3 Unlikely Brands That Are Killing it on Instagram (And How Yours Can Too)

By Rohan Ayyar


Image via brenkee under CC0 1.0

Judging by the more than 500,000 advertisers currently paying to get their message across to nearly 600 million users on Instagram, the platform is clearly a powerful place to be.

A visually-oriented, mobile-first social network, Instagram is perfectly positioned to capitalize on the rapid growth of mobile. And the platform is finding significant success with the next generation of buyers: 90 percent of users are under 35.

Yet some brands are still struggling to find success on this platform. Some marketers may feel that their products don’t lend themselves easily to visual marketing. Even if you do manage to get around that challenge, brands can find engagement elusive and often struggle to foster thriving Instagram communities.

As you venture out onto Instagram—which you should definitely do if you’re selling to millennials—remember that success on this channel requires thinking beyond snapshots, filters, hashtags, and clever editing. Only on rare occasions can a product speak for itself.

The three winning pillars of Instagram—for every brand, not just the fun ones—are: inspiring content, community cultivation, and images that are all-around awesome.

Need some Instagram inspiration for your brand? Let’s look at three companies that have found the Instagram sweet spot, projecting the right blend of content and community.

Bonus: Download a free checklist that reveals the exact steps an adventure photographer used to grow from 0 to 110,000 followers on Instagram with no budget and no expensive gear.

3 brands that have Instagram figured out (and what you can learn from them)

1. Les Mills offers motivation and a sense of belonging

New Zealand-based Les Mills, known for its high intensity interval training workout, maintains seven separate Instagram accounts and is crushing it on every single one. With more than 116,000 followers in over 100 countries, what is this fitness brand’s secret to successful Instagram engagement?


First of all, even the name of their Instagram account evokes feelings of community by including the word “tribe.” In an increasingly isolated world, becoming a member of a community is attractive, especially when that group is exclusive, shares a common goal, and maintains its own culture (jargon, hashtags, methodology, definition of success, etc.).


Instead of working out alone, Les Mills Instagram followers have inspiration, motivation, and of course, images of attractive, sweaty people undertaking the same challenging regimen that faces them every morning in the gym. In an instant, they belong.

Les Mills fosters a feeling of inclusiveness, connectivity, and a supportive community.

What you can learn

While you might think you’re attempting to sell a product, what you’re really selling is a feeling. People aspire to feel included, important, empowered, and understood.

Position your product to give them what they’re after. Visuals are great for evoking emotional responses. Use this to your advantage on Instagram.

2. PayPal becomes a lifestyle enabler

Financial services companies probably don’t spring to mind when you think about innovative Instagram ad strategies, yet PayPal stands out as an consistently creative brand on this highly visual platform. They’ve even won awards for it.

Rather than trying to represent financial transactions visually—which would be not only challenging but also horrifically boring—PayPal opts for a far more engaging approach. Its Instagram posts reflect a lifestyle moment that one of its users has achieved, facilitated by using PayPal.

One of their most effective strategies is to showcase people who are enjoying more of what they love thanks to their affiliation with PayPal’s services. And it encourages—and amplifies—mountains of user-generated content, which the brand often repurposes into its own posts.

PayPal connects a very human face with an otherwise abstract financial service. Banking isn’t a fun service to sell, but the lifestyle it enables makes for great engagement. Thanks to this focus, PayPal has 55,000 followers and more than 1.3 million user-generated posts tagged with #PayPal.

What you can learn

Although you need incredible photos to make an impact on Instagram—yes, they must be beautiful, inviting, and inspiring—visual content is an ineffective strategy if it stops there.
To form a meaningful connection with your audience, you need to move beyond visually representing your product. Instead, discover your audience’s goals, and then use customer stories (and user-generated content) to show them that your product will help them achieve that goal.

You must ensure that the captions which accompany your visual posts are customized to resonate with your audience and genuine in their ability to offer value.

For the most part, the visual content that truly captivates Instagram audiences must be several strategic steps beyond “here’s what we sell.”

To supercharge Instagram engagement for your brand, start with this mantra: be a lifestyle enabler. Your imagery must do considerably more than highlight your product.

This is not about you. Make it about the audience: what they love, what they’re passionate about, what they’re desperate to achieve… and how your product gets them there.

3. Paper Source provides way more than paper

You could be forgiven for assuming that stationery store Paper Source is an Instagram success because of its beautiful paper products. Of course, they lend themselves to elegant posts, which is a must on an image-driven channel like Instagram.

But that isn’t what makes their presence there work so well. They showcase their products, sure, but they do it in ways that puts audience engagement at the forefront.

Paper Source does a more-than-effective job of responding to customer inquiries in the comments sections of their posts; with 148,000 followers, that’s no easy task. They’re also aware of popular Instagram hashtags that potential followers might be using and know how to integrate those hashtags to amplify their reach.

Paper Source also takes it one step further, creating and sharing irresistible (and totally replicable on a budget) stop-motion videos like one on creating a paper office plant that can’t be killed. As the comments show, that video hits the right note with their audience and garners lots of attention.

By utilizing the power of video, Paper Source has created viral opportunities on Instagram while simultaneously driving users to their YouTube channel, where they have close to 4,000 subscribers.

What you can learn

First, know thy audience. Paper Source knew that their audience would respond to office plants that never die—the kind of esoteric understanding of personas that all marketers can strive for.

Second, never underestimate the power of social customer service. We live in an instant gratification world, and when your customers want information, inspiration or merely acknowledgement, deliver it to them—instantly.

Last but not least, don’t forget to use successful engagement on one channel to bolster engagement on another, for immersive brand experiences.

Tap into aspirations to inspire passion

Nobody is hanging out on Instagram waiting for you to sell to them. People are there seeking something much more significant. They want to be moved. Inspired. Included.

These three brands are all providing what their target audience is seeking. It’s not about showcasing the products they offer, but instead, elevating their efforts to the next level by demonstrating how the product can create an experience that matters.

Remember, Instagram isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it platform. You must be actively involved in discussions as they develop. Respond constructively to praise and criticism, and share insights in response to questions. Make it easy and inviting for your fans to tag your brand, and amplify them when they do.

Above all, consider what you can offer beyond your products themselves. Create a lifestyle around your product that followers can’t help but want to live.

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