Let’s take a look at the trending brands on Instagram in 2020. What are they doing differently from the rest of the pack?

Instagram and brands go together like birds of a feather; it’s as if they were made for each other. With its highly visual approach, its appreciation of aesthetic beauty—and let’s not forget the 500 million users that view it every day—Instagram is the perfect location to launch a brand. Its reach and appeal are so effective that many digitally-native brands launched on Instagram and never ventured into more traditional methods of marketing because, simply, they never had to.

What’s really fascinating, however, is that if you look a little closer at each industry, you’ll notice some interesting differences in the way that they approach their Instagram game. For example, what works for fashion and beauty is not necessarily what works for hospitality.

Today we take a fascinating look at nine of the most popular industries on the platform. We will piece together what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, providing trends, analysis, and insight into the most successful brands on Instagram in 2020. Buckle up, because this one’s going to be fun.


A Look Behind the Curtain

Before we get stuck in, it’s important to mention the way that the following data has been compiled. To pull together the biggest trends across our chosen industries, we used follower count and engagement levels as our top-level metrics, and then selected ten random accounts from the top twenty in each industry as our sample.

We then analyzed each of the accounts, looking at a number of key areas and metrics:

  • Color
  • Composition
  • Medium (photography/graphics/videography)
  • Typography
  • Average number of likes per post (sample consists of the nine most recent posts)
  • Use of Stories, Reels, and other newer Instagram features
  • Outliers and anomalies (to create balance, we also wanted to showcase some things that certain accounts in each industry are doing that don’t follow the overarching trend)

Our data was pulled from:

  • Instagram analytics software, including Unmetric, Whatagraph, Hootsuite, and Later
  • Manual searches on Instagram using the official Instagram app for iOS
  • We also used Adobe Capture to compile color swatches and composition techniques for each industry
  • Where companies have multiple accounts, say for example a different account for each country, we have used the top level, umbrella account, or the US account in each instance

Fashion & Beauty

Fashion & Beauty

Some top brands in this category are:

Fashion and beauty is the undisputed champion of Instagram. The top ten most-followed accounts across the whole of the platform all form part of this category.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, aspirational photography, celebrity endorsements, and behind-the-scenes footage reign supreme in this industry. However there is also quite a large trend towards educational content, where either employee or customer content is showcased on feed, giving insight into how to wear or how to use products. Many of the accounts we surveyed tend to publish posts every two or three days, usually in families of three posts at a time. This a well-established pattern for Instagram content scheduling.

Although not strictly fashion brands, a few sports brands also creep into this category because of how they present their content. Nike—the second largest brand on the entire platform by follower count (currently 122 million and rising by 45,000 followers per day!)—very much presents its content as a fashion brand would. Their feed features sports personalities and customers wearing their products in poses and situations not that unfamiliar in more traditional fashion houses.

Evocative and Diverse Color Palettes

Regarding aesthetics, fashion and beauty definitely employs the most diverse spectrum of colors, with wide variations from one account to the next. Typography seldom features in any of the top accounts, with Gucci being the only account where we could find an example. As you’d expect, imagery is front and center across all accounts, with a high-end editorial and aspirational focus. Much of the content is stylized, either showcasing lifestyle or products in isolation.

Interestingly, fashion and beauty appears to be a traditional industry as far as Instagram functionality is concerned. These brands use Stories and Reels very minimally for the odd behind-the-scenes peek, lookbook, or teaser.


DTC (Direct to Consumer)

Direct to Consumer

Some top brands in this category are:

Direct to Consumer brands are a wide and varied category, usually concerned with verticals that sell physical products such as apparel, wellness products, jewelry, food, and recreation products. You’d expect given the breadth of this category that it would be difficult to find any similarities from one account to the next. However, that proves not to be the case.

Content is very much featured around lifestyle and how these companies can help you gain a particular way of living. In fact, shots solo featuring the products themselves very often don’t get a focus at all. Aspirational and emotive content is king of the castle for this category. For example, Casper very rarely shows or even discusses it products. Instead it focuses on the people that use them, or its versatility and ease-of-assembly.

Stories and videography in general is used heavily in this industry, with a focus on short explainer videos and how-tos. This allows companies to provide additional context for how to interact with their products.

All of this adds up to the feeling of belonging and community. Most DTC companies frequently reply to comments on their accounts, and even ask customers how they can improve their products through Stories surveys.

Photography-Driven Content

There is also a consistency in look and feel from one account to the next. The vast majority favor pastels and blue hues to dress their products and branding. Content is photography-driven, with no messaging or wording of any kind. People and context are front and center, showcasing the aspirations and lifestyle of their customers.


Food

Food

Some top brands in this category are:

As you can probably imagine, this is an incredibly vibrant and active category, with the entire industry pushing in different directions most of the time. Despite this, there are some trends that are worth noting.

For example, photography is one place where accounts converge. The flat lay is a staple of food photography. Close-ups of food are also a keen favorite, both via static and video content. Who doesn’t love watching a fork opening up a chocolate tort or a pizza slice pulled from the rest of the pie? A final trend is one towards recipe posts that showcase a family or friends creating meals together, with a vibrant DIY culture emanating from across many of the accounts we surveyed.

Vibrant Colors and Stylish Typography

In terms of look and feel, food is the first category where typography makes a name for itself. Messaging, slogans, and highly-illustrative titles take center-stage, promoting everything from a company tag line to recipes to upcoming events and offers. Brands tend to use cursive typefaces, making for a fun, light-hearted, and inviting feel to a lot of content in this category.

Color-wise, there are no big surprises with food. Oranges, browns, greens, and reds are the dominant colors, which pretty much covers the vast majority of foodstuffs.


Beverages

Beverages

Some top brands in this category are:

Beverages is one of the top five largest categories on Instagram, with the top ten accounts gathering an average of 4.5 million followers each. Since both soft and harder beverages are in contention, again the category can feel a little sporadic and disparate in places. However there are some underlying trends that it’s worth observing.

For one, this is an incredibly humorous and self-referential category. Not taking yourself too seriously is absolutely the name of the game. Whether alcoholic or otherwise, humor is employed throughout to entertain followers. For example, Starbucks has regular Stories that are beautifully designed, centered around fun, coffee-based activities and topics. Red Bull devotes its entire feed to customers and ambassadors, showcasing their proclivity towards extreme and active sports, often with humorous quips and one-liners in tow. Jameson Whisky posts regularly with its product turning up in bizarre and exotic locations—on top of a volcano; covered in Christmas lights; left out in the snow.

Lifestyle Imagery and Humor

When not exhibiting humor, many of the accounts at the top of this industry fallback on lifestyle shots, showing customers how to mix their products, or teasing upcoming new flavors and recipes.

Aesthetically, there is a broad range of colors on display, but they tend to fall towards the warmer end of the spectrum. With everything from collage to illustration to straight-up product flat lays, you’ll find the whole gamut of artistic styles. Graphic elements play a large part, often ornamenting or enhancing content, particularly lifestyle or context shots to build atmosphere and mood.


Hospitality

Hospitality

Hospitality is somewhat an outlier in some respects, as it’s the only category we surveyed in which independent brands outperform the larger players in the market. Some top brands in this category are:

It’s also, perhaps less surprisingly, this industry leans heavily on influencer content. Many accounts simply repost influencer and customer shots from their hotels and restaurants. As you’d expect, a lot of the content is striking and engaging interior shots of bedrooms, dining areas, and apartments by swimming pools or beaches.

One irreverent take on the interior shot we liked was the way Watsons Bay Boutique Hotel portrayed their rooms. Rather than showing off beautifully arranged, perfectly preened bedsheets, Watsons displays their rooms ruffled and used, the idea being it invites customers in rather than keeping them at arms length. It’s a fantastic strategy and an interesting twist on the major trend for this category.

Inviting and Aspirational Imagery

In terms of colors, nearly every account we surveyed used the same basic palette: blue tints and shades with the odd splash of greens and earthy tones. Their photography (sea, sand, foliage) and the overarching colors of their branding follow the same palette, too. Photography is beautifully shot, even the shots posted from influencers and customers. Interesting angles and context provide intrigue and that “thumb-stopping” feel in this category.

Again, typography is incredibly minimal in feeds. However, it does feature more in Stories, which these brands use to create dramatic teasers and offers for followers.


Travel

Travel

Travel is a category made for influencers. Or maybe influencers made the category. Whichever way around it happened, it’s clear that influencer-centric content is at the heart of the industry on Instagram. We’ve all heard the stories of people packing in their jobs and heading for the beach, becoming “digital nomads” and never working a day in their life again. Well, if the top accounts in travel are to be believed, that’s exactly what’s happening.

Some top brands in this category are:

Whether it’s sweeping vistas, overhead drone shots, jaw-dropping scenery, or sun-drenched beaches, travel has it all. With an average of 2.8 million followers per account and an average of 100,000 likes per post, it’s a category with huge levels of engagement—that wanderlust is real!

Stories are employed in extremely creative ways, with a mix of time lapses, to camera pieces, and swiping overhead videography. Video in general depicts incredible experiences such as skydiving, surfing, and other extreme sports and activities.

The Home of Influencers

Given the category is essentially a huge catalog of the world’s most beautiful destinations, it’s hardly surprising that composition is largely photography-based. There are few to no graphics, typography, or any other elements.

Accounts largely work on rotating themes, with sets of content posted in quick succession, usually hours after each other on the same day. These accounts use colors and composition to create sets of content, which form a travel brochure for each destination that an influencer visits.


Tech (SaaS)

Technology

Software as a service has been around since the dawn of the internet, with services including email and communication, sales management, CRMs, marketing toolkits, and more. Both large and small organizations fit together in this category, from the likes of Microsoft, Google, and Adobe, to Slack, Hubspot, and MailChimp.

Vivid Colors and Stunning Graphics

This category is the most graphical of all the industries we’ve covered. A large percent of brands rely on art-directed pieces to advertise upcoming features or upgrades to software. Services such as MailChimp and Shopify use their profile to promote their brand, incorporating their identity into almost every post no matter the subject. Others such as Microsoft and Zoom use their profiles more to share insights and the people and companies that use their products. In either case, these companies use typography, infographics, short teaser videos, and customer profiles to create a cohesive and compelling story for their followers.

One trend worth noting is that this is one of the few industries we’ve covered that makes extensive use of IGTV. Company messages, behind-the-scenes look at their production teams, and insight into customers and upcoming features are all on display, making full use of this longer form channel.

Given the tendency towards branding, colorways are vastly different from one account to the next, leading to a real array of colors and palettes.


Non-Profits

Non-Profits

If you had to distil the major theme of this category into one word, it would be evocative. Whether it’s harrowing videos of animals in captivity, a photo series following the BLM movement, or ambassadors and affiliates talking to camera about the causes they support, emotion is constantly on display. Even non-profits such as museums like MoMA lean on emotion to convey the exhibitions they’re showing and the meaning behind each artist’s piece.

Statements, quotes, and calls-to-action are abundant, with a sharp use of graphics, photography, and typography. All of these elements work together to create a slightly unnerving mix of good design and a sense of urgency.

Inspiring Action

Posts appear almost daily, usually in sets that can include any combination of photos, graphics, video, or a carousel of all these elements. Sometimes, nine or twelve panels will cover a single topic. This creates a compelling and engaging photo montage of a subject, giving a holistic and insightful view.

This approach appears to be working, with high engagement levels. The top ten accounts in this category garner an average of 1.6 million followers each, and some accounts can chalk up many thousands of comments per post.


Media & Publishing

Media & Publishing

Media and publishing is a category that can be as large as you want it to be. Covering everything from the top-tier media and publishing houses such as Vogue and National Geographic, all the way down to brands such as 9Gag and The Shade Room that amass vast audiences centered around meme culture, through to sports and politics over at ESPN, and New York Magazine—there really is something for everybody.

With vast follower counts (the top ten in this category have an average of 35.3 million followers each), huge levels of engagement—66,100 likes per post—and dedicated audiences that regularly comment and interact through Stories polls, this is likely one of the most active industries on Instagram.

Given the breadth of the category, there is a real juxtaposition of styles, compositions, and colorways, including beautiful editorial photography, clips of killer sports moments, animated GIFs, and more off-the-cuff, hand-crafted moments.

Myriad of Styles

No matter where each brand sits however, the emphasis is entirely people-focused. Photography of people, videos of people, Stories of people; every big moment is seen through the lens of human emotion, connection, and understanding.

Typography appears across all brands within the category. Sometimes text appears as part of a meme post, as a quote from a specific publication, or as a call-to-action. Colors are impactful, bright, bold, and deliberate.

There is a real sense of movement in this category. Given the way the news cycle works these days, it’s hardly surprising. Posts are usually released as singles, each one focusing on a different topic. However, accounts often publish multiple posts, in some cases up to eight, nine, or even ten a day.


Conclusions

Given the fairly narrow set of features that Instagram offers its users, it is fascinating to see the amount of creativity on display. Every industry has its focus, its trends, and its themes. Yet there are plenty of top accounts that tread their own path, constantly keeping their peers on their toes and pioneering new and exciting ways to take their industry.

As we’ve seen throughout this article, it is not necessarily big budget, super-polished content that draws in the crowds. In fact, it’s often exactly the opposite. What is clear however is that consistency, regularity, and an appreciation of aesthetics are still the cornerstones of every trend on Instagram. The mix of these magic ingredients differs vastly from one industry to the next, throwing up new and dynamic ways of expression.

For all this variation, there is one omission from every single category—the use of Reels is non-existent. This new feature, released by Instagram to rival TikTok, does not seem to translate well with the way that brands operate on Instagram. Either that, or the top brands are still working out how best to use this new feature.

With so much variety on display, it’s difficult to conclude with a trend that nicely encapsulates behavior on Instagram. Unless, of course, you consider creativity as the ultimate trend of them all. From the way photography is used to the way typography is deployed, from how Stories and IGTV bring in rich, immersive experiences, to the way GIFs, memes, and animations are skillfully crafted and slotted between more polished content. One thing is for certain—creativity is keeping Instagram alive.


Cover image by AVstock Team.

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