Should Brands Be Authentic or Aspirational on Instagram?
What’s more important in what we post on Instagram: authenticity or perfection?
Most of us would probably answer the former without thinking twice. Of course, it’s better to just be yourself, right?
The “just be yourself” credo feels natural to extend beyond personal accounts to consumer brands, too. After all, the push to humanize companies and commodify our own personalities has made the two increasingly difficult to distinguish between.
But we’ve found that the answer isn’t quite so simple.
For starters, there’s no clear-cut definition of what authenticity actually means for your brand’s Instagram presence. And to complicate things further, examples of brands achieving success on Instagram can be found on both ends of the authenticity-perfection spectrum. So, if you’re deciding which is best for your brand’s Instagram presence…the debate remains.
- Do you opt for less-polished images and conversational captions that your customers can instantly relate to?
- Or do you strive to create an aspirational feed that will have your customers fantasizing about what they could become with your product?
Let’s explore the case for each type of brand account.
What does it mean for brands to be authentic on Instagram, anyway?
The question of what makes an authentic Instagram presence is hard to answer.
Some brands (like General Electric) have taken to sharing behind-the-scenes photos of their company, while others, like Aerie and ModCloth, have pledged to not share photoshopped images.
However, it’s not clear whether this is enough for these brands to be considered “authentic” on social media.
Most definitions of the term say that to be authentic is to be true to your personality or spirit, not necessarily true to objective reality.
By that definition, a company with a larger-than-life brand, like Walt Disney World, should post fantasy-driven, perfected images. If the Walt Disney World Instagram account was full of candid snapshots of long lines, tired toddlers, or sweating parents, that would be less authentic to the famous Disney spirit than their imaginative feed of fireworks and attractions.
On the other hand, for many, a lack of authenticity is indicated by a sense that what a brand is posting is probably not what you’d see with your own eyes, without filters or professional editing.
So, for the sake of clarity in this article, let’s say that an “authentic” Instagram presence is one that doesn’t rely heavily on professionally styled, photographed, and edited images.
Your brand’s Instagram: the case for authenticity
A whopping 86% of consumers say that a brand’s authenticity is important when they decide what to buy. With half of all Instagram users following brand accounts, it’s likely that a brand’s Instagram presence factors into how authentic the brand is perceived as being.
Plus, if Instagram influencers are a trend to rely on, they represent a growing movement away from the jaw-dropping, perfected images that originally gave Influencers, well, their influence.
Especially those with younger followers, many Influencers have adopted a rawer presence, deliberately posting images that are not only unedited but show them in an imperfect light.
Such accounts, like fashion influencers Reese Blutstein and Courtney Trop, don’t break from their version of authenticity even when partnering with high-end brands. In fact, they often draw attention to the flaws in their shots: In one post, Trop captions a photo featuring a Louis Vuitton bag, “My dream bag but it’s cut off in this pic so I’ll have to take another.”
Also, consider the immense popularity of the relatively new Instagram Stories feature, which was launched mid-2016. Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom told Vox that the move sprung from their insights that users were backing off Instagram due to “feeling the pressure of sharing really amazing photos.” Stories were meant to give users (and brands) a place to share more off-the-cuff images of their uncurated life.
Clearly, it’s worked. Today, over 500 million people engage with Instagram Stories daily.
These trends point to a major opportunity for brands to connect with their customers through an Instagram presence that feels more authentic and less styled.
Your brand’s Instagram: the case for the perfect aesthetic
Despite the hype about authenticity, a look at the most popular Instagram accounts tells a different story.
Accounts that cater to the fantasy of a fairytale life, complete with stunning images of perfectly styled models or professionally lit lifestyle photos, have followings that dwarf the accounts mentioned above.
Accounts like that of fashion mogul Chiara Ferragni boast photos of a jet-setting life (with never a hair out of place) and tens of millions of followers.
The same can be said of the Kardashian sisters’ accounts, which have some of the highest follower counts in the world. Brands who have paid partnerships with Kim Kardashian reportedly pay over $500,000 for a single Instagram post. For that amount, their ROI must be much higher, suggesting that a large number of consumers are indeed excited to buy from a brand that promotes perfection.
Even with the addition of the lower-pressure Instagram Stories feature, many people still feel the pressure to be perfect on social media, particularly Instagram. Highlighting the widespread desire to be perceived as perfect, a recent study links Instagram use frequency to negative feelings about one’s self-worth or physical appearance.
However, brands offering a fantasy of perfection on Instagram can capitalize on a powerful buying motive: wanting to have (or at least be perceived as having) a better, more glamorous lifestyle.
Successful brands with an authentic Instagram presence
There are dozens of brands that have tapped into the authenticity movement on Instagram and created a devoted community around their product.
With two million followers on Instagram and a valuation of $1.2 billion, Glossier is the quintessential example of a brand that has leveraged a down-to-earth Instagram presence to skyrocket the success of their company.
Their photos, while high-quality, aren’t overly styled. Sometimes, photos of their products seem like the ones you could take in your own bathroom. The makeup company is also known for re-posting photos that customers share. And because their product is natural-looking makeup, this choice makes sense.
In another example, men’s casual wear brand Chubbies uses Instagram to post exclusively humorous images.
Often, the photos take the form of funny memes poking fun at their brand. With a customer base of people who don’t like to take themselves too seriously, this type of Instagram branding works well. They currently have about 450K followers.
Successful brands with a perfect-aesthetic Instagram presence
By contrast, some of Instagram’s coolest brands are doing the opposite, going for a polished and defined feed.
Direct-to-consumer luggage and travel brand Away is a company that disrupted the travel industry with their curated Instagram presence. Their luggage, while generally less expensive than other luxury travel brands, nevertheless promises customers a globe-trotting lifestyle. Their Instagram feed is a long stream of aspirational images of travel through business class and enviable locations. With 400K followers and counting, their strategy seems to be working.
Similarly, LNA, a clothing brand based in Los Angeles, posts images of their picture-perfect, California-cool models against immaculate backgrounds or posing in hillside pools. The account has one of the highest reported engagement rates of any brand.
Takeaway: Be true to the brand you’ve created
There is an opportunity for brands with the call for more Instagram authenticity. A lot of consumers are tiring of the super-perfect world projected by marketers and advertisers… especially when it comes to seeing that content amid photos of our friends.
And Instagram users, in particular, seem to be suffering from perfection-weariness. These consumers are craving brand content that doesn’t try to impress them with dazzling photos. Instead, they want images that reveal what your product looks like in real life.
On the flipside, brands that are sticking with the aspirational aesthetic are doing remarkably well. It turns out that just because authenticity has become a buzzword doesn’t mean that the tried-and-true “perfect shot” Instagram feeds have lost their appeal. After all, achieving a perceived higher status or esteem is one of the age-old buying motives that almost every consumer has.
However, looking at how different brands have been successful with both types of approaches on Instagram, we can pinpoint one clear kernel of advice: Be true to the brand you’ve created.
If your brand is built on humour or if your customer-base prizes realness above all, then aim to be authentic on Instagram. But if your brand serves up luxury products, you’re probably better off sticking with your perfect aesthetic.
What do you think? When it comes to Instagram for brands, what’s more important: authenticity or perfection?