Last year, Instagram reached over 17 million people in Japan, with exceptionally high rates for younger female users. What makes Instagram especially appealing to brands is its correlation with shopping behaviour. According to one survey, over a quarter of Instagram users in Japan bought food or cosmetics they first saw on the platform. Twitter might be used for news value, Line for keeping in touch with friends, but the potential to monetise on Instagram seems to empower consumers and mobilise brands in ways the Japanese government, for years, just couldn’t.
The famous U-Can “word of the year” for 2017 was awarded to insutabae (“Instagenic”) —a neologism for products or services that generate amplified Instagram appeal. While in other markets this trend might be perceived more cynically, in low consumer confidence Japan, it’s a beam of hope for marginalized younger consumers.
“Our shopping motivation is low,” said Japanese actress Mami Nakamura to the national broadcaster NHK, “but by merely taking pictures, this growing movement of people in their 20s understands that it can finally make an actual, lasting impact”. Being an entrepreneur does not really resonate with younger Japanese, but being an “influencer” certainly does.
At AKQA, our consumer research taught us that while monetising on the platform might be a long-term bonus, the initial impetus for users’ sharing on Instagram is invariably value-based: participation, reciprocity and the chance to shape culture are just as valid in Japan, as they are elsewhere.
However, we also see a clear pattern in the ways brands tap into the platform’s evolution. This interplay between powerful brands and consumers on Instagram is socially and culturally significant, and done meaningfully, can create added value for both. So, how did this relationship begin, and more importantly, how can it grow?
The consumer evolution: “Take better pictures”, “get inspired”, “tell better stories”
The game of branding for Instagram is built on a simple old trope of content and context. Brands mould their content to feel more “native” to the platform and then integrate it into users’ lifestyles or needs. Looking at Japan, people initially join Instagram simply “to take better pictures”. Taking this statement at face value, brands started by providing users with “branded” opportunities to do so: the in-store photo prop is an exhaustively used method, and the photo contest campaign is another expression of this strategy. We still saw many of these in 2017: the fearless girl, for example, was a powerful, well-placed prop, drawing all types of media and user-generated attention. In Japan, photo contests became so pervasive that they even got into people’s private bathrooms, with Panasonic’s “let’s make our bathroom the best room in the house”.
The more experienced Instagram user often starts “to seek inspiration”. Instagram itself started acknowledging early on that as the platform matures, evermore creative users get a larger portion of community attention. Sharing its stage with up-and-coming users, the brand’s official account quickly became the most influential on the platform.
Brands’ “influencer” strategies try to follow the same logic, entrusting some of their marketing efforts to “influencers”. The reasoning is usually along the lines of “let’s pick an influencer that fits our style, identity or message and market through them or to them”. This simple, yet fatal, mistake derives from putting “influence” before “inspiration”, instead of vice versa. Influence on Instagram starts with decentralised inspiration that does not require validation. The solution for this common failed strategy can be found in the newer consumer motivation: “to tell better stories”.
Visual storytelling and the future of brands
Naturally, storytelling in the age of Instagram increasingly means visual storytelling. Typeface and color palate are still there, but the way these building blocks are shared and used in a community is different to the messaging brands are used to. In our projects, we constantly see how these closely protected brand elements work well when they are given away, allowing people to build their own stories. Instagram might be communicating endless inspiration, but its brand power lies in its limitations—defining only eight face fillers, or only enabling video of between three and 60 seconds.
Take a look at the viral 7 days in 7 B&W pictures challenge, or the cute Desserted in Paris Instagram account that uses only two props, shoes and desserts, to tell a Parisian story. Tasty’s hyperlapse videos with simple hand movement and first-person perspective shooting created the master brand that gave way to Tastemade or Tasty Japan. Brands are first and foremost stories, but what makes these stories brand-ownable is the way they are told. All the rest belongs to users.
This is, in a nutshell, the strategy for successful brands on Instagram in 2018. Don’t see “influence” as platform power or following. Don’t use “key opinion leaders”, “micro”, “second tier” or “influencers”. The only meaningful connection possible between brands and people is based on the premise that both communicate and understand each other through stories told at eye-level.
In its 2016 IPO, Snap stated that it is “a camera company”, acknowledging that camera technology and use will define future human communication. Despite never being profitable, Snap’s idea revolutionised thinking across social media platforms. In Japan as well, we see Instagram Stories increasingly growing and with it, Instagram’s ability to tell more elaborate, personal stories. Instagram even has the potential to become an alternative to streaming services with richer, sequential narratives in compact form. If anything, brands should look for complementary grand and micro-narratives instead of the of big or small “influencers”. Through this process, brands can stay ahead in building meaningful relationships, instead of only producing short-lived, instutabae glory.
|Omri Reis a strategic planner at AKQA Tokyo. This piece was written as part of the AKQA Insights initiative and offering.|