How to harness the power of Instagram

07 Jun 2017|Added Value

In the time it takes you to read this article nearly 3 million images will have been uploaded onto Facebook and more than half a million pictures carefully curated into little squares on Instagram.

That’s 350 million pictures on Facebook and 80 million images on Instagram every single day. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then … well, it’s a lot of words.

We now live in the digital age. But it is also a visual one, with lives and experiences which once would have been scribbled down in a diary late at night now lovingly recorded on social media.

Companies and organisations are responsible for a tiny proportion of these images, yet this vast stockpile of user-generated content (UGC) offers brands a huge – and largely untapped – opportunity.

Encouraged and embraced in the right way, UGC can be turned into a brand asset by businesses ready to immerse themselves in the lives and culture of the people who use their products and services.

Key to doing this is to get involved in the conversation that people are having about your brand. And if they are not having a conversation about your brand, then work out the best ways to start one.


Not all social media is the same. If Twitter is where we go to express our views and vent our frustrations, and Facebook is where we connect with friends and family, then Instagram is where we share the pictures that make us happy.

Angry about something? Send a tweet. Sharing a special moment, indulging in a little luxury, or just been served the most amazing meal out? Quick, get it on Instagram!

Instagram is the story people choose to tell about themselves, an emotional and engaging roll call of the best bits of their lives – and also the role that brands play within them.

It’s aspirational but it’s also authentic because it is coming direct from the consumer, a priceless asset in a world where people demand transparency and reliability from brands.

Not only that, the images look good. The ubiquity and ever-increasing quality of camera phones has all but obliterated the gap between “professional” and “amateur” content, as evidenced by Apple’s “Shot on iPhone” campaign.

It is no surprise, then, that UGC consistently outperforms brand creatives across a whole range of metrics.

More than four-fifths – 85% – of consumers find visual UGC more influential than brand photos and visuals, and companies see a 78% lift in conversion rates when their customers interact with it.

You will never find a better sales rep for your brand than your most loyal and engaged followers spontaneously posting unsolicited images online. It is a great picture – literally – of your brand’s earned equity.


And yet the value of user generated content for brands can extend so much further than that.

To identify and illustrate the ways in which marketers can harness the immense power of platforms such as Instagram, Kantar Added Value joined forces with visual commerce platform Olapic.

First, UGC provides direct, unmediated access to the lives of consumers and what they care about. People post content that expresses how they feel and what’s important to them in real time, constructing stories and narratives that they want to be associated with.

And unlike closed platforms such as Facebook, Instagram is like a visual version of Twitter – publicly shared content which gives us a level of rich insight that no amount of traditional market research can buy.

As an illustration of this, Kantar Added Value’s 2016 study of holiday-related images shared on Instagram helped to identify cultural trends currently shaping the world of travel and tourism.

From a starting point of collecting 20,000 posts on Instagram, a representative sample of 2,000 were semiotically analysed to explore the visual signs they employed and the meanings they created.

The growing importance of exploration for millennials was signalled by the much greater prevalence in the research of “secret urban pathways” and “back to being a caveman”.

If the exercise was to be repeated this year, comparing the new codes with the previous year would yield more insight into how these cultural spaces are evolving in the eyes of the consumer.

Secondly, companies such as Olapic now enable brands to turn some of the best UGC into fully-fledged brand assets.

Instead of creating professional content with agencies and models, brands can now get in touch with Instagram users who have already taken the perfect shot.

Considering that 70% of people are more likely to buy a product if they see a positive and relatable consumer photo, this not only saves budget but also provides your brand with the most authentic visual content imaginable.


But what if you are not trending on Instagram? What if no-one is talking about your brand, or posting images of your brand on social media?

On a tactical level, there are some simple yet effective ways in which brands can encourage people to take and share photos.

Having identified that peonies are the most featured flower on Instagram, Topshop collaborated with Bloom & Wild to create a peony-drenched “pop up shop” in London’s Oxford Circus which led to huge social media exposure for both brands.

It was an extreme and very successful example of the plethora of visual elements with an Instagram-friendly aesthetic that can have impact when deployed in the right way.

To post images about your brand and incorporate it into their online identity then people have to want to associate themselves with it.

Sure, some categories of products and services like travel, food and interior design – Look where I am! Look what I’m eating! Look where I live! – are simply more social media friendly than, say, personal hygiene or footwear.

Yet Kantar Added Value’s research demonstrated that brands in the same category can vary hugely in their social media exposure and engagement – and this is largely driven by the role they play in culture.


The question of why people are choosing not to associate themselves with your brand – and yet readily identifying with others – when creating their online selves is crucial to understanding user generated content.

Kantar Added Value conducted a comparative study looking at brands in the same category that have markedly different levels of engagement on social media. They were:

– Lush v Body Shop

– Starbucks v Costa

– Converse v Clarks

Very different sectors of the market, then, and yet similar stories emerged across all of three.

Using both semiotic analysis and image recognition technology, our research found that the most successful brands on social media are those that tap into the cultural and visual worlds in which their consumers are most interested.

Cosmetics retailer Lush is a prime example, an Instagram heavyweight that has established itself as a leading ethical and environmental champion and a focus for the campaign against animal testing.

It has moved beyond what it sells to embrace a standpoint and an attitude that reflects the concerns and desires of its customers.

Lush is also a highly distinctive presence on the high street, tapping into 1960s psychedelia and setting up its brightly coloured stores with a “market place” feel that neatly appeals to millennials’ appetite for co-operative living.

As a result, nearly 5 million Instagram posts were tagged either #lushtime or #fightanimaltesting.

By playing a clear and purposeful role in its consumers’ lives – we call it “creating cultural value” – Lush has acquired a symbolic meaning that people are happy to appropriate and incorporate into their online identity.

Compare and contrast with rival high street retailer, The Body Shop, which had just over half a million tags – a tenth of Lush – the majority of which were product-centric.

A similar pattern emerged when comparing Converse with Clarks or Timberland. Brands that are associated with a set of values and experiences beyond their category provide the perfect “raw material” for engaging, authentic and original UGC.

Other brands that have successfully created “cultural value” include Starbucks, reinventing the concept of “community”, Under Armour, with its mission to “empower athletes everywhere”, and Airbnb, championing the “anti-tourist trap travelling experience”.


The challenge is to set up your brand to be the raw material for customers’ stories, to shape your brand in a such a way that makes people want to associate with it in their online identities.

Brands have to understand and interact with the wider world in a way that is genuinely valuable and meaningful to their customers.

Clearly, connecting with culture is about more than simply increasing your brand’s Instagram following or number of hashtags.

But in an era of user and influencer driven marketing, brands have no choice but to create cultural value that goes beyond the mere fact of their products and services.

People love stories; in fact, we are addicted to them. And the best brands not only tell stories but play a role in them and connect with culture in a way that makes consumers want to weave them into their own stories. #connect

Article written by Izzy Pugh, Director of Cultural Insight & Semiotics Kantar Added Value UK for Marketing Society.

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