Aesthetic Imagery and Influencers: How High Street Fashion Brands Engage Users on Instagram

June 9, 2016

Written by NewsWhip

A look at how high street fashion brands use Instagram, and the importance of influencer marketing for these brands.
Recently on the blog, we took a look at the impact of influencer marketing on Instagram engagement for cosmetics brands. This form of marketing is of increasing importance across multiple sectors, and with fashion also reaching a wide audience on Instagram, we decided to take a look at how influencers are impacting labels’ engagement there.
Bearing in mind that high street fashion labels often seek to cultivate a wider and less exclusive audience than high fashion brands, we identified the most successful names in May and used these as the basis for an analysis. As many high street labels look to promote an image of accessibility, they’re more likely to look to influencers than spokesmodels to grow their audience.
Using NewsWhip Spike to track engagement in May 2016 only, these were the ten biggest high street labels on Instagram:
Table of the top 10 fashion brands on Instagram May 2016These figures suggest a vast discrepancy in engagement. H&M and Forever 21 have a comfortable lead with over 10 million engagements each. Primark, ASOS and Topshop occupy a mid-tier with between 4 and 6 million engagements this period, while further down the table Next, New Look and GAP chalked up considerably fewer.
Matching their overall success, H&M and Forever 21 also dominate the list of most successful posts in May. The two account for 19 of the 25 biggest posts of that month, with ASOS, Zara, Primark and Topshop succeeding with a number of posts each to round out the ranks. 15 of the top 25 posts involved an element of influencer marketing, nearly all of which were published by either Forever 21 or H&M. Based on this, we took a closer look at these two brands to get a feel for their Instagram strategies and how influencers factor into that.

Top 25 fashion posts Instagram May 2016, with influencer engagement


Table of Instagram engagement stats for H&M May 2016
Table of Instagram engagement stats for Forever 21 May 2016Looking at the top 50 posts in May from these two brands, it’s interesting to note broad similarities in their approach to Instagram. Both Forever 21 and H&M post a mixture of images, ranging from individual clothing items to whole outfits to travel snapshots and food.
While aesthetic imagery occupies a prominent space on both labels’ timelines, it was especially favoured by Forever 21 during this period. The following two images were both posted by the brand, neither of which depict items from its collections but which do reflect Instagram’s aspirational, uplifting ethos:

View this post on Instagram

Flower crowns all year round 🙌🏼🌸💐 #inspo

A post shared by forever21 (@forever21) on

View this post on Instagram

How to end a long weekend 🍦😋

A post shared by forever21 (@forever21) on

Combined, these two images earned 371,403 engagements. Several other such images appear in the top 10 posts for this period, all of which add up to some 672,056 interactions for the brand. Visuals such as these help to diversify Forever 21’s feed, ensuring a variety of images instead of a simple selection of clothing and accessories from stores.
In this way, Forever 21 uses Instagram to cultivate an overall mood or aesthetic. The combination of posts exudes carefree, easygoing living and the clothing items featured are designed to match that. It’s almost like creating a lookbook, where clothes are just one aspect of an overall persona and items can be tailored according to followers’ lifestyle, location, and climate. The message imparted is less one of promoting the brand’s collections, and more of an indication as to how the items could slot into users’ ideals for themselves.
(Aesthetic posts were also popular with certain other high street labels, particularly ASOS.)
These aesthetic images account for 32% of all engagements earned by Forever 21 posts in the top 50 this period.

View this post on Instagram

Cotton candy skies 🍬🌴💗

A post shared by forever21 (@forever21) on

By contrast, H&M’s account posted more outfits and looks in May. These visuals were relatively simple, styled according to a specific mood or inspiration and usually laid out on a thematic background without a model. In this way, H&M combines the aspirational posts popular on Instagram with colourful snippets from its own collections.

View this post on Instagram

Be as sweet as a watermelon! 🍉💕 #HM❤️

A post shared by H&M (@hm) on

View this post on Instagram

Going for simple yet beautiful? #HM❤️

A post shared by H&M (@hm) on

Images of looks and clothing function almost as the digital equivalent of mannequins and store displays. Instead of highlighting an individual item, the pictures show a complete look, including shoes and accessories. This can act as inspiration for followers, letting them recreate a look in much the same way as those posted by cosmetics companies. Alternatively, they can pick out individual pieces which work with their own wardrobes. This goes for multiple genders, as H&M posted images of its menswear collection also.

Looking at the top 50 posts for this period, images of looks, clothing and accessories generated a total of 1,803,262 engagements for H&M – corresponding to 61% of its engagements from the top 50 posts.

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Influencer marketing

Interestingly, while H&M and Forever 21 used influencers more than other high street labels, influencers still occupy a relatively small place in their overall strategy. Of the two, Forever 21 placed greater emphasis on influencers.
In May, 59% of Forever 21’s top 50 engagements came from influencer marketing posts, compared with 36% for H&M. Compared with the statistics we found for cosmetics companies, this would seem to indicate that influencers are less important for fashion brands on Instagram. Followers seem to engage more actively with the aesthetic and stylised imagery noted above.
Forever 21 images featuring influencers tended to follow a similar pattern, with items from the label worn by the influencer and a link to the shop in the page’s bio. Unsurprisingly for the time of year, images were bright and summery.

By contrast with H&M, Forever 21’s influencers are often everyday style bloggers. As we saw in our piece on influencers for cosmetics brands, this creates an air of authenticity and accessibility which appeals to many users. H&M’s images are more traditional in that they use established figures within an industry or field to target collections at interested users. For instance, sportswear collections tended to feature in images of athletes.


Based on this data, it seems influencer marketing may not be as prolific for high street fashion brands as it has been for other industries. While influencer posts did generate considerable engagement, users tended to respond more actively to aesthetic imagery and pictures of looks and outfits. This suggests that high street fashion labels engage users best not by becoming more than a brand. Many users look to Instagram to map out ideals and aspirations, and by positing themselves as an element of that, labels can build an active and enthusiastic audience.

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