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Food Stories as Cultural Currency for Brands

By Chia Schmitz

A look at food as a means of brand storytelling on social media.

You might be asking yourself right now: What are “food stories?”

Well, for the purposes of this post, a food story is a general handle for highly visual food-related content like images and videos appearing on social media channels. Food stories can be a collection of pictures on Instagram, a blog post, a Snapchat Story, or even a YouTube video. And, they can be user-generated, at an amateur or pro-levels, but brand generated too.

Food as a basis for brand storytelling? Really?

Absolutely. Just scroll through Instagram and check out all the proud dishes whipped up by your friends. Or, like many people these days, you’re probably following a few foodie influencers who share incredible snack finds (the rainbow bagel started somewhere) or who are globe-trotting the world archiving eye-candy eats (check out @andreannu).

Done right, food, as the focus of storytelling can be low-hanging fruit. Food is universal. It’s prolific, endlessly diverse, exciting, and always evolving. It’s an event that happens all day, every day. And, for many social media users, it’s an effective means to broadcast personal identity, beliefs, status, knowledge, and taste to others. All in one pic or video.

That’s because food and food stories carry cultural currency. Meaning people find affiliation and conversation in them, sometimes responding en masse. Not only is it a narrative to witness, it’s one that naturally invites you to participate in yourself. As a phenomenon, food stories have brought us crazes like avocado toast, the cronut, matcha lattes, and the aforementioned rainbow bagel. These eats-of-the-moment connect with our collective appetite for shareable experiences. Plus, they’re fun.

So, what can brands learn from this?

Social media is more than just posting content, food-related or not. Some of the food stories coming from brands online can feel cookie-cutter or simply be off the mark. A slog of images that all look the same, all the way down a page, plugging a product — definitely not a brand goal.

The goal for any brand using social media is to develop content that’s relevant and exciting to users. So, how can your food brand leverage food stories? And how can you help convert delicious content into cultural currency among your audiences? Here are three insights:

1. Excitement leads to sharing.

We’re all matchmakers. We enjoy recommending products and brands that we’re excited about. It makes us feel dialed in. At the same time, we’re also likely to buy or use products that our friends recommend to us.

For your brand, food stories can be a great way to drum up that excitement — consider it an opportunity for people to see what you’re about, but also an invitation for them to participate in the world your brand creates. “Social proof” is a big part of that. Social proof is our tendency to look to experts, celebrities, friends and even brands for confirmation when we make decisions large or small.

A brand like Sweetgreen does an excellent job on Instagram creating food stories that offer both delight and real depth. Sweetgreen’s business is selling salads, but they know that for a lot of their hip clientele, having an amazing desk lunch is the highlight of the day. A charming in-the-know humor is embedded in Sweetgreen’s content — because having #lunchgoals and enthusiasm for the fall squash menu can be quite funny.

Brands like Sweetgreen succeed at food stories with striking photography, but also with smart copy and hashtags that excite followers to like, comment, and tag friends. If humor’s not your thing, find a tone that’s on-brand and engaging. But remember: People share what excites them — so tap into it.

2. Food and status go together.

While food is often an ingredient of self-expression and connection, an often overlooked factor is bragging rights. Millennials, especially, make lifestyle choices that feel good and do good, but also look good. They’re deliberate about what they choose, consume, wear and eat, and they’re mindful about what they share in their carefully curated social media feeds.

Food is a part of this quest for status. Bottled green juices signal that an Instagrammer is wellness-minded. A brunch-y plate of eggs in Tulum gives followers a vicarious glimpse of a wanderlust lifestyle. Early morning matcha lattes hint someone is ambitiously driven but in-the-know on trendy caffeine alternatives. Food stories with artfully curated environments, cues, and even props are effective because they resonate with the narratives people share of themselves online.

While not every food brand is looking for a niche market, for those that are, inserting the brand into a status narrative can help build community and the cultural currency that specific community finds irresistible. Brands like Bluestone Lane, an Australian-style coffee and lifestyle purveyor, and Mother In Law’s Kimchi are tapping into an identifiable narrative to flex what they’re all about, both for community and currency.

To put this into practice, be sure to use social context and cues to present your point of view and engage with people, places, and other brands that share your perspective.

3. Scroll to discovery.

Social media has brought us a new way to research where people actively investigate new products and brands. The stories they see from friends and influencers offer a means of discovery and can prompt them to mimic what others buy, do and eat.

There’s a strong correlation here between visual stories, likes and retweets, and brand affiliation. What consumers see peppered throughout their feeds translates into clicks, buys and mobile shopping lists. The more frequently they see your brand, the more top-of-mind you become. They’ll begin to recognize you as part of their circle’s cultural currency. On a super-scrollable platform like Instagram, users start to find patterns, almost subconsciously, as they’re thumbing through photos.

What does this mean for brands and food stories?

It’s important to understand where and how you show up — especially in that moment of “discovery” when someone is surfing through images. Food stories can be an essential element of a brand’s success, so it’s important to have a hook and differentiator to set your brand apart from the crowd. Status is one way to rise above the noise, but so is having a distinct and ownable look that’s fun to be part of. Brands like Milk Bar Store or Mast Brothers have created playful online identities that are perfect for discovery. You’ll find them captivating and fun, whether you’ve stumbled across them or sought them out intentionally.

Images from Milk Bar Store’s Instagram

Food stories have immense potential to unlock culture currency for your brand. Take an unflinching look at your brand’s social presence. Are you treating it like a homework assignment, throwing stuff out there just because you have to? Or are you creating food stories that match up with what your audience is sharing? Food is the ultimate social experience, so be delicious, be different, be dramatic.

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