Fast-food chains like Starbucks and Taco Bell are stealing a page out of Instagram influencers' playbook

Hollis JohnsonTaco Bell invited Instagram influencers to try its Naked Chicken Chalupa to build buzz for the item before it was released for a limited time in January 2017.

  • Fast-food chains are launching products that seem specifically designed to be shared on Instagram.
  • Some, like Starbucks and Taco Bell, use their Instagram pages to create a lifestyle around their brands.
  • It’s a strategy that’s often been used by social-media influencers who get paid thousands of dollars a post.

The appeal of Instagram is simple: it allows you to create an idealised version of yourself and make people believe it’s your real self.

Fast-food chains understand that, so they have been trying to convince you that their inexpensive, often unhealthy food is something your ideal self would proudly share to your followers. The most Instagram-savvy brands, like Starbucks and Taco Bell, have introduced photogenic products that stand out from their other offerings.

In doing so, fast-food chains have become a lot like the Instagram influencers who get paid thousands of dollars a post to sell a certain kind of lifestyle via social media.

Fast-food chains are making items designed for Instagram

While Starbucks’ Unicorn Frappuccino was too sweet for our reviewers’ tastes, its vibrant colours made it an instant hit on Instagram. Its neon blue, pink, and purple syrups immediately stood out on Instagram feeds, just as Starbucks probably intended.

“Even if everybody’s not ordering that item, that buzz is getting people in the door to buy other food and drinks. And that’s worthwhile; that’s important in today’s world,” Ronn Torossian, who runs the public relations agency 5WPR, said to Business Insider.

Taco Bell tried to build a similar level of buzz with its Naked Chicken Chalupa, which the chain launched for a limited time in January 2017. While it was not as colourful as Starbucks’ Unicorn Frappuccino, it too was built on a clever gimmick. Instead of using a traditional taco shell, the Naked Chicken Chalupa wrapped cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and avocado ranch in a piece of fried chicken.

The chain invited Instagram influencers to a speakeasy-themed pop-up to try the item before it was released to the public.

The goal? To make the influencers excited about their special access to the item so they would share it with their followers. And, once the Naked Chicken Chalupa was available to the general public, those followers would emulate their heroes and post photos of the item themselves.

They’re copying the strategies used by Instagram influencers

But fast-food chains are doing more than advertising new and existing items on Instagram. They’re trying to build a lifestyle around their products by copying the strategies of Instagram influencers.

“What they’re really doing is, they’re bringing their personality and humanity and warmth to life on Instagram … There’s kind of a realness to it that it has to feel that advertising doesn’t necessarily have, and also an intimacy where it’s like you’re really talking to a person,” Aaron Shapiro, CEO of the marketing firm Huge, told Business Insider in a phone interview.

Through carefully calibrated lighting, angles, poses, and colour schemes, Starbucks’ and Taco Bell’s Instagram pages want to make you think that its customers are more fashionable, sociable, and attractive than every other chain’s customers.

View this post on Instagram

"Okay, now everyone laugh."

A post shared by Taco Bell (@tacobell) on

Taco Bell’s posts are full of bold, monochrome backgrounds and models who wear sunglasses and stylish haircuts while laughing with their friends. Some of the posts may not immediately stand out as advertisements on your feed, which is the whole point.

“If you look at Taco Bell’s channels, they look fun, they feel good,” Torossian said. “I feel like there’s a story there and it’s not just about ‘come in and buy our taco.'”

As fast-food chains get a better grasp on Instagram, the line between posts from your friends and those from brands may continue to blur.

“The reality is that this thing isn’t going away,” Torossian said. “It’s only going to grow, and food is something everybody loves to talk about.”

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