The last decade has seen the rise of the Instagrammable food trend, where restaurants have changed menus to prioritize visual uniqueness – often at the expense of taste.
In a competitive social media landscape where users are inundated with content, the question for restaurateurs has been how to stand out and generate audience engagement in the form of likes, comments and shares.
Under the assumption that creating unique foods will help businesses stand out and drive more engagement on social media, the Instagrammable food trend has spawned novelty items like unicorn lattes and poo coffees. .
But does this strategy really work? Do foods that are unique, distinct, and atypical in appearance drive the most engagement? Or are people more interested in normal, familiar, typical-looking foods?
What People Think About Instagrammable Food
As social media platforms use ranking algorithms to prioritize and boost content, determining which foods get the most engagement on social media will help restaurants and food content creators determine how best to amplify the reach of their content online.
Conventional social media wisdom suggests that people will engage with social media content that they find entertaining, where “entertaining” is synonymous with unique, distinct, and atypical content.
In a food context, entertaining has been assumed to mean food that looks more unique, distinct and atypical.
This assumption sparked an industry trend where restaurants abandoned taste instead of visual aesthetics, such as bright and unusual colors, to drive engagement on visual social media platforms, such as Instagram.
There are many different examples of this over-the-top food trend on Instagram, from the Bagel Store in Brooklyn, NY, to Fugo Desserts, Enchanted Poutinerie and Glory Hole Donuts in Toronto.
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What Instagrammable Food Really Is
Our recent survey, published in the Journal of Business Research, investigates which foods are truly the most Instagrammable – in other words, which garner the most likes, comments and shares.
Our research looked at over 10,000 food images on Instagram from over 850 top restaurants (according to Eater.com) using Google Vision, a machine learning algorithm that extracts information from images.
We found that when Google Vision was more convinced that an image contained real food – an indicator of the normalcy and typicality of food – the more engagement it received on social media.
A follow-up experiment suggests that positive affect, which is how good we feel, helps explain this relationship.
While social media forecasters may suggest unique foods are a trend, this logic contradicts some tenets of evolutionary psychology. Humans have evolved to quickly recognize food visually, not only for what is edible, but also for what is high in calories.
Since finding and eating edible foods was crucial for survival when humans were hunter-gatherers, we may be wired to feel inherently good when we simply see foods we know we can eat.
Why is normal-looking food trendy?
How is this relevant for social media? The average user spends over two hours a day on social media platforms, exposing them to hundreds of different posts in a single scrolling session.
While quickly processing content, the brain can instinctively feel more positively about images that are more easily recognized as food. These positive sentiments can then be transferred to post-directed behaviors, increasing the likelihood that the post will receive likes, comments, or shares.
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Since people feel better when they see easily recognizable foods as food, normal-looking foods tend to taste better. On the other hand, unique foods tend to lead to lower social media engagement because they are harder to recognize and categorize as foods.
Despite food industry bloggers and social media trends suggesting that people are looking for unique and eye-catching content, the most successful Instagrammable foods are the normal-looking ones that are more easily recognized as food.
No ice cream disguised as feces served in toilets, waffles shaped like penises or ice cream in unusual colors. Instead, consumers seem to engage more with regular foods, like a classic burger or regular pizza – no unconventional shape or color required.
Matthew Philp, Assistant Professor, Marketing, Toronto Metropolitan University, Ethan Pancer, Associate Professor of Marketing, Sobey School of Business, Saint Mary’s University and Jenna Jacobson, Assistant Professor, Ted Rogers School of Management, Toronto Metropolitan University first published this article on The conversation.