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Walmart’s “Outside The Box” Podcast Is Engaging, But…

It feels like the most un-Walmart piece of marketing ever.

Walmart’s “Outside The Box” Podcast Is Engaging, But…
[Photo: Francis Dean/Corbis via Getty Images]

Have you ever been to Walmart on Black Friday? Or on any day in December? Or on a Saturday afternoon in April? Now try to remember if anyone in that cart-pushing mob scene was thinking about the granular elements of retail or macro explorations of the global economy while trying to navigate their way from video games to the bread aisle.

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And yet that’s the pitch behind the podcast Outside The Box, which, created with the creative agency Omelet, looks at business issues like sustainability, American manufacturing, the workforce of the future, and more through a collection of entrepreneurs, innovators, and thought leaders. Senior Walmart staffers are seamlessly woven in among them.

The podcast recently wrapped up its first eight-episode season and will return with a second season in 2018. This should come as no surprise. As podcasts have grown in popularity, it’s inevitable that brands would find a way to get involved beyond the 20-second ad reads from hosts like Bill Simmons and Marc Maron. I’ve talked to a few brands–Virgin Atlantic, Microsoft, Blue Apron–about how and why they decided to branch out their branded content into podcasting, and they all talk about creating a more meaningful connection with consumers through quality shows.

Getting someone to listen to a podcast, let alone a whole season, requires quality storytelling over hard-selling. Outside the Box is an interesting and engaging podcast, even when it does have company folks involved because they include those we’d actually want to hear from, like chief sustainability officer Kathleen McLaughlin. It’s about as far from a sales pitch as possible.

It’s good content, but I can’t quite shake the feeling that the Outside the Box doesn’t feel all that Walmart-y. I’m not sure what that podcast would be about, but it’s tough to see how the topics and discussion here relate back to the actual consumer experience at the store. And maybe it doesn’t have to, to a point. For its part, Walmart says the podcast is about stories that align with the brand’s values, and so far, discussions have unfolded from a business perspective, not a Saturday shopper’s.

Walmart’s senior director of digital communications Chad Mitchell says the pod is part of how the brand sees itself transforming into a brand publisher. “Over the past several years, we’ve developed a strong content strategy to support that transformation and have been telling our story through blogs, videos, graphics and social posts,” Mitchell says. “A key tenet of our strategy is reaching people where they’re naturally consuming content, and all signs point to podcasts these days.”

Mitchell says the idea was to give people a better sense of what was happening within the walls of Walmart today and what Walmart stands for. “We do this through myriad ways, including direct storytelling on our own channels as well as facilitating conversations with innovators and leaders in different industries who have some commonality with our brand’s set of values,” he says. “I think our briefs to Omelet, including the one for Outside the Box, ladder back to our desire to push our brand into new media and further the way branded content can function as education and entertainment.”

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The brand has promoted the podcast openly on its social and content channels, but one thing you notice listening to it is that it’s never explicitly stated that it’s created by Walmart. I asked Omelet partner and chief content officer Michael Wallen why there isn’t any “brought to you by” moments in the show.

“We’re not shying away from the connection Walmart has to this podcast.  Our host, Charles Crowson, is a Walmart associate,” Wallen says. “And we’ve had several guests on the podcast who work at Walmart. However, our collective approach to this podcast was to simply create meaningful content that is both enlightening and entertaining. We hoped to start conversations around topics that Walmart has the credibility in facilitating, but not necessarily create a podcast that is explicitly about Walmart.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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