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The Instagram Effect: How social media impacts foodservice

By Sylvia Tomczak

Influencers, inspiration, and innovation — that’s all part of the Instagram effect.

The way we consume media has changed drastically in the last decade, pushing further away from print and closer toward digitally-driven media. As generations like Gen Z are raised on technology and computer culture, the world is continuing to undergo a digital revolution. Since so much of our lives revolve around social networking apps, it’s no surprise that businesses are increasingly prioritizing an online presence in an effort to better situate themselves within the tech-bound demographic.

Though all sorts of platforms like Snapchat, YouTube, TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter are influencing the F&B industry in unique ways, Instagram remains top-ranking in terms of users and engagement (29 per cent higher than Facebook and 60 per cent higher than Twitter). Plus, its focus on the visual is relevant in an industry where appearance accounts for half of the experience; we eat with our eyes, after all. Since arriving at our fingertips in 2010, Instagram has significantly changed how we communicate and interact with each other. Boasting over a billion users, the app has unsurprisingly become a valuable tool for F&B businesses to market their brand, gain operational insights, and even boost culinary creativity.

Beyond simply sharing a picture, posts are now planned, likes and comments are calculated, and stories synchronized to advertise more effectively. But how does a brand stand out against the rest? The answer resides in social media itself.

One of the greatest facets of socials like Instagram is its ability to act as a template, and one that evolves in real-time. This means that businesses can look at the social media habits of competitors and gauge how to better market themselves, which is especially vital to smaller businesses that may lack the means to market in a traditional sense. Though building a brand and cultivating an audience can be hard since passing users are often the hardest to impress, creating a following is a necessity in order to spark purchases, reservations, and overall interest. Thus, using a successful F&B business’ Instagram page as a model, businesses can note strategies like publishing aesthetic content, using paid advertisements, engaging with followers through posts and comments, and even working with ambassadors or influencers.

At its core, social media has allowed itself to teach entrepreneurs and business owners how to improve storytelling through the optics of aesthetics while relaying brand values using hashtags or creating stories, reels, and posts to diffuse content. But another key component to this online social formula is fostering a relationship with the online community through creating a dialogue, which in turn builds trust with followers who might later become customers. In a sense, how a business portrays itself online is almost more important than its real-world presence as people are looking to socials to find new and authentic information.

Yet it’s not just business pages that are helping consumers guide where their next meal will be. Where food critics and journalists were once the authority on food, it’s the consumers who now have the power to make or break a restaurant. While word of mouth is nothing new, when paired with social media, anybody and everybody has the opportunity to affect the outcome of a business based on a consumer’s personal experience. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Influencers also make significant waves for F&B entrepreneurs, acting as the driving force for why your reservations are either declining or skyrocketing. Though these homegrown online celebs now come with a cost (a free meal or paid published content), their followers trust their opinions, which is why businesses are beginning to see the value in nurturing relationships with these tastemakers. And what’s better than a walking, talking, living billboard ad?

While marketing is one way Instagram and other similar platforms are influencing the industry, sharing pictures of dishes crafted by chefs and bakers also serves as a virtual portfolio for those in the backend of the kitchen. A sort of self-promotion, when chefs share their work on Instagram it can actually also be quite helpful for others as it offers the possibility to disseminate knowledge, reveal culinary secrets, and act as a source of inspiration for those in the foodservice industry. Not only are F&B creatives who post intriguing dishes or products given the opportunity to reach a wider audience and engage with people from all corners of the globe, but those who come across the content are able to feed their personal creativity.

Additionally, as well as the opportunity to connect with other chefs, social media acts as a resource that is extremely accessible and always teeming with new information, which helps professionals stay up to date on what’s trending in the culinary world. Chefs are constantly watching, learning, and drawing creative genius from their colleagues, whether that consists of new culinary techniques, interesting flavour combinations, using different or local ingredients, or innovative plating ideas.

Consequently, social media can be used to challenge chefs to venture into uncharted territories of the experimental, urging them to break down their boundaries and introduce new flavours or construct more aesthetic dishes. Likewise, within this challenge to push oneself further, there’s also the effect of self-regulation, if we think about how consumers-turned-tastemakers will take to the ’gram and report to their audience. A chef must be more accountable for how a dish looks or the way in which it is presented and served if it’s going to be broadcast online to thousands of eyes.

Of course, given the impact of COVID-19, the importance of social media has only soared. Where we once would be able to jet-set and travel to foreign lands (or even just venture further than beyond our neighbourhood block), we now collectively turn to social media to be entertained, inspired, and live vicariously through others who have a better opportunity to do the exploring for us. Like a virtual passport, Instagram has helped those in the culinary world to keep learning about foreign cuisines and traditional foods; perhaps now more than ever since there has been such an economic shift, prompting the support of local foods and local businesses. Yet, social media trends have also had the power to unify non-professionals and professionals alike. From dalgona coffee to the viral tomato-feta pasta, socials have offered the chance to connect even from a distance.

However, with a multitude of benefits, there are also some drawbacks of social media, starting with sensory overload. On a platform where the ideal rather than reality is often favoured, the F&B sector certainly isn’t excluded. There is a significant amount of pressure put on chefs to craft picture-perfect plates, and on restaurateurs to create a venue with features like funky or sleek decor that will attract and entice consumers and have influencers flocking to snap a picture. Then there are also the implications of the high expectations of customers. If a food blog approves, then my meal should be amazing—at least, that’s the mindset of many. Naturally, different taste buds are often not factored into reviews and recommendations.

Yet because anyone can hashtag and post an image, drowning in content can be a real and overwhelming challenge when trying to produce something totally innovative. This becomes a touchy issue, especially when an almost identical dish from one famed restaurant appears in another famed restaurant halfway across the globe. While some professionals toy with ideas of copyrighting dishes, others simply retaliate by being all the more creative to the point of impossible recreation. But while dishes may result in striking similarities, recipes have always been borrowed and modified with the passage of time, whether influenced by social media or not.

However, since ideas are so readily diffused in the online creative space, this also presents issues relating to locality and even sustainability of ingredients, as well as cultural impacts resulting in a homogenization of global cuisines and a shift away from authentic or traditional foods related to specific places. With a focus on looking to local producers or supporting your corner sandwich shop, it becomes all the more difficult for businesses to keep in line with emerging customer values, which might prompt things like local or green-washing.

Social media also begs the question of surprise. Working as a tool to foster ideas and share discoveries, what about the magic when you stumble across an unexpected surprise? That little bar serving stellar cocktails in the middle of nowhere is so much more exciting when it’s a discovery made by you and not a swarm of hundreds of Instagrammers. There’s a sense of intimacy and excitement that is slowly vanishing before our eyes every time we take to Instagram to pick a new restaurant, relying on the vast world of people sharing their “professional” opinions.

Social media platforms won’t be leaving us anytime soon and harnessing the power of socials like Instagram is vital to better building a brand and maintaining a following, all the while learning new things and adding to the creative world of F&B. Depending on whose hands the app falls into, Instagram has the power to help but also harm, but understanding the science behind the smoke and mirrors renders the app all the more useful.

Ultimately, a fork and knife don’t cut it anymore. Adding the camera lens to the arsenal of kitchen tools makes chefs more skilful and aware while making customers better patrons for sharing their experience.

Sylvia Tomczak is currently a master’s student at the University of Gastronomic Sciences studying food culture, communication, and marketing. With a love of words and all things enogastronomy, she is passionate about learning new things through a foodie-focused lens and sharing them both on paper and online.