West Elm Creativity

Consumers as brand curators: How user generated imagery is transforming the creative process


By Natalie Mortimer, N/A

August 14, 2015 | 6 min read

As brands increasingly make use of user generated imagery in their marketing and consumers take on the role of brand curators, Natalie Mortimer asks what impact this trend might have on agency creative departments.

A brooding, tattooed banjo player, a woman draped in front of a cityscape, a child uncharacteristically relaxing in a pool – these evocative images form the centrepiece of luxury hotel chain Loews’ most recent ad campaign. Yet despite their slick, on-brand appearance, they were all snapped by Instagram-using holidaymakers.

The proliferation of image sharing apps and the so-called ‘selfie generation’ has created a honeypot of user generated content (UGC) ripe for the picking by marketers and brands looking to create more visually compelling marketing and reduce costs associated with traditional photoshoots.

Loews Hotels combed through over 35,000 Instagram images to populate its #TravelForReal campaign, and the brand is certainly not alone. Apple, Burberry, West Elm and Costa Coffee are just a handful of brands capitalising on user generated images, tasking audiences with uploading pictures to create more meaningful and authentic content.

But what’s driving the trend? According to a 2012 study by Bazaarvoice, over half (51 per cent) of Americans trust UGC more than other information on a company website (16 per cent) or news articles about the company (14 per cent) when looking for information about a brand, product, or service. Millennials are the most likely to trust UGC, with 84 per cent reporting that UGC on company websites has at least some influence on what they buy.

So with shoppers arguably placing real-life visuals higher in their estimation than stock photography or even imagery commissioned by agencies, brands are adapting the way they approach ad campaigns to keep up with demand for authentic images.

“The way consumers create and consume content has changed drastically over the last few years,” says Jose de Cabo, co-founder of Olapic, a visual commerce platform that helps brands boost sales with user generated images from social media channels.

“Shoppers are speaking a new, visual language that values authenticity. Their expectations are changing and they want fresh, original content at the speed of social – brands simply can’t keep up producing all the content themselves or though their creative agencies.”

To bridge this content curation gap, marketers are looking to the visual social networks such as Instagram, where brand assets can be mined from content created by users. Olapic is currently working with a slew of brands including Topshop, New Balance and Walmart. According to de Cabo, on average it sees consumer conversion increase by five to seven per cent and average order value by two per cent. Additionally, Olapic customers using consumer photos in email have seen up to 15 per cent lift in conversion.

“I just saw new data on the results of a global fashion brand testing UGC on its Facebook ads and its ROI was four times the media spend for the week they tested. That shows that on Facebook consumers want to see authentic content and they can spot when the ad creative is staged,” adds de Cabo.

​Home and furniture retailer West Elm has long been harnessing user generated imagery in its marketing and currently has over 18,000 consumer images in its #mywestelm gallery.

One unexpected result for the retailer is the high number of images that include pets sprawled across its furniture, so West Elm has now integrated a separate pet category in the gallery. For the company user generated imagery isn’t just about building brand ambassadors; it’s also used by internal teams to identify trends. “Our merchants and designers are constantly sifting through the photos for inspiration, ideas and feedback,” explains Abigail Jacobs, vice-president of brand marketing.

So as more and more brands begin to understand the true depth and breadth of the consumer photo opportunity, what are the implications for the agency art director? “User generated imagery is another tool in an agency’s art-buying bag. In our experience it’s less about restructuring and more about adapting when it comes to managing the process and legals,” says Mark Urey, associate creative director at TMW Unlimited. “It should be recognised as a trend first and foremost, so use it wisely. And be prepared for the extra man-hours it takes to sift through usable imagery – for every stonker there will be 20 out-offocus, thumb-over-lens horrors”.

Beri Cheetham, executive creative director at Arc London, agrees that imagery created by users is just another tool for agencies, but won’t necessarily replace professional photography. “While on many occasions, turning the camera over to the hands of the consumer does create some fun, authentic and arguably brilliant imagery, it can’t work for everything,” he says. “I can’t see a future where world-class photographers are obsolete. But I very much can see a future where both professional photography and user generated imagery coexist.”

However, Cheetham warns, there is a danger that the use of UGC could saturate the market and have the opposite effect on consumers. “If it is more a cost saving exercise than making something compelling, then I wonder at what point the consumer wakes up to being exploited, or simply gets tired of being the brand curator,” he adds.

​But with Olapic and other major players Curalate and Snapwire pulling in millions of dollars’ worth of investment, the trend doesn’t show any signs of slowing just yet. “In most cases people are thrilled when their favourite brand reaches out and asks to feature them on the brand’s website,” argues de Cabo. “In fact, on average 70 per cent agree to the request of the brand to use the photos… that is one-to-one marketing. We are helping brands empower their ambassadors.”

This was first published in the 5 August issue of The Drum.

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