Not every brand can (or should) open their new podcast season with a story about racial discrimination and housing in America. Rocket Mortgage did because, in a way, they kind of had to: the story serves the needs of the listeners, and the company’s brand objectives equally well.
The Birwood Wall is about two Detroit women who grew up next to a wall built to segregate a predominantly Black neighbourhood from a white one. Esther Boyd remembers her father pointing at the wall in their backyard, and telling her “You’re not supposed to cross that wall, because you’re a Negro.”
Through their memories, we learn how federal housing policies of the 1940s led to the construction of that wall, how that wall failed to do its “job”, and how it became a symbol of solidarity and history for the community instead.
From federal housing rules to redlining to predatory lending, the history of homeownership in America is rife with examples of deliberate and systemic racism that kept Black people out of the housing market. (To this day, Black families are less likely to own homes compared to White, Asian and Hispanic families.)
The Rocket Mortgage team first heard about the Birwood Wall when one of their staff mentioned that Esther Boyd was her grandmother, and that she had a wild story about a racist wall in her backyard.
Clayton Closson, Rocket Mortgage’s Brand Executive Producer, immediately saw the value in sharing that story in Home. Made.’s third season. ”It’s a very important part of American history in housing and race discrimination. Anybody can relate to somebody building a wall to keep you out when you’re not doing anything other than being yourself. We can learn from it. Right?”
Right. But for Home. Made.’s audience, this story was practically built for them. Three seasons in, Rocket Mortgage has a clear understanding of both who their listeners are, and what they want from the podcast. Listener surveys after previous seasons taught us that women, and women of colour, are the primary listeners of the show. Surveys also showed us that these listeners had developed a new perspective about the brand — an earned affinity not seen from other marketing and ad campaigns.
In that sense, we knew that a story like Birwood would serve the needs of listeners — arguably the most important element to making a successful show. So it’s not just a case of telling a story that “anybody can relate to”. It’s a story that the podcast’s specific audience will relate to.
Building that audience profile wasn’t accidental, either. Rocket Mortgage’s own research of the homebuying landscape had identified big opportunities for the company to attract a more diverse range of customers. Their marketing efforts hadn’t yet managed to really tap into that customer base. But a podcast that told stories about homes and the meaning we find in them, tailored to appeal to a diverse audience, could prove valuable.
Matt Cardwell, the company’s Publishing Editor In Chief, frames it this way: “The power of storytelling podcasts is that you can tell rich, nuanced stories that tackle important and sometimes tough subjects humanely and authentically in a way that can be much more challenging in other mediums. Once we listened to Esther and Theresa’s story, we knew we had something special. We decided to just let their story tell the story. And the result was remarkable and powerful.”
Listener metrics prove him right. Birwood Wall’s engagement (or retention) rate stands at over 92%. Season Three earned a promotional placement in Apple Podcast’s “Editor’s Choice” flowcase. The YouTube version of this episode pulled over 673K viewers — with an average listening rate of nearly nine minutes (which is bananas long for that platform).
Listener reviews confirm that the show hits the bullseye:
“When I saw this podcast came from a mortgage company I thought it was going to be one long commercial. Boy was I wrong. This podcast is really emotional and tells a ton of interesting stories about real people.” -hillyerhome via Apple Podcasts
“Not what I expected from a mortgage company . . . Definitely want the next episode and definitely recommend this podcast!” -Clayda via Apple Podcasts
“This podcast tells good stories from across the country and population, and tells them well. The Birwood Wall episode from Season 3 is especially good.” -ahickcox via Apple Podcasts
When you know your audience, you can push the boundaries of what stories you can tell. Some brands might pause or pass on highlighting a story about historical systemic racism embedded in the core of the industry they serve. Rocket Mortgage trusted that their listeners would engage, and reward the company with their attention, and their trust.
That trust is a valuable return on investment in this show. Clayton says: “the reason [homebuyers] go to other places is because they have a relationship with them. They trust them. So this was one of the many things that we’ve been doing to build a better relationship.”
Brands tie their identities and values to cultural and social issues all the time — just think of the deluge of pride-themed flags that adorn small and big businesses alike when Pride Month rolls around, for example, only to disappear by Fall. It’s easy enough to cast Black actors for an ad campaign to showcase a brand’s “diverse values”, and if such an effort is an honest reflection of a brand’s values, great. But, more meaningfully, telling a story about the racist history of the housing industry highlights that Rocket Mortgage is invested in actually understanding their customers, building a relationship and building trust.
Through Home. Made.’s stories — stories that frequently feature women, and people of colour, exploring the meaning of home — Rocket Mortgage is showing their audience that they value diversity and equality in homeownership. And because of that, the Venn Diagram of the company’s brand objectives, and the listener’s needs overlap episode after episode, not just The Birwood Wall. They demonstrate how their commitment to this audience vaults above and beyond a good story about a bad, racist wall. And when you deepen your relationship with an underserved segment of your customer base, as this show does, it’s simply good for business.
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