Instagram and brand image

Corporate communication on Instagram: The case of Austria’s Top 500

Pexels / Jeremy Levin


Over the last three years, the use of Instagram has grown rapidly. The popularity of social media communication is increasingly based on the posting, liking, sharing and commenting on pictures and videos. Focusing on corporate communication’s use of Instagram, clearly U.S. companies are leading the way: In 2016, 45% of the Fortune 500 were active on Instagram, which was only launched in October 2010. So, what is the role of visual social media in general, particularly Instagram for corporate communication?

Characteristics of Instagram

Just like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, the image-sharing platform Instagram can help companies to distribute information. However, pictures and videos complement written or spoken text and give a more transparent and authentic depiction of companies, products, brands and representations of services. A 2017 study by Barnes and colleagues shows that the U.S. Fortune 500 use Instagram to advertise their products and services and as a call to action to purchase. Instagram helps them to build their brand.

Instagram is a tool for image management and self-promotion for companies. Pictures and videos are shared to manage the stakeholders’ impression of the company. Images create emotional appeals, which support image (identity) building. Emotional appeals also may increase stakeholders’ attitudes towards products and services. Emotions are a decisive factor in stakeholder decision-making and can increase their purchase intention. Companies ­– especially when they are still lacking experience with Instagram or big communities ­– can also reach out to (future) stakeholders by using cultural intermediaries. Artists, musicians, stylists, photographers and the like, promote products, brands and services by incorporating them into narratives about their lives. For instance, the hip-hop star Snoop Dogg promotes Tanqueray Gin on his Instagram account.

Images can make persuasive arguments to stakeholders,they create causal relationships, help the viewer to achieve coherence faster and create meaning. Hence, Instagram can be used to build and maintain relationships between a company and its online publics. Images suggest reality and thus have the potential to build and/or restore trust and legitimacy in respect to the sender (i.e., company). The Fortune 500 highlight that Instagram helps them to build goodwill with consumers.

Relationship building is also supported by Instagram’s redistributing and interacting functions; even though, these functions play a more minor role on Instagram than on Facebook and Twitter. Regraming, i.e. posting a picture from someone else’s account to the own account is not as easy on Instagram as on other social media to ensure users are not easily claiming a picture as their own. However, Instagram followers can easily redistribute pictures and videos across other social media like Facebook and Twitter. Comparable to word-of-mouth, through redistribution information will spread across different social media and communities. Interaction on Instagram is restricted in the sense that the structure of the platform only allows the owner of an account to post pictures and videos. However, Instagram allows comments, so the exchange about pictures or videos and their content is reciprocal.

From this rather theoretical perspective I wanted to find out to what degree the largest companies in Austria use Instagram for their stakeholder communication. After Facebook, Instagram is the most often used social media in Austria and its popularity is steadily increasing. Therefore the study attempts to describe and map the evolving use of Instagram in Austria by using a quantitative content analysis to compare the use of Instagram of Austria’s Top 500 in 2016. I chose these companies due to the hugely influential role they play in the business world.

Modest use of Instagram by Austria’s Top 500

In 2016, only 67 (12.3%) of Austria’s largest companies have an official Instagram account. Two accounts are actually not in use. Compared to the U.S. Austria’s Top 500 are lacking behind.

Looking across sectors, the comparison shows that the majority of Austrian companies with an Instagram account are engaged in commerce, 44.8%, followed by companies in industry (34.3%) and in service (20.9%).

Only a very few companies post on a daily basis as shown in Figure 1. Of the ten most active companies, only three of the accounts are in German like Ikea Austria and the Austrian supermarket chain Lidl Österreich. Companies that are internationally operating directly address an international audience like Wolford Austria and KTM-Sportmotorcycle AG.

Figure 1. Total number of companies’ postings from July to December 2016 per Instagram account (N=65)

Relationship building

Companies’ modest Instagram use is followed by rather low user interest and interaction. As shown in Figure 2, the majority of Austria’s Top 500, 37%, builds online ties with 1000 to 9999 stakeholders via their Instagram accounts and another 26% of the companies’ accounts have less than 1000 followers. Only 14% (nine companies) of the companies have more than 100,000 followers. Companies have to keep in mind that the size of the community is also a sign of reputation.

Figure 2. Community size (N=65, number of followers in %)

Besides the size of the community, followers’ interactions are important for relationship building and reputation on Instagram. On Instagram, followers can like and comment on pictures and videos. Overall, and this is not surprising, the number of likes and comments increases with the number of followers. However, the most liked picture has only 333.000 likes (Porsche, 16.11.2016), which can hardly be considered as a lot of interaction in a community of 5.7 million followers. Concerning commenting, most postings only get up to 10 user comments as shown in Figure 3. Likes and comments are important, because, according to researchers Carah and Shaul, they “make images visible to people elsewhere in the network, interjecting images into customized flows of content. Instagram iteratively develops devices to calculate and modulate these forms of engagement”.

Figure 3. Amount of user comments on companies postings from July to December 2016 (N = 65, in %)

Contests and “cool pics”

So, the question is what types of pictures on Instagram get many comments? Looking at the five pictures with the most comments (in the sample) slight patterns can be identified. People comment a lot when they can win something as displayed by the two postings of the two major drugstore chains in Austria, BIPA and dm drogeriemarkt.

Caption reads: “bipa Woohoo, from today on you can find the #LOOKBYBIPA #Adventkalender in our stores and on #BIPAOnlineShop! Hurry up, it is only for a short time and as long as stocks last available. With whom would you like to share the advent calender? Let us now in your comments and have the chance to win one of five advent calendars……”

Caption reads: “Did you all behave weeeellll? Comment this posting and win one of these Nicolas bags! One for yourself and one to give as a present! ….”

People also comment a lot when pictures have a typical style the community perceives as “cooler” than other images, such as the post below from Porsche. Images on the Instagram account of Porsche consitently draw a lot of engagement for this reason.

Lack of vision

Austria’s Top 500 still neglect the potential of Instagram for their stakeholder communication. It seems that most companies are still in a trial phase. Only 37 of the 67 companies directly link to their Instagram account from their corperate website. However, first, companies have to keep in mind that Instagram provides the infrastructure for corporate communication to mediate a company, products, brands, and services as pictures and videos can be quickly framed, filtered and edited. Second, younger, digital-savvy users – the future stakeholders – use Instagram more than Facebook and Twitter. Third, visual communication in combination with text is very effective in increasing stakeholder’s attention and retention, which is a great challenge in times of information overload.

Uta Russmann

Professor Dr Uta Russmann is senior researcher at the Institute of Communication, Marketing and Sales at the FHWien University of Applied Sciences of WKW, Vienna, Austria. She studied communication sciences, sociology and political science at the Universities of Vienna and Tampere (Finland). Her main research interests include strategic communication management, public relations, new media, online communication, political communication as well as media and elections.