Why brands are getting weird on social media
Behind-the-scenes content on OnlyFans, ditching Instagram entirely, and replying to rude comments on TikTok are just a few ways brands are ditching the social media playbook.
Manicured feeds, on-brand messaging, the occasional playful meme, and an ultra-friendly member of the customer support team lurking in the comments.
There’s a set blueprint for how customer-centric, digital-first brands operate on social media. And while this might be a tried-and-tested way to deliver a positive experience, it’s not always the most memorable approach.
So what happens when brands decide to ditch the playbook, and forge their own path? There are a number of brands in the Thingtesting directory that are letting their personalities shine on social media, such as CBD gummy seller Not Pot’s social media strategy, that can at times be affectionately described as "shitposting," beauty company Starface’s obsession with showing us pimple pus, and cereal brand OffLimit’s mascots that each have their own social media accounts (meet Dash and Zombie).
Such strategies are high risk, but can be high reward. Get it right, and consumers will think of the brand as a rare example of honesty, fun and authenticity at a time where trust in brands on social media is dwindling. If it doesn’t land right, however, brands risk coming across as strange, unrelatable, or even offensive.
To learn more about how brands are experimenting on social media, we spoke to three founders whose strategies range from clapping back to their followers’ rude comments to ditching IG all together.
On January 30th, Fly By Jing made an unexpected announcement on Instagram. The company told its followers that it had joined a new social platform: OnlyFans.
The pantry brand is one of a very small handful of companies, which include fashion label Rebecca Minkoff and Berlin-based retailer Voo Store, to start experimenting with the platform.
Jazlyn Patricio-Archer, Fly By Jing’s head of brand, says the idea came up while the team were “shooting the shit” on a company retreat in Big Bear Lake in California. Fly By Jing was about to launch its rebrand and enter an exciting period of expansion, but founder Jing Gao was concerned about losing the close connection the brand had built up with its fans.
“That person to person sharing of flavors was the origin of Fly By Jing,” Patricio-Archer says, referring to the supper clubs Gao used to host in her Shanghai apartment, which led her to launch the brand. “So how do you translate that now you are in a space where we’ve got high order volumes, [and Gao] is stretched super thin? How do we continue to have that really personal connection with customers?”
OnlyFans, the most up close and personal social platform of them all, made sense. Fly By Jing uses the platform to post behind-the-scenes content, where fans can watch Gao make dumplings, or listen to discount codes being whispered to them, ASMR-style.
Fly By Jing doesn’t charge followers to view the content, and Patricio-Archer says the appeal of OnlyFans has more to do with the exclusive nature of the platform than its revenue-generating possibilities. “It wasn’t something we ever wanted to monetize – it was a place for us to put out content that wasn’t going to be search indexed,” she says.
One of the best things about experimenting with OnlyFans, Patricio-Archer says, is the freedom that comes with it. Instagram, on the other hand, is “too gamified to really play and experiment,” Patricio-Archer explains, adding that the algorithm forces brands to only post the types of content that are known to perform best on the platform.
Camera backpack company Brevite, founded by brothers Dylan, Brandon and Elliot Kim in 2015, started noticing that they were getting a few mean-spirited comments on social media. Things like, “I’m not paying $129 for a mediocre backpack” and “Sorry, but $25 on Alibaba.” Instead of brushing them off, Dylan Kim decided that the brand should stand up for itself.
“We have a lot to say about our products. A lot of time goes into designing them and making sure we’re keeping an ethical supply chain,” Kim says – pointing out that, actually, the bags are nothing like what you can get on Alibaba. “Having a well made, high-quality product allows us to clap back.”
The questions Brevite responds to are worded bluntly, but they are ultimately the exact things that customers will consider when making a purchase. A typical “clap back” video on Brevite’s TikTok feed features close-ups and demos of the bag, while a voice-over provides an explanation as to why the product costs what it does, or gives more information about how it’s made. Overlaid at the top of the screen is the comment Brevite is responding to.
Kim says that while the videos are a bit adversarial, they typically go down well with Brevite’s audience on TikTok, and often result in discussion about the pros (and cons) of the products in the comments section.
Kim says Brevite has only been seriously investing time in TikTok since March 2021, when a video it posted titled “Most camera bags suck” went viral. It got over 1.4 million views, while sales of the brand’s Everyday backpacks (featured in the video) saw a 200% increase in sales that month. Kim says it’s all thanks to that video.
“One of the most empowering things about TikTok is that because it’s a discovery platform, we see a lot of new people and new faces,” he says. “We do respond to the trolls and the hate comments, which I think will forever be part of TikTok, but we also see a lot of positivity.”
Things have been getting quieter and quieter on instant coffee brand Swift Cup Coffee’s social channels. The brand’s last post on Instagram in December 2020 promised the team would be back on January 4th. But, since then, it’s been crickets.
It’s hard to imagine a direct-to-consumer brand intentionally deciding to ditch Instagram, but it's exactly what founder Nate Kaiser did. He was sick of gaming Facebook and Instagram’s algorithms, and had also noticed that, throughout the pandemic, rising tensions on social media had been negatively affecting his mental health.
“There seemed to be this explosion maybe three years ago, where it just became a lot harder to get engagement [on Instagram],” he says. “And it was clear that in order to be successful, you had to create a lot of content, you had to be spending a lot of money on ads.”
In August 2020, Swift Cup announced on Instagram that it was weaning itself off social media. “We used to post on Instagram maybe once or twice a week, which isn’t much, but that was our cadence,” Kaiser says. “Then we decided to move it back to once a month, and I deleted it off my phone.”
Swift Cup noticed two things right off the bat. First, Kaiser’s anxiety subsided. And second, “nothing changed on our sales side of things.”
Return on investment from the company’s Instagram ad spend – $10,000 a month at its peak, per Kaiser – had already been dwindling. “But when we pulled the plug, it was fascinating,” he says. “We haven’t posted anything since December and our sales have increased every month since then. When I see that, and I see the quality of my life, I feel like I’ve detoxed from that culture of trying to grab people’s attention.”
Swift Cup also benefits because it’s not just selling its product to coffee drinkers, it also creates instant blends for coffee roasters, who account for about 70% of revenues.
“There are some very helpful things [that Instagram does]. You can find great products, it’s great for businesses, and for connecting [with customers]. I’m not diminishing the positives,” Kaiser reflects. “And I’m not saying we will never pick it back up. We’ll get to the right point where the right people [can take charge] of that, and we can do it in a much more sustainable way.”
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