This week at The Word Gym we’ve been exploring the ways that food and advertising have been shaped by social media platform Instagram.

Instagram is available to anyone with access to the internet. It currently has more than 800 million users. That’s quite an audience for any brand. Among these millions of users, we identified the demographic most commonly referred to as ‘millennials’, anyone between the ages of 21 and 34, or ‘Generation Y’. Often, it is millennials’ accounts that determine trends on Instagram. A recent trend in ‘foodie’ accounts on Instagram has seen interest in healthy eating surging upwards, with anchors like #wellness and #chefmode achieving a high volume of hits every day.

The popularity of pictures showing food from almost every cuisine has led to what some market research companies are calling a wellness revolution. People are becoming more interested in eating well. Sometimes, this appears to be inspired by restaurants that create particularly effective pictures of signature dishes. More often it’s inspired by homemade food: popular Instagram users are encouraging people to prepare meals themselves.

Clearly the most attractive aspect of the Instagram world is imagery. Professional users take high-quality snapshots of what they have created or bought, making posts that are directed at their audience. Often a single account will have a consistent theme or ‘style’ of photography, and these are the ones that attract the largest followings.

Another appealing part of Instagram is more subtle. For a ‘foodie’ account to be successful, the Instagrammer doesn’t really need to be an expert in food or cooking, or even to have a particularly professional camera. They just need to take a photograph of something visually appealing and link it with the rest of their feed. So followers of an account like this can ‘eat with their eyes’, rather than going out and taking a risk with a new experience. It’s effectively online browsing, but for culinary experience rather than perpetual products.

The magic ingredient of Instagram is that anybody can use it. The lure for novice users is that they can take a nice photograph, and acquire followers easily. This gives a sense of leading the kind of lifestyle depicted all over Instagram by the most popular accounts. There is a feeling of swift, satisfying reward from the very start, and it is relatively easy to build up likes and followers. Any individual can choose exactly how to represent themselves. If they want to, they can portray a creative, idealistic lifestyle that is very different to the life they may actually be leading.

So Instagram is a huge feed of images from across the globe, snapshots taken, edited and captioned by individuals who may have a structured idea of what they are showing the world – or not. The accounts with the highest followings often catalyse trends in hashtags, and this connects their images to the millions that circulate around the network every day. A single image can gain millions of ‘double taps’ in a matter of hours. There is a correlation between what is most popular on Instagram on any given day and the adverts that appear on linked social platforms like Facebook or Pinterest.

What we noticed about the most enticing foodie accounts was that quite often, the plates, furniture and accessories that are photographed alongside the food are more important than the actual ingredients of the meal. The best photographs have food as the centrepiece, arranged in such a way that the accessories contribute to the picture. These ‘extra bits’ can also sometimes include glimpses of the Instagrammer themselves – perhaps a hand holding a mug of steaming hot chocolate, or a beautiful scarf sprawled across a table heaving with vegetable stew and freshly baked bread.

These tiny details that make a photograph special are what people use Instagram for. Every day they scroll up and down their feed, drinking in the perfect colours and perfect lighting. There is a feeling that they could enjoy a life that revolves around putting together an elaborate sushi platter or snuggling up in a mohair blanket to enjoy their espresso. But – and here’s the core genius of social media – they CAN. Of course they can enjoy that very same life. All they need to do is buy a beautiful slate platter. They just need to roll some sushi – look how easy it is – and hey presto! Not only are they eating beautiful, healthy food, which is good for all sorts of obvious reasons, but the whole world can SEE just what beautiful, healthy food they are eating. And if everyone thinks you eat healthy food and sees how beautiful your kitchen or cosy knitted blanket or special elegant lunchbox is, you implant the notion that you have attained at least part of that beautiful, healthy lifestyle.

Because the nature of Instagram is sharing. A popular figure or character on Instagram can have millions of followers who identify with – or are inspired by, or want to be – that person. Because Instagram revolves around imagery, there are a hundred possible things that a follower can do or buy or try out to be slightly more like the person they want to be. Because Instagram has such an effective reward system – you get likes, on your photo, for free – people just keep posting. By acquiring a small part of an image or a brand or a person, an Instagrammer can feel a little bit more like they have achieved the qualities they want in that person or lifestyle.

On Instagram, a brand can consistently deliver a stream of discourse through images, sponsored accounts and tags, to eight hundred million people, every day. A product can be positioned as an essential part of, or even just a small accessory to, a particular lifestyle. For example, Scandinavian culture is currently exerting a lot of influence on everything from activewear to rural adventure to cuisine. Accounts like @maaemo, @heimplanet, @roam and @douchebags all use very similar themes and photographs of iconic Scandinavian landscapes and simple, high-quality products. A lot of features of all these accounts suggest they are all addressing exactly the same niche, and yet they are all brands for completely different products. Positioning a product or service using the thematic associations of a specific culture is effective because an entire culture has a broad range of handles to exploit, such as food, weather, landscape, social rituals and travel.

Utilising, enhancing and sharing the best aspects of a culture is something that requires local knowledge, language expertise and business solutions. It also requires an understanding of the joy that a new product or place can bring to someone. I am an Instagram user myself, and with some amusement, I can see that profiles I was once stunned by are no longer enough to satisfy my socio-cultural curiosity. My social media-critical brain looks for and identifies very specific traits in a feed, and only rarely will I press ‘follow’.

In this changing age of digital marketing, being able to identify what makes a national or regional culture attractive and then personalise a product for individuals, is the holy grail of advertising. Instagram is an excellent example of the nature of modern marketing, a revolution in slow-drip advertising that specialises in tiny details, inspiration and sharing. With more than twenty-five years of experience evolving with the curve of advertising, The Word Gym already has the experience and understanding needed to showcase effective campaigns across a world of languages.

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