Think of Instagram as a brand lab to test products and ideas
Instagram has emerged as a vital (and potentially lucrative) marketing channel that not only drives customer acquisition, engagement and sales, but also provides small businesses with a free innovation lab and instant feedback for designing their brands and iterating new products.
I sat down with the founders of three of Hawaii’s innovative sweet-treat brands – each with at least 10,000 followers on Instagram – to get the scoop on how they’ve strategically used the social media platform beyond just posting pretty food pictures.
For all three of these brick-and-mortar shops, Instagram is a leading driver of product development. And Instagram’s visual focus means any post from their shops includes a picture of what customers are buying plus the store’s actual physical space.
Honolulu’s Cream n’ Roll (@creamnroll), known for customizable rolled ice cream, launched its Instagram account three to four months before its opening in 2017. The social media platform heavily influenced the shop’s design and brand identity from the start.
“A lot of our decisions are made for Instagram,” says co-founder John Huavo. “We bought the neon sign with Instagram in mind. We even said to each other, this sign is ‘Instagrammable.’ ”
Co-founder Dominic Wah Yick adds, “We specifically made sure to include the word ‘Hawaii’ in our neon sign because Hawaii is a strong brand for locals or tourists.”
The design strategy has paid off from a marketing standpoint: The Cream n’ Roll co-founders estimate that at least 25 percent of their customers take Instagram photos in the shop – many of which include the distinctive neon pink sign with a shaka.
While staying active on Instagram can be time-consuming for small-business owners, the consensus is that it pays off. “If I didn’t have Instagram there’s no way I would have been able to grow as fast as I did for sure,” says Gayla Young, founder of Kaimuki’s Pipeline Bakeshop (@pipelinebakeshop).
Instagram also functions as an informal product lab for testing and promoting new ideas. Cream n’ Roll scored by announcing special flavors (mango’s a hit) and its new catering service via Instagram. A few of Pipeline Bakeshop’s specials became Instagram sensations, Young says: “Around the holidays I did a rainbow cake and posted it on Instagram, and it got a lot of likes and preorders. The line went out the door for people who didn’t preorder.”
Bronson Chang, co-founder of Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha, which is known for its all-natural shave ice, cites HOPA’s Strawberry Dream as the shop’s most “Instagrammable product,” and adds it’s no coincidence it’s the top seller, accounting for 20 percent to 25 percent of sales. Based on Strawberry Dream’s success, @uncleclays’ 11.7K followers can expect photos of new products hitting their feeds in the near future. “We’re going to test out some other items that present super-well on Instagram,” he says.
Although Young has a professional background in photography and is a self-described “very visual person,” she says she didn’t intentionally create Pipeline’s signature malasadas and cake bombs to look good for Instagram. Nonetheless, she used Instagram as her primary marketing channel before her launch and was shocked to see customers lined down the block at her opening.
The bakery’s Instagram success ended up informing her product standards and even employee training. “We make sure everything looks good in the display case. If the glaze on a product gets dinged by a tong, we’re going to yank that item out. We also train our workers on the boxing so when they present that box, it can be something that others can take a photo of. So it has to be IG-worthy. From beginning to end we follow that visual standard through all the way. If there is even a little bit of glaze on the box, we rebox it.”
Chang agrees with Young’s visual approach but adds a caveat. “I think about our presentation a lot, but long-term success still comes from taste and quality,” he says, stressing that the real-life customer experience remains top priority. “If it’s not good quality but looks good, it’s one and done, not customers for life, which is what we’re looking for.”
1. Launch Before You Launch
People want what they can’t have (yet). Before you build it, they will follow it. Whether you’re starting a new business or creating a product, start the Coming Soon buzz on Instagram before you launch and keep it going by feeding followers steady drips of teaser content. Bonus: Your followers can serve as a focus group, which leads us to our second tip.
2. Shortcut Product Development
Built for instant feedback, Instagram is great for floating new product ideas before you commit to the expense and effort of actually testing them in the market. Post a caption asking your audience to weigh in on an idea for a new product or feature, or create a poll in your Story.
3. Think Iconic
No matter the industry, recognize that if you have a brick-and-mortar space in the Instagram age, you also have a de-facto photo studio. Design your walls and products so they make for iconic photos that are both visually compelling and uniquely recognizable as yours. This extends to your branding, too: Does your sign fit in an Instagram square? Will your logo look good in a circle profile picture?
Each month, the team at Sultan Ventures and XLR8HI explores Hawai‘i’s growing innovation community, including local startups, small businesses, entrepreneurs, founders and the tech sector.