According to Instagram, over 80% of users utilize the platform to research products and services. Specifically, two in three people say the social network “helps them foster interactions with brands.” But folks aren’t just researching products on Instagram ― they’re actually buying them. Instagram says 130 million users tap on shopping posts every day.
Clearly, Instagram has become more than an app showcasing photos of your pets, babies, homes and wardrobes. It’s where people actually buy the stuff to feed their pets, dress their babies, decorate their homes and populate their closets.
It should come as no surprise, then, that companies of all sizes have invested in their Instagram game, creating products that completely lend themselves to the platform, drenching users’ feeds, ultimately achieving a sort of Instagram-level fame.
More than any other products, it seems like cooking-related ones ― from pans to baby bottles and fridge organizers ― are the most sought-after items on the Instagram shopping market. Plenty of them ― like the Always Pan from Our Place, the Great Jones Dutchess oven and just about anything from Ekobo ― have become names globally recognized by folks who may not intend to invest in any of them.
It makes us wonder: Why, and how, are Instagram-famous cooking tools even born?
Instagram is the perfect virtual mall
To understand why a product reaches Instagram success, it’s important to understand how the social media platform itself has become a conveyor of fame.
There are a few things to keep in mind, starting with consistency. Always presented in the same format ― a square ― every post on Instagram looks the same and is therefore allowed an equal opportunity to shine.
“That consistency creates a very predictable user experience that brands can work with,” explained Zoia Kosakov, a member of the Strategic Communications faculty at Columbia University. Keenly aware of how consumers see the content, any company could work on figuring out the best way to present their material to maximize the chances of a sale.
There is also not much to do on Instagram. Think about it: On Facebook, for example, we can share political thoughts, scroll through images, join groups, look up businesses and deep-dive into decades-old photos of our exes. On Instagram, the two dominant practices really involve liking and scrolling, the second of which often leads to mental blackouts of sorts.
How many times have you found yourself scrolling through your feed for hours?
“When you’re in this unaware state of mind, brands that can capture your attention for a second and have the least number of steps to get you to check out are the winners,” Kosakov explained. “Building Instagram shopping is a very effective tool, because within two or three clicks you can be checked out.”
Perhaps most obviously and importantly, the visual portion of the platform is what renders it a shopping mecca. Compared with Twitter, where users also tend to embrace an endless scrolling routine, Instagram is a bit more mind-numbing. After all, it’s easier to scroll through photos than it is through words, Twitter’s bread and butter.
Also, while shopping online, seeing a photo is more important than reading a description of it.
What it takes for a product to succeed on Instagram
The Instagram game is not an easy one to play when it comes to brands, most of which don’t reach the kind of global recognition that products like the Always Pan enjoy. A dive into the sorts of cooking products that do perform well on the platform points to a few must-have qualities for success.
According to Kosakov, minimalism reigns supreme, both visually, textually and in design. The fewer words on a post of a product, the better (virtually none of the photos found on Our Place’s account feature words, for example).
In terms of colors, bold ones are preferable, but millennial pink is still a thing. Recess, a sparkling water brand with nearly 90,000 Instagram followers, has created a look so recognizable with colors and fonts that even flat water drinkers respond to it.
But it is the presentation that mostly resonates. Successful brands seem to have found the sweet spot between familiarity, authenticity and aspirational feelings. Users tend to buy products that remind them of their own lives while allowing them to imagine better versions of themselves that might actually be achievable.
“I live in New York City and cook a little, so for me the Always Pan is perfect and the brand is targeting me correctly because it works for my lifestyle,” said Ali Fazal, VP of marketing at influencer marketing platform Grin. “If that brand tried to target my mom, she would have been like, ‘I have 40 pans, I don’t need another one.’”
At the same time, Fazal explained, folks are spending so much more time at home during the pandemic than they used to. “They are looking for content that is aspirational and relatable and that shows what their lifestyle would be like in a more realistic way” than the polished studio images in many traditional ads.
In plainer terms, we want to buy something that will turn our existence into an achievable fantasy. Which is why plenty of posts by successful Instagram brands feature “real” people.
“It’s a principal of persuasion,” said Carla Bevins, assistant teaching professor of business communications at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. “If you’re able to see a product in someone’s kitchen or see them using it, you’ll think, ‘I like that and I know that I can do that also.’”
And brands know what they’re doing.
Boo Louis, co-founder and creative director at Ekobo, the Instagram-famous brand that sells eco-friendly goods for the home, kids and families, said the company’s products aim to be relatable. “I think people recognize that our products are not only going to look good in their house, but they are for every day,” she said. “Our brand image is relatable as we made these products for our own family, and I think that translates.”
Consumers’ reactions confirm that strategy. “The ‘real people’ posts get most likes,” Louis said. “One thing I feel strongly about is not posting ultra curated imagery that looks like it takes 12 hours to put together. I think what really works is just real people and nothing too fussy.”
Instagram can serve as a replacement for traditional advertising
Although the first iteration of Instagram launched in 2010, it is only in the past few years that the platform has gained the sort of shopping-related power that allows for companies like Ekobo and Our Place to reach stratospheric levels of recognition. Given customers’ shopping power, companies have shifted to more fully incorporate social media in their overall marketing plans and strategies.
“Social media used to be its own thing and now it has fallen under brand marketing because companies are realizing that a brand is no longer just a logo, the typography or a color scheme. It’s the way you appear on these platforms,” Kosakov said. “They are also inherently looking at social media as they develop products by getting feedback and listening to users.”
Do brands still invest in traditional methods of advertising? Overall, most companies have found a happy medium between classic and more modern modes of getting the word out there.
Ekobo never really bothered with that. “We invested in innovation more than advertising,” Louis said.
Fazal finds traditional ads to be useless as well. Of magazine spreads, for example, he said: “They’re expensive, the overhead is really high, the turnaround time is really long and you have no idea if it’s going to work or be successful.”
Instagram capitalizes on the psychological difference between shopping online and in person
“There is a sense of urgency that brands tap into when marketing on Instagram,” Kosakov said. “They make you feel like if you don’t make use of the ‘limited sale’ now, you’re missing out or it’s going to be gone forever. You are therefore more likely to buy online than in-store.”
The familiarity and aspirational qualities of a product, big factors in the potential success of a social media buy, are also harder to present in a store. You can imagine a pan in your kitchen when browsing through Instagram because a person who looks like you is using it in a kitchen that looks like yours. In a store, seeing it in a box just isn’t the same.
It’s also easier to rely on other people’s opinions when purchasing it on social media. “We [see] how others have responded to the product on Instagram and hearing about their experiences, reading their reviews and seeing their ratings drives our behavior in a way that isn’t possible offline,” Bevins said.
Farzal noted that a potential checklist that shoppers may have in mind when browsing in person (does the pan match the rest of my kitchen utensils? Is it sturdy? Does it look good? How much does it weigh?) isn’t much of a factor when shopping online.
But are these products actually good?
As appealing, familiar and successful as the Always Pans of the world might be, one question begs to be answered: Are these products actually good or do they only look good and tap into unexplored desires? Turns out, it depends on who you ask and what product you’re talking about.
“I have the Always Pan and it is very pretty, so I leave it out in the kitchen and plenty of my friends that come over recognize it,” Kosakov said. “But, out of all my pans, I probably use it the least. On the other hand, I bought a $700 Casper mattress that was advertised on social media and I think it is an amazing, very good product. I wouldn’t say there is a correlation between an Instagram-centric product and its quality. I think it really just depends on the brand.”
According to Fazal, a product’s functionality is beside the point. “The quality of the product is irrelevant because there are good and bad products in stores as well,” he said. “It really is about making sure you’re targeting real people and the relationship you’re building with them is driven by trust and authenticity.”
In a way, at least according to the experts, the success of a product on Instagram is entirely dependent on the fantasies that the product can deliver. Folks don’t buy an Always Pan to up their cooking game. They buy an Always Pan to convince themselves that they can be better cooks. Plus, it looks good in their kitchens.