie lives out near the car lot, and Larry Leroy lives out on the edge of town. Most interns don’t survive their internship with Night Vale Community Radio. Never look a librarian in the place where it would have eyes, if librarians had eyes.
Black helicopters are World Government. Blue ones are the Sheriff’s Secret Police. No one knows who the ones painted with complex murals of birds of prey diving belong to.
It’s weird and funny and beautiful, and as fictional as it is, it’s also very, very real to its fans.
Since its pilot episode in June 2012, Night Vale has turned into a juggernaut in the podcasting world. There’s now a parent company—Night Vale Presents—with multiple fiction podcasts (including “Within the Wires,” “Alice Isn’t Dead”) and nonfiction podcasts (including “I Only Listen to The Mountain Goats,” “Conversations With People Who Hate Me”).
The “Welcome to Night Vale” podcasts are downloaded 3.5 million times a month, and they’ve toured with live “Welcome to Night Vale” shows in 35 states and 16 countries. There are two Night Vale novels and two books with scripts from the shows and behind the scenes commentary.
People cosplay as Night Vale characters, draw fan art, and buy branded merchandise. There are heated debates as to story arcs and what characters look like.
Why are fans so loyal to Night Vale? The podcast tells a good story, authentically. The stories and the characters are memorable and feel real. The world has grown to explore new stories and characters—nothing ever feels stale. And the world of Night Vale is open to everyone.
Authenticity is a buzzword you hear a lot in brand strategy. Your brand should be authentic; so should your content.
To create authentic content, you have to know your brand. If you think of your brand as your world, then you have to build a world based on a set of rules specific to that world.
If your content strategy adheres to those set rules, your brand will come across as authentic.
For example, on Night Vale Community Radio the Weather report is always a song. In the radio station, there’s a cat floating in the men’s bathroom just over the sink. And the angels (who don’t exist because everyone knows angels aren’t real) are all named Erika.
With just a few details, Night Vale has created a set of boundaries for its world. If Khoshekh the cat suddenly appears in another building or trotting down the street, there has to be a reason that fits into the logic of Night Vale, or it becomes an inauthentic action. It would be the podcast version of TV’s “jumping the shark” where something completely out of bounds happens simply to get higher ratings.
In your brand strategy, if you don’t stick to the rules of your world—things like your voice and vision or your mission statement—you risk turning off your readers with inauthentic ratings grabs.
Your mission statement (which could be your why or your manifesto) is the foundation of your world. If your brand strategy doesn’t serve that mission, you’re breaking your own rules.
For example, think of all the brands that have attempted to act socially conscious, without backing the words up with action. Most recently, in an ad aired during the Super Bowl, Dodge tried to sell trucks with the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in an ad that featured almost no people of color. The spot backfired spectacularly because it was seen a a brand trying to co-opt the civil rights movement simply to make money.
To tell a story authentically, you have to understand the ground rules for your world and you have to understand your audience.
Part of building your world means knowing who lives in it.
I know the people in Night Vale. Dana and Carlos and Tamika Flynn—I know them all and I know them well.
Who lives in your world? Who inhabits your brand strategy? It’s not everyone because almost nothing captures everyone’s attention.
Your customers are part of your world, and you should know who they are. If you can’t describe your customer, you are likely missing out on a key audience. You’re certainly missing out on ways to engage them and sway them to whatever action you need them to take.
Creating a character for your brand can help you envision your customer base. Are they a scientist with a beautiful head of hair and perfect teeth? Are they a twelve-year-old resistance leader armed with a tote bag of heavy stones and a copy of Death Comes for the Archbishop?
Are they a community radio intern (in which case, our hearts go out to their loved ones)?
Knowing what your audience thinks, appreciates, loves, fears, and cherishes means that you know how to engage with them.
One interesting thing about podcasts is, like books, a lot of how someone pictures the world depends on their individual imagination.
The writers might give us clues through character descriptions, but even then, there is a great deal of personal experience in how we interpret that information.
The best brand strategies are collaborative. These strategies ask for and genuinely accept audience engagement. In Night Vale, one way this participation manifests is in their live shows.
The live shows are exactly like a podcast, just longer and where you can see the actors. There are no costumes or backdrops or complex lighting. But simply by inviting Night Vale fans to see what they normally only hear, the show is allowing for audience engagement.
There are multiple ways for brands to directly engage their audience these days. Social media is one of the best, and a brand that’s leading the way in engaging it’s audience is MoonPie.
No, seriously, MoonPie is one of the best Twitter accounts out there. It directly communicates with its audience via a tone that is authentic and always sticks to the rules of its brand. They do plan posts, but they also respond to the events of the day and directly to customers. And they’re strategy is working—in 2017 they saw record sales, the highest number in the company’s 100 year history.
Your readers (or your customers) will take what content you put out there and put their own spin on it. Encourage them in their effort. What they “see” may be different from what you see, and that gives you critical data about what your audience finds interesting, fun, and important.
If you’re open, you never know how your customers will add to your brand’s world. In the Night Vale FAQs, they note that so many people want to know what a certain character looks like. Their answer is: “What do YOU think they look like?”
Ask your customer to help you build your world. Your brand will be more interesting for it.
After almost six years, you might think that a brand needs a refresh. But if your brand never becomes stagnant, your refresh happens all the time.
Growing with your brand means exploring the world you’ve built. That might take the form of expanding your audience (your characters) by trying to engage a new customer segment. Or it might mean exploring a part of your brand you haven’t before.
When Welcome to Night Vale began, the conspiracy theory-heavy story and characters like agents from a vague yet menacing government agency tilted the world towards a Lost or The X Files feel. But Fink and Cranor specifically didn’t want a question in mind, like those shows were based on, when they started writing the story.
They wanted to be flexible, so they could experiment. They weren’t stuck with one kind of story because they were building a whole world instead. If they wanted to write a heist, they could write a heist. If they wanted to write a love story, they could build a love story.
On a recent WordstockPDX, Fink said,“There’s nothing in Night Vale I wouldn’t want to explore further. That’s the beauty of writing a world rather than a story.”
If you build a world for your brand strategy, you have options. You can explore in different directions and introduce new characters, all while the world still feels real and true to the existing audience.
Building a world for your brand makes that growth easier, because you have rules for your world to guide that growth.
For example, a few years ago Guinness released a commercial showing a group of guys, all in wheelchairs, playing basketball. At the end of the game, the viewer discovers that only one of the guys is permanently wheelchair-bound. The ad grows the audience for the brand by deliberately showing diversity, but it sticks to the ground rules of the world by having the ad end with the guys enjoying a friendly night out at the bar after the game.
World building is a good brand strategy. By building a world, you’re creating a place that feels real and authentic to your customer. You’re creating a set of rules by which your brand operates. And it creates an image in your customer’s mind of who you are as a brand.
If you treat your brand strategy as world building, you have the opportunity to invite your customer along for the ride. You can use their insight and individual preferences to strengthen your brand.
And if you keep your audience involved and engaged, they are more likely to stick around.
For good examples of world building, you need look no further than your favorite story.
Sarah Ramsey holds a M.A. in Science, Technology and Public Policy. She has spent most of the last two decades doing strategic communications work for space-focused organizations like NASA. She wishes she could write space-based, because if she could live anywhere else, Mars would be it. In her free time, you can find her working through a long to-be-read list and an even longer to-be-written list.