food & social media: the future of brands



The future. That’s a daunting concept, no? It’s at once a predictable and an uncertain idea. In other words, as much as we can set our world up for a future that we feel prepared for, there’s only so much we can do and only so much we can know. For as many foreseen successes there are, there are just as many mind boggling failures. Things happen. Things change. But it’s still fun to play the guessing game.

Food. Who doesn’t love food? Seriously, nobody in the history of the world has ever not eaten and loved food. It’s vital to our existence as humans, and that’s not something I will ever complain about. We cook our own food and we go out to restaurants for our food; we eat alone and enjoy meals surrounded by our loved ones. Food is a universal necessity and source of joy. Some people struggle with their relationship with food, sure, and there are areas of the world where food is hard to come by. But the universal enjoyment of food is something that connect, as well as differentiate, cultures. In the US, a country with the international reputation for eating too much, this obsession with food has been documented extensively in our culture and media. We LOVE food. And we’re proud of it.

Social mediaSocial media, as we all know, is a relatively recent creation from the last decade or so. Following the rise and demise of sites like Xanga and MySpace, we now have Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Tumblr and Snapchat…the list goes on. Each one, generally, serves a different purpose, or at least allows its users to post differing kinds of posts. Instagram, founded in 2010 and later purchased by Facebook, is the most purely visual of the most popular social media platforms, and, as such, it provides an amazing platform for people to share the most visually appealing moments in their lives. Of course, one of the visually appealing things that we experience as humans is the food that we eat.

The video above, produced by CollegeHumor a couple of years ago, parodies our use of Instagram and the ways in which we pick and choose what to post, but we all end up posting the same general things — food, beaches, plane wings, food, selfies, throwback photos, food, etc. The opening lines, “Look at this Instagram, eggs benedict and a side of ham / Started as a lemon tart, then my phone went and made it art” pokes fun at our #foodporn obsession first. It’s a thing and everyone does it. When I go to meals with my friends and our food comes, everyone takes out their phones to take a photo — for Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook — of what they’re about to eat. Our mindsets are that food is meant to be shared.

So why talk about these three things: the future, food, and social media? Yes, people Instagram their food, and they’ll continue to do so in the future.

So what?

When Instagram initially blew up in 2012 (when it first reached 100 million users), sharing pictures of food was already something people were doing. In an article on Mashable published in 2011, they coined a term that a grand total of zero people ever use (“foodtography”) to describe something that millions of people do every single day: take photos of their food. Though the article has a lot of irrelevant statistics (it’s four years old and trends have surely changed), there are still some things they highlight that are probably still applicable and stress the ways in which people share their food: 10% of photos containing food on Instagram have humans in them; 25% of photos posted with food in them are posted for “no particular reason”; 18.3% of photos with food in them are of desserts or sweets. It’s an early observation of a trend that had only barely taken off.

Fast forward to two years later, and Business Insider begins to highlight the true significance of the foodstagram trend: brands. Restaurants. Food producers. Bloggers. The fact that people love posting photos of their food — and seeing photos of other people’s food in their Instagram feeds — is a huge opportunity for businesses in the food industry and lifestyle bloggers and chefs and restaurants to take advantage of. The article notes that people aren’t just posted photos from expensive, trendy restaurants in alluring, big cities like New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, all known for the innovations in food. Rather, people are going to establishments like Cheesecake Factory or PF Chang’s and posting photos of what they’re eating lower level restaurants. It has trickled down, and it’s accessible.

The article also notes that, though other apps like Foursquare and sites like Yelp and OpenTable also allow its users to share photos of their food following a dining experience, Instagram has by far the fastest growing rate of food-sharing. Not only that, but it also has by far the largest user base, so the potential for even more food-sharing is all but guaranteed. Also, Yelp and OpenTable and FourSquare are more reviews-based, and people tend to gravitate towards visuals.

The Brands

Brands can, should, and are taking advantage of this. I look at the top food brands on Instagram proves that marketers in the industry are milking this growing audience and their potential engagement for all it’s worth:

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Not only that, but they aren’t high-end brands. Actually, they’re remarkably low-end: fast food chains, cheap snacks, television channels. That being said, smaller/growing brands in the same arena are benefiting equally from their own capitalization of this trend. Shake Shack, a rapidly growing burger chain out of New York City, has a way higher percentage of followers per system sale (1,808 to McDonald’s 11). Granted, McDonald’s has infinitely more locations than Shake Shack. But that fact makes that number no less staggering.

So what about local brands? Are they able to leverage Instagram and its users’ obsession with food as well?

The Michigan Advertising & Marketing Club (MAM), pairs its student members interested in marketing with local businesses and lets them work together to come up with innovative marketing ideas in an effort to reach more people and gain more customers. And, it being 2015, social media is obviously a huge part of the work that MAM does. I talked to Jamie Goddard, an Account Director in MAM for the local gelateria, Iorio’s. I asked her some questions about the work that MAM does, the work that she’s done for Iorio’s over the past year, and her thoughts on how local businesses can reach customers through social media:

MAM-run Iorio's Instagram contest winner

MAM-run Iorio’s Instagram contest winner

MAM-produced Iorio's free tasting poser

MAM-produced Iorio’s free tasting poser

MAM-produced Instagram graphic

MAM-produced Instagram graphic

So, clearly, taking advantage of the power of Instagram to connect brands and businesses with their customers and allowing new customers to discover that they even exist is something that companies at all levels are focusing on. It’s important for them to remain relevant in a world where online audiences are becoming increasingly fragments and where it’s becoming increasingly difficult to stand out amidst a landscape of endless content. To stand out, brands have to have original ideas. They have to be posting things that others aren’t. There was that Oreo’s post from the Superbowl a couple of years ago that immediately went viral on Twitter. There’s the #HotDogsOrLegs trend. There’s @foodintheair and #EEEEEATS (created by a very prominent Instagram-based food blog, The Infatuation.

So it’s not even just brands but websites and trends based around food.

Last summer I worked at AOL as a social media intern for their and Lifestyle Brands team. Their Lifestyle Brands include popular websites that are dedicated to style, weddings, female leadership, and food. Their food blog is called Kitchen Daily. A big focus of our work last summer was to come up with social-first franchises. So, essentially, things that each individual brand could be doing on their social media accounts to increase user engagement and, thus, spread brand awareness in those niche social media markets. Something that I came up with was #brunchies (brunch + selfies = brunchies). The team loved the idea and decided to test it out.

Taking our #brunchies at Russ & Daughters Cafe on the Lower East Side.

Taking our #brunchies at Russ & Daughters Cafe on the Lower East Side.

My #brunchies featured on Kitchen Daily.

My #brunchies featured on Kitchen Daily.

The campaign was slightly successful, not a runaway success, but still worth the effort of throwing it out there. What it did do, though, was prove that the foodstagram universe demands creativity. There’s a lot of the same out there, so for people looking to capitalize on the more-than-just-a-trend of sharing food photos on Instagram, it means that doing something new and original is necessary to stand out. And it’s only becoming more and more of a necessity. Brands know this. Food blogs know this. To succeed on Instagram means to catch people’s eyes.

The Users

Another important factor to consider in analyzing how brands can take advantage of Instagram are the very people they’re trying to reach. If users aren’t into it, if potential customers and followers and likers aren’t buying it, then what’s the whole point? Instagram skews young, so brands on Instagram are presumably trying to appeal to young consumers. How do Instagram users feel about branding on the social platform? How often are they posting their own food photos? Do they follow any food brands or bloggers or blogs? Have they ever discovered a restaurant or food item through Instagram and gone out to go to the restaurant or buy the item?

I sent out a survey to a couple of listservs that I’m on on campus, as well as to friends of mine, to ask them these questions. The respondents were 70% female and 30% male, with an average age of 21. They’re mostly not from the state of Michigan, with a majority from large cities like New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, DC (or suburbs outside of those cities). I compiled their answers into an infographic below:

70% (1)

So, engagement was surprisingly high. Admittedly, the respondents were probably more likely to pay attention to food accounts and trends on Instagram than the general population or college population, but still. People are spending time on Instagram and they’re exploring food establishments and food hashtags. Perhaps it’s out of an subconscious desire to live vicariously through an Instagrammer or simply oggle at delicious food. Who knows.

All of this comes down to what it means for the future. And, based on my research, I’d say that it means more of the same in the short term. Brands are going to become increasingly creative and attentive and engagement-focused as expectations become higher, as standards become higher in the midst of a content clusterfuck online. As advertising ramps up on Instagram, this will help brands reach more people. Instagram’s increasing integration into the Facebook landscape will also help, as well. People will be able to connect brands’ Instagram accounts to the information on their Facebook accounts, helping them to learn more about the things they’re curious about.

The Future

The future is all about the consumer and brands’ catering to that consumer. People want content that feels personalized, that adheres to their interests and desires and goals. The internet has become an increasingly consumer-driven space and brands, as I’ve mentioned, are recognizing that.

Looking further into the future, though, what do we expect? What do I see? I see the discovery aspect of Instagram becoming even stronger than it is right now. People love clicking on location tags and seeing the photos that have previously been posted from those locations — looking at other dishes on menus and what they look like, deciding what they might order if they ever get to go to the restaurant. Yet, you can’t even search location tags on Instagram. That will change, surely. But it will go even further. Platforms like Instagram want to create an ecosystem that is equally beneficial to the consumer and the brand. It has to be a platform that at once makes it easier for brands to connect with consumers without losing the trust of their users by making brand integration too obvious, too ad-heavy (a line that Facebook has, sadly, already crossed).

The future is exciting. So is Instagram. So is food.

Let’s see where it all takes us.

[DISCLAIMER: I contacted a handful of people that work at local restaurants that are popular on Instagram with the hope that I would be able to get more first-hand information about how local businesses are explicitly using Instagram and influenced by social media, but nobody responded to me. So my project didn’t go the direction I initially planned on, but I love where it went, regardless.]


is facebook a force for good?

Initially, I was pretty torn when it came to our debate question: Is Facebook a force for good? It’s kind of vague, no? What exactly does “force for good” even mean? I googled the phrase in quotations and most of what came up were books that use it in its title, charities and non-profits (which Facebook clearly isn’t)…things like that. But I stumbled across this Inc. article called “4 Ways to Be a Force for Good in the World.” Those four things are:

1. Give others something to believe in.

2. Build a community that cares.

3. Say “thank you” and mean it.

4. Find the good.

Again, pretty vague and open for interpretation. Obviously, these four “ways” are just one writer’s take on the meaning of the phrase, but I’d say that their interpretation isn’t far from the mark of how someone can be a force for good. But these are rules for people. Facebook isn’t a person. Yeah, it’s the product of Mark Zuckerberg, the brainchild behind Facebook who’s still running it today, so I guess one can view Facebook as being almost interchangeable with him, his goals, his personality. But I’d consider that to be a bit…cynical? Facebook isn’t Mark Zuckerberg, and Mark Zuckerberg isn’t Facebook (at least, anymore). It’s become so much bigger than that.

It’s easy to find the bad in Facebook — it uses our information to sell personalized ads and we’re not exactly sure how else it’s used. Things that we search for across the internet come up as things we’re interested in on Facebook and vice versa. It’s creepy. Yet we still do it because Facebook has become so intertwined into our lives. And I think that very fact — the unknown lives we would have without Facebook — also scares people. It makes them cautious of Facebook and, usually, rightfully so. But looking beyond that, I see something else; I see good.

This article, a summary of a talk that Zuckerberg gave, transcribes his answer to a question about adding a dislike button to Facebook. He says that Facebook will probably never add one because, “I don’t think that’s good for the community.” He goes on to explain why the like button is so important to Facebook’s overall mentality: “The like button is valuable because it’s a quick way to share a positive sentiment.” Facebook aims to be positive. It wants you to stress your likes over your dislikes, your friends over your enemies, your positive thoughts over your negative ones. Sure, bullying and defriending and stalking and scams all happen via Facebook, but those aren’t apart of its inherent mission to spread positivity and host connections.

I also found this video, where Zuckerberg discusses a new venture of Facebook’s, It aims to bring the Internet to areas of the world that don’t yet have access to it — and for free. It wants everyone in the world to access the things that we all are able to access: “weather, news, jobs, health resources, and Facebook.” This, as the video’s interviewer says, backs up his claim that “connectivity is a human right.” Sure, this is disputable. It could be interpreted as a somewhat controversial claim. And, surely, it’s part of Facebook’s image building. But it’s still doing “good.” And anything that does that, in my mind, is a “force for good.”

david chang, founder of momofuku

There are a lot of popular food bloggers on Instagram. Not just food bloggers, but also a ton of general food-based accounts with thousands and thousands of followers. Sometimes these accounts post photos of food anyone can order at a restaurant, sometimes they post photos of extravagant dishes and desserts they’ve whipped up at home just to Instagram them. It was hard to choose one prominent person in this area to place the spotlight on because there are so many options. But I chose David Chang, mastermind behind the Momofuku food empire and a beloved food-grammer himself.

In terms of what Chang is actually posting to his Instagram feed for his 189k followers to gobble up, it’s a combination of what he’s cooking at home, behind the scenes cooking shots from his restaurants, or photos of one of his many amazing dishes that are served at his restaurants. It’s a mixture of personal and public, both of which prove to be equally as mouth-watering. Though he does have an intense following on Instagram and though his profile itself is influential in its own right, I see his grander influence on food’s presence on Instagram to be a result of his general genius.

A few years before Instagram provided a critical outlet for food creators to get the word out about their own creations, Chang opened Momofuku Noodle Bar and Milk Bar across the street from one another in Manhattan’s East Village. They were instant successes. But as Instagram became a more prominent social media platform and people began using it to post #foodporn photos of their indulgences, Momofuku soared even higher. You couldn’t follow a New York-based foodstagram (where, as I mentioned in other posts, food trends tend to originate before taking off elsewhere via Instagram) without seeing pictures of the Milk Bar’s birthday truffles or birthday cake or cereal milk soft serve. You couldn’t escape the colorful ramen bowls from the Noodle Bar. Chang’s creations were everywhere, his influence more than apparent.

Recent Instagram posts with the #milkbar hashtag

Recent Instagram posts with the #milkbar hashtag

Recent Instagram posts with the #momofukumilkbar hashtag

Recent Instagram posts with the #momofukumilkbar hashtag

So not only is David Chang prominent in his field because of his personal online, social presence, but his creations are the subjects of thousands of Instagram posts every single day. I think that influence can only come as a result of genuine, high-quality products, and that is exactly what the Momofuku empire has produced. His influence is visual but also edible — and both are equally delicious.

food trackers – myfitnesspal

When trying to think of a technology that’s altering food — how we eat, what we eat, where we eat, why we eat — my mind kept coming back to two things: 1. Obviously, as has been a big focus of this blog, one way in which technology is changing food is through Instagram. I’ve talked about this a lot — people going to a restaurant so they can take a picture of the food, baking something over the top just to Instagram it, etc. 2. Food trackers. People have been keeping “food diaries” forever (or, at least, I assume it’s a practice that’s been around for a while) in an effort to lose weight or just to be generally healthier. But, as can be said for pretty much anything these days — there’s now an app for that. Make that multiple apps.

With its most recent software update, iPhones now have a built-in health app that tracks your movement and food you eat…but it’s only as accurate as the information you give it. If you don’t have your phone on you, how is it going to know how far you moved that day? That’s where wearables come in.

I personally wear an UP24. I wear it around my wrist and use it mainly to track my movement and my sleep. I log my workouts into it and it gives me tips about how to be generally healthier. It’s great and I swear by it. It also has a “Food & Drink Logging” feature in its app in which you’re able to enter in any food or drinks you get manually or by scanning barcodes, but I don’t use it. Food tracking, for me, would be too intense, too time consuming, and I think it would just drive me crazy. Especially in a college environment when I’m drinking way more than I would be in the real world and eating way less healthily…now is not the time for that.

A few of my girl friends use a different app to track their food intake — MyFitnessPal. They really like it and it’s essentially the same idea as the food tracking aspect of UP24, but a little more in depth and focused. Because it’s all about tracking your food — and not also your movement, workouts, and sleep — my friends say it’s clearer and has them eating more healthily automatically. They say they feel guilty when they log junk food or too much alcohol, so they alter their habits a little bit.

I think it’s great that there are apps that genuinely make us live healthier lives — not just make us, but make us want to. I know that I sleep better and workout more ever since I got my UP24 at Christmas. Though I think that we have to be careful about becoming too obsessive over working out or worrying about our food intake/diet as a result of these apps, I think that they are definitely positive outcomes of this mobile tech boom.

satirical news

Following yesterday’s discussion in class, I expected to watch the most recent episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” and expect it to be deceptively informative and hilarious…but I didn’t really think it was. I had never seen the show before (in my mind, if I don’t have time to watch regular news, I’m not sure why I would devote time to satirical news shows where I’m not sure whether something is truth or satire).

"What are you wearing?!" - John Oliver, in this picture

“What are you wearing?!” – John Oliver, in this picture

I watched the first fifteen minutes of it (the same length of the “Nightly News” broadcast I watched) and learned remarkably less than I did during the real news segment. In my fifteen minutes, John Oliver talked about Egypt butchering Russia’s national anthem in front of Putin, the UK’s problematic pink van used to persuade women to vote, and a Greek leader’s speech delivery style and clothing style. Literally none of this was important information. Not one thing. The next segment, about an Alabama judge who opposes gay marriage, was the only thing to teach me something (that 39 US States vote to elect judges and the only other country that does this on such a large scale is…Bolivia) and even that was more of a fun fact rather than knowledge about a current issue.

So, in terms of content, it was softer news than the “Nightly News” and the tone was obviously humorous, but a bit annoying. He kept on jokes for a bit too long for my taste, which felt like beating a dead horse. I laughed a couple of times, yes, but he literally talked about a pink bus for 2 minutes. And then proceeded to make a fake commercial about it.

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The viewer wasn’t expected to have that much knowledge about the “issues” being talked about, which surprised me, considering me (admittedly, pretty limited) knowledge about what “The Daily Show” expects out of its audience. It’s not that I don’t “trust” shows like this (I do), but I do trust NBC’s “Nightly News” more, despite Brian Williams’ lying scandal (I don’t take what he did and think that NBC spits out false news stories regularly). And I think I get more out of watching a real news channel versus something like this.

nbc nightly news

I almost literally never watch the news. When I do, it’s either “The Today Show” or “E! News.” It’s just not something I think about or plan around because, well, I get all of my news from my phone and my computer — Twitter, Facebook, e-mail newsletters. Also, I’m not that genuinely interested in world affairs — I like being aware of them, I like getting quick overviews in my e-mail so that I’m informed — but I don’t either have the time or the care to dig deeper. I dig deeper into other things like pop culture and media because that’s what I’m interested in. So, yeah, I never really watch the news.

For this assignment, though, I watched the NBC “Nightly News” broadcast from last night (Thursday, February 26) online. Right off the bat, I was pleasantly surprised that I only had to watch one 45-second commercial to watch an entire broadcast, and it was at the beginning. There was no interruption, which was pretty refreshing and a nice change from the usual online television viewing where you’re forced to sit through five-plus minutes of commercials 4-5 times an episode.

NBC's "Nightly News" with Brian Williams' stand-in, Lester Holt

NBC’s “Nightly News” with Brian Williams’ stand-in, Lester Holt

In terms of the stories that were covered in the 15-minute episode, I thought they did a relatively good job at the organization of them: starting with the hardest news and getting increasingly less serious as they went along. Here they are, in order:

  • Jihadi John – 3 minutes
  • Social media and Isis recruiting – 2.5 minutes
  • Isis members destroying ancient art in a museum – 1.75 minutes
  • Winter in the US breaking records for February – 2 minutes
  • Weather report – 1.25 minutes
  • Net neutrality – 1.75 minutes
  • Apple watch – 20 seconds
  • U.S.S. Gabrielle Giffords – 20 seconds
  • Llama chase – 2 minutes

Most of these are stories that seemed to be ones that people should know about either because they’re important or because everyone was talking about them. Sure, the llama chase is perhaps the epitome of soft news, but it took over the internet yesterday. Literally everyone on Twitter was talking about it, so devoting time at the end of the “Nightly News” broadcast to it didn’t feel unwarranted and it added a little bit of humor and lightheartedness to a program that takes itself very seriously.

I also kind of respect the fact that the program knows it’s for an older audience and they aren’t trying to be too “young” or “hip,” because they know that it would come off as silly and trying too hard. Sure, when they say “Twitter, Facebook, and Google” and show this graphic, I chuckled —



— like, what is the point of showing that? Seriously, what a waste of time for whichever NBC Page had to take the time to Google a photo of the Google logo and put it through a software so that it would be shown on this segment. And when they were explaining the effects of the net neutrality ruling using a not-so-subtle graphic explaining how the “Internet Superhighway” works, I rolled my eyes:

Screen shot 2015-02-27 at 1.59.24 PM

But I think that, overall, the “Nightly News” is what it is and it will always have some sort of place, regardless of the era. As a college student, yes, it’s irrelevant to my daily life and I will never be taking the time to make sure I’m in my room at 7pm watching someone dictate the news of the day to me that I have already read about on Twitter. But when I’m in the working world and I get home from the gym after work and I haven’t been able to check social media all day, then I can envision the “Nightly News” being helpful and informative. Its treatment of stories didn’t feel very heavy-handed or biased, and the facts were presented pretty clearly. Of course there are a plethora of ways to get news in the digital era, but I think that in some ways, network TV news will always have a place in our media as a way of breaking down “today’s top stories” for a certain, albeit shrinking, segment of the population.