Instagram: Your new go-to branding and experience platform?

From colourful street murals in Penang's George Town and Singapore's Haji Lane and hidden places that were recently restored, to aesthetically pleasing food items at cafes such as Merchant's Lane in Kuala Lumpur and Coffee Cartel in Bali, it is common for social media users nowadays to carefully hunt down insta-worthy spaces when curating their holiday destinations.

Last month, UK-based travel company Hoppa ranked Kuala Lumpur and Singapore seventh and eighth respectively on the list of the most Instagrammed food places worldwide. And no doubt, consumers in both cities are often on the hunt for Instagram-worthy moments.

In a statement to A+M, Graham Hitchmough, regional chief operations officer at Bonsey Design said that social sharing networks such as Instagram have "unquestionably" impacted sectors such as tourism and dining today, by introducing a new image-driven focus to profile and reputation raising. However, he said marketers should not be putting "the cart before the horse" as Instagram is just one of the many channels available.

"Brand and destination owners should not be thinking first about the channel and developing the product to fit, but developing a viable, sustainable and desirable product first and then considering how it can be leveraged across the social ecosystem," he said.

Citing George Town in particular, Hitchmough said that while its "Insta-fame" was one of the motivations of the entrepreneurs in that city, "it is their insight, conviction, creativity and social consciousness" that drove the transformation of the site. He added:

Build with integrity, sustain with social is the mantra to follow here.

Agreeing with Hitchmough is Fusionbrand's CEO Marcus Osborne, who said that a destination should not begin with an "Instagrammable" experience and subsequently being retrofitted with a larger experience about it.

"Successful destination brands have always been built around appealing to multiple senses, Instagram just provides a new platform to show those experiences more quickly with relevant markets in a more human, natural, transparent way," Osborne said. He added that a beautiful mural in or outside a restaurant or bar, culturally relevant graffiti and anything else that makes the experience immersive should be considered by any new business.

In fact, marketers should start by thinking how they can create immersive experiences rather than how they can make money. Osborne said:

Design with all the senses in mind, not just sight.

For Instagram-worthy experiences to help brands achieve longevity, Osborne said they must be part of a human, natural, organic narrative that the brand nurtures through multiple platforms. According to him, working with local communities and businesses and tapping into the local creative arts scene is certainly going to create something that will appeal to many visitors over a longer time frame. That said, luck still plays a part in the successful marketing of any destination, he added.

Instagram: The new branding platform?

On the other hand, Dominic Mason, managing director, Sedgwick Richardson said that Instagram-worthy experiences is a "viable approach" to place branding, and other complementary approaches such as events and activities can enhance Instagram-worthy experiences and make them more meaningful and memorable for consumers.

Similarly, Mason said that Instagram should be part of a bigger cohesive brand experience, one that builds participation and co-creation, such as the IAmsterdam installation which was a prominent destination marker for approximately 14 years. The installation, however, was removed in 2018 by local authorities in Amsterdam as it is too individualistic. According to The Telegraph, local authorities hope to promote diversity, tolerance and solidarity instead of emphasising that everyone is individuals in the city.

When it comes to breathing new life into old or forgotten places using Instagram, Mason said local authorities or marketers can leverage on the cultural and historical authenticity of these places and either recontextualise or reframe them for Instagram. The agency, for example, is currently working with E&O Hotel in George Town to leverage its "Instaworth" and draw more tourists.

Nonetheless, Mason said that the success of a brand would not solely be based on how "Instagrammable" it is. "The strategy shouldn’t be based off Instagram, but more on leveraging new technologies and making it relevant to building wonderful brand experiences," Mason said. He said:

Brand longevity and sustainability require relevance over time.

Mason added that there still needs to be substance to whatever has been created to ensure longevity, to turn the instant into the intransient.