That President Barack Obama said the n-word earlier this week while making a point about racism in America understandably made headlines. That he said it during his appearance on WTF with Marc Maron, an appearance that certainly helped Maron's brand skyrocket, makes sense, too.
Maron, 51, has become known for his unique interview style on his podcast—he works to make a personal connection with his guests during a long-form, sometimes provocative interview, that often isn't informed by research. It's a style that could be comforting or discomforting, depending on the guest, and one that breeds conversations that feel well earned.
"I think what resonates with people is kind of raw honesty and authenticity," said Maron from New York. "If anything defines whatever the brand is, or if anything defines the success that I have in talking to people in interviews, it's that there seems to be something very personal and raw in how I engage with people."
What began in 2009 as a show with philosophical segments, seeking answers about how to live in the world, has morphed into an interview show with celebrity guests who know that an interview with Maron will delve into the personal. With roughly 5 million downloads per month and an average of 450,000 downloads per episode, according to Maron's business partner Brendan McDonald, the show, which is usually recorded inside Maron's Los Angeles garage, has helped cement the host as a brand and generate a rapid fan base.
"People have asked me about who listens, and I say I don't really have a demographic," said Maron. "I have a disposition that sort of travels through all ages and isn't gender specific. The type of stuff I'm expressing in terms of my struggle or my concerns, my neurotic ramblings about trying to exist in the world, resonate with people of all ages, all sexes. It's sort of astounding."
According to McDonald, the WTF audience senses that Maron isn't a guy who'll just take a paycheck, and that helps foster a relationship between performer and listener.
"Marc is a very loyal guy," said McDonald, who explained that Maron's WTF logo, created by illustrator and friend Nathan Smith, hasn't changed since the show's inception for a reason. "The thing we first noticed when we started back in 2009 was that most of [the podcast logos] were photos of the host, and we just would notice those little thumbnail tiles up on iTunes. We could really see a difference with that image from the things that were surrounding it. Marc's attached to [the logo] much the same way you would be to an old car."
"Everything he's doing has his personal stamp on it," said McDonald, who, until last year, ran much of the show's advertising. The podcast is now represented by Midroll, the podcast advertising network, which books brands like Naturebox and Blue Apron spots on Maron's bi-weekly show.
According to Maron, there was no real discussion about what his brand would be. "With branding there's usually some sort of intention in it," he said. "People sat around and said, 'What is this brand; how does it fit into the world?' Whatever brand I have it just evolved out of my own sense of place in the world, out of my own point of view."
But even if the comedian wasn't trying to build a brand, he has built one—and a successful one at that. It has taken him beyond his garage. Not only does he have a scripted TV show on IFC, now in its third season, but he's also working on a new portrait show for Vice—a show that takes the ethos behind his podcast and attempts to do the same for television—and taking his stand-up on the road this summer.
Still, Maron's found the most success in his garage, and that's where Obama wanted to do his interview. According to McDonald, the White House contacted the show roughly a year ago, and the idea of interviewing someone was tossed around for months. It wasn't until March of this year that the possibility of an interview with Obama seemed possible.
"We thought it was crazy, and we didn't think that was something that would really wind up happening," said McDonald. "We thought it would get to a point where they'd say, even though they were in L.A., that we should come over to the Beverly Hilton or something."
McDonald dealt with the nuts and bolts—working with the White House advance team, the White House press team and the Secret Service—to get the garage ready for the interview. McDonald also contacted Midroll to rearrange some of the podcast's ad placements—they're booked through November—to make sure Maron's interview with Obama wouldn't have commercial interruptions. Midroll was able to secure Squarespace as an exclusive sponsor for the episode, and now the advertising network has referred to the episode as the "Super Bowl of Podcasting."
"His brand is totally linked to his ability to get people to talk in a way they haven't talked before," said Allen Adamson, North American chairman at brand consulting firm Landor Associates. "He's got a bit of an edge now. To get Obama to let down his guard—that's what makes a great interviewer."
Alison Burns, global client services director at JWT, noted that the interview works to Obama's advantage too. "I actually think the interview says more about Obama's brand," said Burns. "He has consistently demonstrated a confident, modern approach to the media that certainly few of his predecessors have had. Whether it's this interview or Between Two Ferns, Obama is at ease with the spontaneity and quick thinking required for today's media landscape, and its one of the many reasons he's renovated the image of the presidency and made it seem much more youthful."
For Maron, who was stunned that the president wanted to come to his home, being asked to interview him was an honor. "As an American, maybe the child in me or just being brought up in this country, the idea that the president of the United States asked to talk to me is just overwhelming," said Maron. "I don't know that I was thinking [about my brand], but now I'm a guy that's interviewed a president—the president, a sitting president."
Now, some things might have to change for future guests. "Bottom line is unless someone has a pretty good excuse, they've got to come to the house," Maron said.