While Facebook has long dominated social media in Southeast Asia, 2016 showed that Instagram is starting to catch up – and advertisers are paying attention. Instagram passed the momentous 500 million global user mark this year, and many of those gains were made in Southeast Asia. In the Philippines alone, the number of users jumped 50% between 2015 and 2016, according to the Global’s Connect Life Report by Kantar TNS.
Nowhere, though, in the region is Instagram as popular as in Malaysia, where 73% of internet users have an Instagram account – higher than Singapore and Hong Kong. Given Instagram's runaway popularity, it's a great test case of how the social media site could play out in the future regionally as a means to drive certain brands and trends. It's also home to its own crop of local Instagram celebrities who show how this is possible.
Take Malaysian blogger/fashionista Vivy Yusof. She began blogging about fashion almost ten years ago and gained an army of followers from her fashion insights. Frustrated by the Malaysian fashion scene after travelling abroad, she transformed her blog into a fashion empire in the form of Fashion Valet, a site that sells clothing lines from designers across Southeast Asia. Her point of view is that of a Muslimah, which has translated well in majority-Muslim Malaysia, while still maintaining more mainstream international appeal.
Yusof's Instagram account has been instrumental; she now has now has 827,000 followers and uses it to advertise Fashion Valet (416,000 followers) and her lifestyle brand The dUCk Group (198,000 followers).
While it's Instagram, that doesn't mean the photos are a bunch of selfie-stick shots. While there are some personal snaps of her kids, most the fashion photos are very professional and well-edited. One advantage may be, though, that unlike editorials in magazines, Yusof's photos are usually taken in the "real world" so users can imagine themselves carrying a certain bag or headscarf. They also include comments about a product's quality and appeal.
As a lifestyle brand, she is also an icon for the modern Muslimah – Yusof's brand is built around being a married mother and successful businesswoman who also happens to be religiously observant.
Yusof isn't the only Malaysian Instagrammer who has combined personal celebrity, fashion influence, and business – not surprising given that 92% of Malaysians follow celebrity bloggers , according to Kantar TNS.
Online media site Tally Press compiled a list of 100 influential Instagrammers in Malaysia, 32 of which have over half a million followers in 2015 (not bad for a country of 30 million). These Instagram celebrities perform multiple services for her followers: advertises new trends, personally vouch for a product’s quality, gives a much more approachable vision of how trends/products can work in the real world, and shares other user-generated content.
Many have followed a similar path to Yusof, leveraging their social media popularity into a business empire. Actress Nora Danish has used her popularity and 4.2 million followers to promote a fashion line Owl by Nora Danish. Danish also caters to Muslima fashion, and uses Instagram to advertise sales, products, and even job openings at her brick-and-mortar store. Malaysian singer Dato’ Siti Nurhaliza Tarudin, meanwhile, has translated her celebrity status and 3.4 million followers into makeup and fragrance brand Simply Siti.
In other cases, celebrities may also promote products, providing a more direct form of advertising that is a lot classier than the old celebrity model of the TV infomercial. Actress Lisa Surihani has yet to start her own company, but uses her account of 2.7 million followers to promote micro-electric facials at a local clinic and Maybank debit cards between photos of her attending events and going about life.
Other celebrities have followed suit. Yusof, for example, also plugs certain products by posting a photo of herself wearing a bag or clothing item with identifying hashtags. Makeup and fashion brands seem to make the easiest transition, like Maybelline, Sugarbelle Cosmetics, and FCC Malaysia, but in some cases other products have made a foray. Yusof recently had several posts about a credit score service, which still look "cool" without looking like she's peddling acne medication under soap opera-style lighting.
While Malaysia might be a particularly successful case of crossover Instagram/celebrity/advertising success, it may be a test case for wider-spread use of Instagram advertising across Southeast Asia. In countries with limited consumer protection laws or false advertising in markets like Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, personal endorsements will likely come to mean more than traditional advertisements.