Pics or it didn’t happen – Visual Thinking and Instagram


Written By: Jim Mott

Tags: , , , , ,

How Instagram is helping brands build visual thinking into their communications strategies?

Instagram is growing fast and the peculiarities of the platform are helping brands use visual thinking to project a more ‘authentic’ image to their audience. Getting this right means understanding the mix of ‘in-the-moment’ authenticity and beautiful imagery that makes Instragram tick.

Last year was a pretty decent year for Instagram. It doubled its user base and by December trundled past Twitter, reaching a monthly active user base of over 300 million (compared to 288m for Twitter).  Obviously these overall numbers are nothing like what you’d see for Facebook (1.35 billion in the same period), but the growth bit is still rather interesting especially considering that Facebook seems to have hit a bit of a plateau recently. Combine this with the fact that the other big one in terms of growth is Tumblr, and it points to a clear trend away from primarily text-based platforms (with images bolted on) to primarily image-based platforms (with text bolted on).

We suspect that much of Instagram’s recent success is that it plays to the ‘pics or it didn’t happen’ trend, which makes sharing images an essential part of any experience and pretty much second nature to the digital generation. The time-stamped feed and the lovely hazy filters are custom built to communicate the idea of an image being ‘authentic’ and of the moment – quick snaps of lovely things. Of course there is a narcissistic element to it in that we only really share pictures that make us look good in one way or another, but there is also a sense that sharing photos demonstrates sincerity and authenticity; keep an experience to yourself and it’s like you are deliberately trying to hide something or indeed that it just didn’t really happen at all.

The simple fact that Instagram is growing so rapidly should be an incentive for brands to jump on board, but the whole ‘Pic’s or it didn’t happen’ thing matters for brands too. To digitally savvy consumers, overly constructed brand identities can come across as inauthentic and shallow; Instagram offers a way to branch away from nice sanitised images of smiling people with shiny teeth pointing to the horizon, and to get a bit more gritty instead.

Considering how notorious Instagram is for pictures of nice cups of coffee, it’s not surprising that Starbuck’s is one of the biggest Instagram success stories.

Starbuck name tag on coffee cup

The stream doesn’t focus on Starbucks itself so much as how Starbucks products fit in to the lifestyles of it’s customers. It’s all about using Instagram to capture the ‘Starbucks moments’ that show where Starbuck’s meets the everyday. To be honest though, we wonder how much Starbuck’s success on Instagram is down to it’s own strategy or how much it’s down to the fact that ‘having a cup of coffee’ is almost synonymous with exactly the kind of mundane ‘moment’ instagram is designed to capture.

Perhaps a more interesting example we’ve seen floating about the web from General Electric who’ve filled their feed with lots of ‘production floor’ type images, big turbines and people prodding industrial equipment and that sort of thing.

Visual_thinking_Instagram_General electric

These are obviously professional photographs, which perhaps detracts a little from the ‘real’ quality you might want from an Instagram feed. To be honest though the trade-off means that what you end up with is a far more interesting feed of images that tell a story about processes relevant to the brand that people will probably actually want to look at. This is the balance between ‘authentic’ and ‘lovely’ done right.

One final example that’s also floating about on the web that takes a bit of a different angle is the account for Sharpie pens. Obviously lots of pictures of Sharpie pens would get dull pretty quickly so instead they’ve taken the angle of showing how people actually use the product. The stream is essentially lots of nice illustrations drawn with Sharpies.


Again it’s lots of ‘lovely’ images but what it also does is help to create a sense of community around the brand, that Sharpie users are these cool creative types that other people would like to identify with.

Obviously the whole trend towards Brands using more visual tools to tell their story is interesting from a ‘visual thinking’ perspective. Instagram represents a particular ‘in-the-moment’ aesthetic that allows for a much broader set of ‘authentic’ images that can flesh out a brands story in some really interesting ways. Getting that mix right requires both a cultural understanding of how Instagram operates as both a community and a platform and the particular visual aesthetic that it promotes.

By clicking "Accept All Cookies", you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts. Cookie Notice.

Accept All Cookies