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Did Reels kill food brands on Instagram?

In the early days of social media, a good photo was enough to drive sales, but short-form videos need more time and money. Founders of food brands share how they use Instagram now  

Is creating Reels the only way to survive Instagram? (Eaters Collective, Unsplash)
Is creating Reels the only way to survive Instagram? (Eaters Collective, Unsplash)

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Ruchira Sonalkar, founder of Mumbai-based Native Tongue, a brand that specialises in dips, jams and spreads, began her venture during a particularly pink patch on Instagram in 2018. When the pandemic struck, Sonalkar saw something that has become increasingly rare – increase in organic engagement and growth of her brand’s Instagram presence.

Sonalkar has ‘much to attribute to Instagram’ for her brand’s existence. However, about two years on, the social media platform is a very different world from what it was during the first lockdown. Brands that grew on the back of aesthetic food photography saw their reach severely restricted. Soon, they realised what had changed—the fundamentals of how Instagram worked.

In December, Instagram chief Adam Mosseri said in his new-year message they would consolidate all their video products around Reels. His words underlined the bigger objective of Instagram, which is Meta’s trump card to take on the global dominance of TikTok.

To pacify the millions of active users on Instagram, Mosseri added creators will be at the centre of this video push with Reels and can leverage its monetisation features. The shift isn’t black or white, as experts claim earning through Instagram has become trickier.

G.D. Prasad, ex-vice president of advertising agency Webchutney and founder of food and beverage (F&B) startup V.S. Mani & Co., said while Reels don’t help brands to monetise their products, they are an effective video creation tool. However, promoting Reels as ads on the platform is what he calls a ‘gas guzzler’.

“It simply eats up way too much revenue that could be used elsewhere, and we don’t get a lot of conversions,” Prasad added. In Instagram parlance, a ‘conversion’ refers to the process of having a user discovering a brand’s profile, and subsequently making a purchase.

This, Prasad said, could be due to the very nature and format of Reels. “In the Instagram feed or in Stories, you’re used to swiping up or clicking on a link to visit a page and make a purchase. But, in Reels, you’re simply swiping through without going into the details. The impressions are great, but the conversions are very poor,” he said.

The situation is a deadlock for many, such as culinary documentarian Shubhra Chatterjee’s startup, Tons Valley Shop. In April 2020, the Uttarakhand NGO, Tons Trails (the body behind the eponymous shop) urged users on Instagram to purchase apples grown by farmers in this still less-known valley. Tourism had stopped due to the pandemic, leaving the locals with no means to earn.

“Within three days, we had sold over 200 apple crates, and not just to our friends. By end-September 2020, we had shipped over 25,000 kilos of apples all over India only through social media posts,” says Chatterjee. In October that year, Chatterjee and her husband, Anand Sankar, launched Tons Valley Shop on Instagram.

However, since late 2021, their engagement and reach of posts started to drop. In January, Chatterjee created three Reels, which she said boosted their sales by over 30%. Over February and March, without having made any videos, monetisation through Instagram dropped to an all-time low. “From April onward, for the very first time, we’ve hired a digital marketing agency to focus on ads,” Chatterjee said.

Sonalkar had a similar experience with Native Tongue. She said while the brand saw its follower base grow organically by about 1,000 users every 45 days until around August 2021, the past eight months have seen the brand hardly get “a few hundred followers.” Promoting posts hasn’t led to sales conversions, and engagement has dropped as well.

“Today, it is more expensive than before to produce content for Instagram. While we have earmarked a budget for Instagram content, this is only for brand exposure. The returns on investments (RoI) remain very low, and we’ve stopped depending on the platform for sales,” she said.

The trick, therefore, is for brands to not rely solely on Instagram — even though most consider the Meta platform to be a great place to build a brand’s identity. Dhruv Pahwa, director of Duval Enterprises, the holding company behind homegrown f&b brand Snapin, said that he decided to try and build his brand on Instagram after about 11 years of running it through offline, mainstream retail channels, stores and distributors. The decision, he said, bolstered the brand’s identity to a “whole new set of users.”

Pahwa, too, saw the algorithm shift in Instagram over the past few months. Talking about how he’s been working around this, he said, “We’ve started working with relevant content creators as the platform is leaning more and more towards creators, rather than brands. In the short term, it has helped increase our reach on the platform.”

Sreedevi Lakshmikutty, co-founder of Indian organic grain store Bio Basics, believes Instagram is still an “important platform to reach a broad base of people.” She has been onboarding freelancers to create Reels. However, she believes despite the brand’s focus on videos, users still want static photograph posts with informative captions.

But, after having seen algorithm changes affecting her food venture on Facebook and then on Instagram, she is now looking at other platforms for effective audience engagement. Questioning the dependence that many brands seem to have on a single platform such as Instagram, Lakshmikutty said, “To have a platform to reach people directly is wonderful. But, are we being unrealistic to think that these platforms will give us autonomy and agency?”

Karan Bajaj, co-founder of sustainable food brand Eat With Better, concurred with Lakshmikutty. He believes while Instagram’s reach for small food brands has become significantly more restricted, it’s still the “reigning king for discovering new brands like ours.”

Bajaj is also looking to market his brand on other platforms. “The cost to acquire customers via Instagram keeps increasing with every passing day. Google as an alternate platform is more cost-effective, but the volumes of users for independent brands to target for sales are not nearly as large as Instagram,” he said.

Shalvi Mangaokar-Biswas, co-founder of brand and content marketing agency, The Mill, explained brands are “unlikely to be making money by creating Reels, which is mostly for increased reach or visibility on Instagram.” She notes with Instagram’s focus on original content by creators, for brands, the platform will now only serve as a discovery medium — and its e-commerce potential could thus be limited. 

Interestingly, Instagram’s latest push for original content came as recently as Thursday, April 21, when Mosseri posted about future changes on the platform that would clearly highlight product tags, as well as “ranking for originality.” The latter remains somewhat unclear as of now in terms of how it would be enforced. However, product tags could become a feature that may help brands and content marketers use the platform effectively, again. 

Despite the challenges, Sonalkar continues to remain on Instagram, and posts content regularly. She says, ”The visibility on the platform could be important in the long run.”

Also read | Why social e-commerce works in India, and especially in Bharat

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