• Stevie Hanna

Instagram as Authentic Engagement, but Engagement with Who?

There are dozens of articles on how to market your brand through Instagram or attract influencers, touting the benefits of Instagram as authentic engagement with consumers. But there is considerably less discussion around the role influencers and their audiences play in branding as a two-way street or how deeply the Instagram format itself alters branding strategy and impact.

In the old days, consumers could sample brands’ offerings in catalogues. Then blogs offered a new form of richer, deeper engagement centered on the blogger’s influence and appeal. But blogs are so in depth that a reader can only keep track of a few, not to mention that the text and image heavy blog articles don’t necessarily help a product stand out. That’s where Instagram marks a serious departure. Today a brand can reach out to consumers through influencers on Instagram, which dramatically reduces the effort required by either. Because the snapshot is nearly the entirety of the post, a single consumer can easily sample dozens of posts in a single session. So companies can leverage the platform’s marketing potential by sharing their own compelling original content while also cultivating relationships with influencers and ambassadors who can feature products in a more “authentic” way.

Instagram influencers are notably different from ambassadors. They are not there to represent the brand. The brand also doesn’t have a specific message planned for them to deliver. Instead influencers incorporate branded items into their aesthetic, their personal brand, through which they have developed their following in a way that is authentic. An influencer is so much more than a single brand. They share a vision, a lifestyle that resonates with their followers and can include many brands in their constellation. Rather than brands, consumers can discover an individual whose style they relate to and want to emulate, either through tangible products or intangible habits and lifestyle. Influencers don’t just expand a brand’s reach, they humanize it and show the role that it can play in the lifestyles of various consumers. It’s hard to overstate the significance of this point. Brands shouldn’t focus solely on using platforms like Instagram to tell their story. They should also seek to act as a tool through which consumers can communicate their own stories. After all, consumers are on Instagram not merely to consume others’ brands and images but to actively cultivate and demonstrate their own personal brand.

This is exactly the kind of thing I’ve been exploring and researching for years, although Instagram wasn’t initially my media of choice. Whether it’s pop music, blogs, or Instagram there’s been a crucial shift toward people (influencer) to people (consumer) relations to promote brands. It’s harder – not impossible but harder – to form a strong emotional bond with a product than with a person. From the 1980s, we’ve watched niche marketing with an emphasis on lifestyle consumption overtake mass marketing and here it is infinitely more refined. Social media enables consumers to follow, emulate, or aspire to remarkably specific lifestyle visions, often individually published. And because each consumer chooses who and what they will follow, they are liberated from much of the nagging suspicion that they are being manipulated by advertising. People to people promotion allows for a very individually curated means of engaging brands.

Not to slip into academic jargon, but marketing is the most visible, institutionalized form of affective labor, which is designed to elicit or modify an emotional experience so that consumers relate to products or services. Be it Instagram or reality TV shows, affective products and labor foster a perception of intimacy and authenticity. They are powerful precisely because they seem personal, natural, even spontaneous. It can seem very theoretical or intangible, but it’s everywhere and it moves products in a big way. And it’s very conducive to building loyalty and identification without being direct. In that sense, Instagram isn’t so much changing the game as it is taking the oldest game to a whole new level.

But who is the consumer really engaging with? Do snapshots, because they lack context and consumers can pick and choose which images are relevant, mean that brand appeal is at once a coherent whole but also able to diversify for niches because consumers don’t need or want the whole picture? Or does that flexibility risk surrendering control of the brand’s narrative? Inviting influencers and customers to actively engage a brand and play a part in developing a brand’s story is a tremendous opportunity to foster loyalty, generate collaboration, and inspire innovation. However it is crucial that the company keep the focus on their brand’s core mission and vision. Authentically representing brands and products can foster authentic engagement, but branding isn’t a democracy. Even when the conversation is a two-way street, that doesn’t mean both sides carry equal weight. A brand that strays from its core purpose, won’t seem authentic to anyone.