Visual Hashtags, Big Brands

For more than fifty years, Charles Frost has been the name behind the American Express credit card. The “CF Frost” that appears at the bottom of the cards was an executive at Ogilvy & Mather in the 1960s, a time when “social media” was the newspaper that got passed around the bar during a liquid lunch. Recently though, Charles Frost has made a comeback and he’s shown that when it comes to the latest social media marketing platforms, he’s right up to date.

In February 2014, American Express allowed people to track Charles Frost’s activities on Instagram. For two weeks, images tagged with the hashtag #CFFrost showed the cardholder’s activities. American Express’s 34,000 followers saw his platinum card pay for a $600 bill at a New York restaurant, buy first class tickets to Miami for a romantic Valentine’s Day getaway and give him access to NY Fashion week.

Each of those actions, the total story of Charles Frost’s two weeks, was shown through images and captions, and made discoverable through a hashtag.

The idea was to promote a credit card to an audience younger than people old enough to remember the sixties.

“We saw this as a unique way to tell our brand story with a different lens and tone,” Mona Hamouly, vice president, social media communications at American Express told Clickz. “People come to Instagram for insider access or a behind the scenes look that gives them insight into the brand. We wanted to show how we facilitate the passions of our members.”

The kinds of images shared during the campaign varied — and they varied surprisingly in their results. Pictures showing New York and Miami landscapes were popular but so were any picture that depicted the card itself.

According to Hamouly, American Express did not have any specific goals when it created the campaign but over those two weeks, it did pick up about 1,000 new Instagram followers and the hashtagged images generated about 6,000 likes. The company was said to be “pleased” with the results.


Visual hashtag campaigns aren’t new but American Express’s campaign stands out for its creativity. The company created a character and told his story in professional pictures posted on Instagram. The images were detailed and inviting, and the medium through which that story was told suited the campaign completely. Instagram’s followers are used to tracking lives through imagery. American Express used the features of Instagram that people find most attractive, and inserted its own form of product placement.

Armani has been equally creative but instead of supplying images, it used Instagram as a source for crowdsourcing. As part of their Frames Of Life campaign, followers needed to add the #framesoflife hashtag to their tweets and when users visited the company’s Pinterest page, those pictures would appear alongside their frame styles.

For the brand it was a powerful but easy way to show their products used in the real world by one set of customers on Instagram to another set of people on Pinterest who might well become customers in the future.

Not all visual hashtag campaigns on social media are that sophisticated. But they don’t always need to be.

The Rules For Competitions

The simplest visual hashtag campaigns are competitions based on user-generated imagery. Users are invited to submit pictures and those that win the most likes land a prize. Whisky maker Macallan, which runs a Masters of Photography series and whose Facebook page places a strong emphasis on photography, invited its followers on Instagram to “Take a photo representing you and The Macallan, be creative here – really catch our eye!” The company picked the winners itself from a batch of images that showed mostly glasses, bottles and people drinking. The topic was broad and while it seemed to leave plenty of room for creativity, most of the entrants would have been centered on the product.

Dunkin Donuts used a similar, if more lighthearted, strategy. The company once invited users to decorate their cups and send in their pictures with the hashtag #dressedd.

Both of those campaigns created a hashtag around which users could submit their own product images. They left little room for artistry and while they allowed for some imagination, their main goal as far as the brand was concerned was always to spread branded product images first across Instagram and by sharing the images, on Facebook too.

Other companies have taken visual hashtag competitions a little further by broadening the range of images that participants can submit.

Lipton’s Tea, a brand owned by Unilever, ran an Instagram-based contest whose winner would be flown out to the company’s plantations in Kenya. To enter, participants had to “upload an image to your Instagram that inspires and which also represents one of the contest’s weekly keywords.” They also had to tag the image with #Lipton and the keyword of the week, and like the company’s Facebook page.

The keywords included #uplifting, #excitement, #spontaneous and #brightness.

Ford used a similar strategy to promote its Fiesta. The company wanted to promote aspects of the car that it thought customers had ignored. It invited participants to submit images that carried the hashtag #Fiestagram together with a hashtag of the week’s theme. They included #entry, #music and #hidden. While Macallan and Dunkin Donuts expected its contest participants to send in pictures of their products, Ford, like Liptons was happy to accept images that were more expressive than subjective. Pictures that people uploaded included images of doors and sunrises — exactly the sort of pictures that users are likely to see on Instagram.


The Fiestagram campaign, coming from a company with a particularly strong reputation for social media marketing, was very successful. During the six-week competition, more than 16,000 photos were submitted for a chance to win a car and Ford picked up more than 120,000 new Facebook fans. The contest was able to hit its target demographic of creative professionals and was even profiled in a number of leading French newspapers.

When it comes to running visual hashtag competitions, companies are largely employing one of two strategies.

The simplest is to invite followers, whether on Instagram or on Facebook to shoot creative pictures of their product and add a hashtag to the posts. The company gets instant viral spread with the brand featured in the image but runs the risk of receiving few responses and sharing pictures that are too direct to be interesting or memorable.

Alternatively they can be more subtle, choose general themes that allow for greater creativity and win brand recognition in the hashtag rather than in the picture. The resulting images might not carry the brand but like the images commissioned by an advertising firm, they depict the emotions the brand should inspire.

Ford appears to have had impressive success using the second of those strategies but when participation in a contest is affected as much by the size of the prize as by the flexibility of the hashtag, engagement is difficult to predict. And when the campaign, like that of American Express, has no fixed goal other than to raise brand awareness among a target demographic, it’s also difficult to rate its success.

It’s likely though that visual hashtag campaigns that encourage participants to photograph the brand generate short-term brand-name recognition while hashtags that focus on themes produce longer term brand associations that are more attractive to the company’s advertising firms.

Not All Hashtags Offer Prizes

But while competitions may be a popular and easy way to promote visual hashtags, they’re not the only way. American Express’s two-week campaign, which may be repeated, offered only good images produced by the company — and no prizes. Home Depot, a Fortune 500 firm, uses photos tagged with the #DIHWorkshop hashtag to promote its real-life do-it-herself workshops and images tagged #LetsDoThis to encourage people to make home improvements.


Those images are promoted on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook but also on Pinterest, where they appeal to the company’s female customers.

That choice of platform is important. Visual hashtag campaigns, and particularly visual hashtag competitions, tend to take place on Instagram, a platform that allows for easy audience participation. Asked whether American Express’s choice to use Instagram overshadowed Pinterest, Mona Hamouly noted the uniqueness of each platform and their differing strengths.

“Pinterest is more a place where we would showcase great experiences and drive traffic to website campaigns,” she said.

In practice, companies are using Instagram to manage the competitions, to accept user-generated entries and to distribute hashtags but they’re using Facebook to show and share the results, and Pinterest as an optional extra to reach female audiences and drive followers to Web pages.

As social media marketing becomes increasing dependent on visual content both for engagement and branding power, so hashtags are also becoming increasingly important as a way of ensuring that those images are seen and submitted. Despite the ability of social media platforms to distribute those images, Instagram remains dominant for image contests in particular, and Fortune 500 companies are looking for increasingly complex ways to build engagement and push their brands.


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