The Rise of the Social Brand: What Instagram Reveals About Connecting with Customers

The baby-blue bears were first sighted in 2016. They appeared in Instagram posts from no fewer than three Kardashian sisters. Soon, Vanessa Hudgens, Emily Ratajkowski, and a host of other celebrities supplied their own Instagram endorsements. In the months that followed, SugarBear Hair vitamins would become the “bestselling hair vitamin online,” – a distinction the brand still claims today.

In addition to its illustrious influencers, the brand’s own Instagram account presents a fascinating landscape of fantasy. Pink and blues collide in surreal product arrangements and model headshots, an aesthetic that’s equal parts Cosmo and Candy Land. Each time SugarBear Hair adds a new post, a clamor of comments erupts from the brand’s 2 million followers.

But among medical experts in hair care, the gummies prompt more confusion than enthusiasm. Doctors and nutritionists note the vitamins are similar to other supplements on the market at a chemical level. Compared to many of these alternatives, however, the gummies are quite expensive: $30 for a one-month supply.

According to the basic laws of supply and demand, therefore, SugarBear Hair should have failed spectacularly. Clearly, the company owes more to the brand it’s built on Instagram than the literal content of its products.

Nicole Rogers, a dermatologist and faculty member at the Tulane University School of Medicine, expressed her bafflement at the supplement’s success. “Why can’t you just take a multivitamin?” she asked.

New Platform, Same Branding Truths

For many marketers, trends like the ascendancy of SugarBear Hair can seem both inexplicable and intimidating. The mechanics of viral appeal on social media remain elusive, even to those with vast expertise in older platforms.

How could such a groundswell of interest build around a single product – a gummy lacking any intrinsic innovation? How did SugarBear Hair determine the surreal aesthetics on display in their posts?

To marvel at these questions is to admit a humbling reality. Although Instagram is rapidly becoming a primary channel businesses use to engage customers, the platform’s branding best practices are often surprising – and always subject to change.

Many brands have attempted to purchase a valuable social media presence, spending massively on advertising. But this expensive approach to exposure may only offer diminishing returns in the years ahead.

In fact, one recent study found about three-quarters of users aged 16 to 39 were sick of brands targeting them in their feeds. Additionally, advertising costs on Instagram and Facebook are inflating quickly, as more brands bid for a limited inventory.

This social media advertising aversion has prompted an alternative strategy: influencer marketing. SugarBear Hair may be among the most visible practitioners of this approach, but massive brands and startups alike are paying popular social media users for an introduction to their followers. As the practice becomes universal, companies are exploiting even smaller spheres of influence: micro-influencers, who speak to a specific community of interest.

Of course, users will probably tire of these tactics as well, finding their favorite accounts overcome by corporate influence. More importantly, broad adoption will lead to intense competition and declining ROI – consumers can only respond to so many calls to action at once. A passing endorsement won’t do: Real influence will depend on execution.

In this sense, Instagram and other social media channels produce the same essential challenge for brands as other platforms: making an impression in our ruthless “attention economy.” And cutting through the noise doesn’t mean shouting louder. Rather, brands need messages worth listening to.

No matter how Instagram’s features evolve in the years to come, an effective social strategy will always depend on an authentic connection with customers. Too often, marketers obsess about the latest tactics and trends, fearful of losing ground to competitors. But if these efforts become unmoored from the emotional reality of their audience, real engagement won’t result.

Our Brandtrust team has been exploring the emotional and psychological needs of consumers for nearly two decades – long before social media established its present dominance. Our approach entails using the research methods of the social sciences to deliver brand strategy insights.

Years of partnership with some of the world’s most respected companies have taught us a powerful lesson: Although technology may change, human truth remains vital. Social platforms offer a new set of tools to engage customers, but they won’t compensate for basic strategic liabilities.

In Instagram, our team sees an opportunity for brands to practice the principles that will fuel their success more broadly. Social media requires the proper application of branding essentials, rather than an entirely new playbook.

Seen in this light, the basics of Instagram engagement become comprehensible – and powerfully actionable. But marketers must first embrace the real drivers of brand identity before developing their social media strategy accordingly.

This post will present some of our team’s core conclusions about brand building, developed over years of rigorous exploration research. In conjunction with each concept, we’ll demonstrate how some of the most admired social media brands are practicing these principles on their Instagram accounts.

With these models in mind, you can begin to grow true audience engagement – on Instagram and beyond.

branding essentials to apply on instagram

Branding Essentials: Applied on Instagram

The Brand Is the Business

Often, business leaders adopt a tight operational focus, prioritizing metrics related to margins and pricing. By managing these practical concerns, proponents of this approach suggest a business can offer an optimal price point, thereby retaining or expanding its base of customers.

Marketers are often also swayed by this perspective as well. For this cohort, “branding” describes little more than superficial considerations, such as logo design or ad copy.

In this view, customers are rational creatures, driven by predictable incentives like low prices and new features. For some businesses, this assumption is so fundamental that it goes entirely unquestioned.

So why do the world’s most powerful companies practice a fundamentally different mode of building relationships with their legions of loyalists?

If consumers are motivated by the results of a rational comparison, what explains the dedicated following enjoyed by Nike? If shoppers judge value in logical terms, why do they pay more for a cup of coffee at Starbucks than they would anywhere else?

These questions echo the amazement voiced by hair experts about the meteoric rise of SugarBear Hair. Why would that company cause such a stir when similar supplements have long been available at far lower prices?

The answer lies in the power of branding to elevate the appeal of commodities. Beloved brands have established connections with consumers that are more than merely transactional. They are exempted from the inevitable slashing of margins and diminishing marketing ROI that commodity businesses experience.

Essentially, a strong brand is the essence of sustainability for any business. It is the guard against competitors who seek to lure away customers. And it is the guiding light for continued growth and customer engagement. In other words, think less about what you’re selling and more about what you stand for.

Instagram Application: King Arthur Flour

King arthur flour instagram

Some products are easy to dismiss as commodities, and flour is a prime example. So you might be surprised to learn that King Arthur Flour has been massively successful in building a trusted brand – and has found a new voice for its values on Instagram.

Founded in 1790, King Arthur proudly proclaims itself as the nation’s first flour company. A brand with that laudable history might be content to rest on its laurels. But the company has continually employed social media to connect with its present customers. As an employee-owned business, the brand embraces a “bakers at heart” persona, which its Instagram account faithfully honors.

King Arthur’s following is about a lot more than food – although it’s hard to beat its delectable images. The brand’s 200,000+ followers are drawn in by a mutual love of baking, as evidenced by the way they feature customer creations.

King Arthur’s history supplies customers with the confidence needed to take on a new culinary task: You can count on us, as countless bakers have before. But its images also capture the wholesome joy and excitement of freshly baked goods. In other words, the brand transforms a commodity into a sense of promise.

If a company dating back decades can successfully adapt its brand to Instagram, you can too. But first, you’ll need more insight as to how brand connections truly function.

Feelings First

Clearly, reducing customer choice to rational impulses can be unhelpful. But if practical advantages don’t fuel the loyalties of fans to their favorite brands, what does? Simply put, the most valuable customer relationships are founded on feeling.

In the minds of consumers, brands are defined by associations stemming from past impressions or interactions. Cumulatively, these various associations form what neuroscientists call “heuristics,” or mental models that ease the brain’s cognitive load.

If humans had to individually consider each choice the world required, we’d quickly become overwhelmed. So evolution supplied us with a system of instinctive attraction and aversion, which functions below the level of rational thought. Although we’re never privy to how these heuristics function in our own brains, they represent the vast majority of our neural activity.

Accordingly, businesses should be very concerned with the heuristic function of their brands. And brand associations manifest in the customer experience as emotion.

Brands prosper or perish based on how they make their customers feel, rather than the tangible qualities of their products. Apple devices do function beautifully, but the brand’s true product is the feeling of holding the gadgets they create.

When lines snake around the block each time the company releases a new iPhone, it’s not because consumers are desperately dissatisfied with the previous model. Rather, they seek the feeling of possessing the future in present, an association both delightful and deeply embedded. What emotional reaction does your brand inspire, even at a level customers struggle to describe?

Instagram Application: Airbnb

Airbnb instagram application

Airbnb could easily have adopted a facts-first approach to its social channels. Posts might have emphasized potential savings relative to hotels in popular locations or championed the company’s surging number of hosts and guests.

Instead, Airbnb’s Instagram account grew an audience of 3 million followers by skipping the facts and figures and inspiring adventure envy. Virtually every post reveals a slice of life in some remote corner of the world, allowing viewers to imagine themselves inhabiting those appealing realities.

The emotions these posts inspire are varied, ranging from exaltation to introspection. But their cumulative effect is unmistakable: In emotional terms, Airbnb and exploration are practically synonymous. How could a hotel possibly hope to compete?

The resulting engagement has resulted in tangible gains for Airbnb, with countless outlets championing the brand’s elevated sales figures in case studies. But more importantly, the brand’s Instagram cements a powerful emotional connection with its target audience.

Stories Stick

If great brands thrive on emotional connections with consumers, what’s the best way to engage your audience? Emotional resonance is a lofty standard, and you’ll need the right communication strategy to reach it.

Clearly, many companies have tried to make lasting impressions. Additionally, so many fail by producing generic, forgettable appeals for attention. Their basic error in messaging isn’t about the specific information they offer. Rather, they fail because they’re neglecting to tell a story.

Narrative is the universal language. A preference for stories is embedded deep within us: We’re fascinated with the books our parents read to us before we could even speak. But beyond our basic enjoyment of stories, they’re also an extremely effective means to communicate ideas. Unlike separated bits of information, stories help us grasp and retain concepts.

The greatest brands tell stories, and these narratives feature themselves and their customers in collaboration. But these stories are more an invitation than a conclusion: They invite the customer to join the tale as it unfolds.

Instagram Application: GoPro

Gopro instagram application

With nearly 14 million followers, GoPro’s broad appeal is undeniable. That’s largely because of a powerful approach to engaging its audience: telling the brand’s story by sharing the adventures of its customers.

In many of its posts, the brand features photos of adventurous folks – whose exploits have been captured on GoPro cameras, of course. Each image encapsulates the brand’s essential promise: Life’s most extreme and exciting moments can be shared and cherished.

Every post gives proof to this potential, as the brand gives its fans a chance to celebrate their shared pursuit of thrills. But the story still feels beautifully unfinished: What will GoPro users capture next?

Moreover, the brand’s Instagram practically begs for customer participation. Could yours be the next adventure it features? The most emotionally powerful brand stories are the ones in which customers play a part.

Values Over Products

On Instagram and dozens of other digital and traditional channels, brands constantly clamor for consumers’ cash. Predictably, we tire of being treated as targets. We hope our spending can say something about us – and not just that we’ve been badgered into buying.

Indeed, modern consumers see purchases as opportunities to express their values. But brands that fail to embrace a higher purpose will never form such connections with their customers. Whatever the intrinsic qualities of your product or service, deep customer loyalty can only result from a sense of shared priorities.

What purpose should form the bedrock of brand identity? Some businesses, like TOMS Shoes or Warby Parker, develop models devoted to altruistic efforts. But honoring purpose can also simply consist in dedication to ideals that consumers appreciate.

Zappos, for example, evinces the values of generosity and kindness through unmatched customer service. Similarly, Starbucks projects the importance of comfort and community through the “third place” environment the company meticulously creates in each store.

Where can your brand values intersect with the psychological and emotional needs of your customers? Their connection to your brand should feel like an affirmation of their own convictions.

Instagram Application: Lorna Jane Activewear

Lorna jane activewear instagram application

Instagram can seem to promote regressive standards of beauty: Scroll through enough heavily filtered pictures of fitness models, and it’s hard not to feel a bit discouraged. But Lorna Jane Activewear treats its 800,000+ followers to a more inclusive vision of the active lifestyle.

The brand has drawn effusive praise for its body-positive Instagram presence, which showcases the beautiful diversity of the human body. One recent post summed up the brand’s values succinctly: “Exercise is a celebration of what your body can do, not a punishment for what you are.”

Moreover, the brand explicitly supports the empowerment of women, highlighting the accomplishments of female role models frequently. But the brand isn’t just politically correct in the pursuit of profit: It also invests in its ideals.

When the brand encountered feedback from customers that its sizing options were too limited, Lorna Jane’s founder altered the company’s manufacturing approach, expanding offerings to serve a larger segment of customers. “We would love nothing more than for Lorna Jane to lead the industry in sizes outside of common fashion industry standards,” she wrote.

It Helps to Be Human

Instagram offers the promise of more intimate consumer-brand connections – posts from companies and people intermingle in our feeds. But on the platform and even in other mediums, it’s essential that brands shake off their impersonal corporate veneers and display human characteristics instead.

Why would humanity be desirable in a corporate entity? Perhaps because the feelings brands most want to inspire – loyalty and trust – are most familiar in our human relationships. When consumers connect with brands on these terms, they regard these brands as surprisingly human.

How do trustworthy brands build human connections? They display many of the same principles that a trusted friend would honor, including consistency, honesty, and integrity. No one expects perfection, but trusted brands address their errors honestly and completely.

They also have the customer’s back. They must prove they are there for us, no matter what. Just as a customer commits to a brand by buying, brands must demonstrate reciprocal concern. These brands care about the people they serve and prove it daily.

Instagram Application: Chubbies

Chubbies instagram applications

Short shorts in eye-catching patterns could easily be dismissed as a gimmick doomed to short-lived success. But Chubbies has built a brand by establishing a community of loyalists – and demonstrating a genuine appreciation of its tribe.

At first glance, the brand’s Instagram account may seem like little more than a goofy collection of memes and customer shoutouts. But the company’s audience of over 400,000 followers is privy to a branding approach that is actually quite thoughtful and inclusive.

In fact, Chubbies’ founders have made reciprocity a cornerstone of their business acumen: “The second we become transactional is the moment we take a misstep,” co-founder Tom Montgomery explained. “We need to be providing value to them just as they provide value to us in the business.”

Examples of this approach include a crowdsourced search for “real” male models with qualifying “dad bods” and low-budget skits featuring the founders. As Montgomery puts it, “We’re really built around our customer as our friend.”

Authenticity Is Strategy: Expressing Your Brand’s Identity

When correctly applied, these branding principles can revolutionize any expression of a brand’s character. Social media may be a particularly effective means to communicate brand identity to customers, but these concepts apply to other platforms as well.

In fact, any particular marketing effort should emanate from a broader brand strategy. Consistency is essential to building a credible brand, and a unified marketing approach will prevent discordant customer experiences. Moreover, tactical considerations can be far less time-consuming once clear guidelines are established.

But if brand strategy should suffuse every aspect of your communications, it must be founded on human truth. No business can afford to predicate its branding on guesswork or untested assumptions.

Unfortunately, many of the most common methods of market research are deeply flawed, offering only partial or problematic insights. Erroneous conclusions are often more destructive than uncertainty.

That’s why the Brandtrust team is dedicated to providing credible insights and actionable strategy to our clients. To do so, we employ tested techniques of social science research, bringing academic rigor to bear on business challenges.

The result is a meaningful insight into customers’ emotions so that brands can better align their efforts with the people they seek to serve on social media and everywhere else. To learn more about our process and review our efforts on behalf of other beloved brands, explore our past work here.

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