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How We Transformed Harvard Medical School’s Brand on Instagram

When I started at Harvard Medical School roughly a year ago, Instagram was hardly a priority, and understandably so: since links cannot be included in captions, it is tough for marketers to measure “hard metrics” like web traffic on Instagram.

But the more time I spent at Harvard Medical School, the more I began to realize the opportunity Instagram presented to tell our story visually and enhance our brand equity.

Over the past year, we’ve gone from posting sporadically to posting consistently and strategically. This shift has created incredible growth on an increasingly influential channel and with an increasingly influential demographic.


Our ultimate goal on Instagram is to create a compelling and high-quality visual identity that aligns with the HMS brand to build a deeper connection with current and new audiences. With this goal in mind, we decided to further aim to create a consistent and sustained brand value over time to bolster our reputation with audiences.

To achieve these goals, we first had to establish our brand identity and visual strategy—and then implement it. Here’s how we did it in five steps.

Step 1: Establishing Identity

When developing the HMS Instagram visual strategy, we first had to figure out our brand values and attributes.

We set out to answer three main questions to determine our values:

  • Who are we?
  • What makes us us?
  • What makes us stand out?

HMS_Brand_ValuesThen we had to hone our brand attributes and settle on five main characteristics: inspirational, influential, accessible, authentic, and serious.

HMS_Brand_AttributesTogether, our brand values and attributes formed our brand voice and shaped the story we are trying to tell on Instagram.

The two also embody our mission statement, which is “to create and nurture a diverse community of the best people committed to leadership in alleviating human suffering caused by disease.”

How we utilize these elements when selecting images is to always ask two questions:

  1. What does an image say and what is the story it tells?
  2. Do the answers fit within our value and attributes?

Step 2: Maintaining Authenticity

A key to ensuring our brand identity is effective is to maintain authenticity, which means staying true to our identity and story. Our established value and attributes became a filter to run all of our selected images through to preserve authenticity.

HMS_Instagram_2Beyond staying true to our identity, two elements we utilize to maintain authenticity are user-generated content (UGC) and embracing imperfections.

Using UGC — as long as it fits within our brand parameters — is a good way of establishing authenticity, while imperfections in photographs make images more relatable. We don’t prioritize these types of photos over high-quality images, but they help add a human touch to our account and offer a balance between other types of photos.

Additionally, UGC provides an opportunity for us to engage with our community and boost HMS’s overall presence on Instagram.

Step 3: Creating Relevancy

HMS_White_CoatsTo create relevancy with our audience, we strive to align our visual identity with how people in our audience see themselves or want to see themselves — consciously or subconsciously — while staying true to our attributes.

This means we try to use images and messages that people can identify with that represent their ideal selves, their principles, and/or the goals they want to achieve.

Step 4: Evoking Emotion

When selecting images, we search for ones that display emotion or can make an emotional connection with our viewers to drive engagement and make the HMS visual story more compelling.

NRB_NightWe’ve found that the most effective images use subtlety to demonstrate emotion and tap into common human experiences. We look to utilize a variety of brand attributes and emotions to show the depth of experiences that exist at HMS .

Step 5: Building Consistency

The last piece that we apply to the HMS Instagram account is consistency.

HMS_Instagram_ProfileA person should be able to understand our values, identity, and story just by scrolling through our account (or without words).

This is something I refer to as the “coffee table book approach.” Not only is there a consistency in our story, but we also make sure our images have a similar look and feel.

For instance, we only select from four different filters, and we established a photo editing process to create an identifiable HMS style.

Beyond the photo style, we also maintain a consistent post timing and frequency, so that our audiences know what to expect from HMS and can even begin to look for our content based upon this rhythm. But, ultimately, this consistency is about maintaining quality and balance, which means thinking of how images work together as a collection and not as unrelated, one-off posts.

Additional Takeaways

Here are some other tips I’ve picked up along the way:

  1. Using popular hashtags along with establishing your own hashtag is a great way to get people to see your posts and follow your account.
  2. Always test different elements. See what is creating the most engagement, and try new things. This process will help inform your strategy — and may even cause you to rethink your brand or audience.
  3. Identify what competitors and innovative brands are doing well, and replicate what may be effective for your brand.
  4. Be beautiful. At the end of the day, Instagram is about sharing beautiful images — do whatever you can to get the best images you can.

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