If you’re not paying attention to BeReal right now, you’re already behind the curve.
This isn't to say your brand needs to be on BeReal. As explained in an earlier blog post, the platform is not a good fit for every brand. Nevertheless, every brand that wants to remain relevant on social media needs to take BeReal seriously.
The culture of social is in a moment of transition, and BeReal is our canary. The behaviors and content that BeReal is designed to solicit can tell us a lot about users’ changing preferences, aesthetics, and expectations of brands.
While we can’t predict how long the platform sticks around or how it will fare against giants like Meta and ByteDance, we can confidently assume that the unique brand of “authenticity” BeReal aims to cultivate isn’t going anywhere.
More than a buzzy app or even a content trend, the popularity of BeReal is emblematic of how social media and internet culture are changing as the next generation of tastemakers guides the future of the internet.
So how did we get to this transition?
Social media marketing of the past decade has catered to the tastes of millennials, who, despite their limited spending power, held the keys to internet culture. Youths have always been valuable to marketers for the authority they hold over what is cool and therefore desirable in mainstream culture, but in the attention economy of the digital age, where engagement-based algorithms help determine what gets seen, the tastes of twentysomethings have become more crucial to brands’ relevance than ever before, no matter how old their target consumer is.
Now, as millennials age out of this window, users’ tastes are changing.
In 2018 and 2019, just as the oldest Gen Zers hit college, critiques of made-for-Instagram experiences and think pieces with titles like “Is The Influencer Aesthetic Over?” started to appear in major publications. The aspirational aesthetic typically associated with influencers—polished, staged, photoshopped images laid out in a perfectly curated and coordinated Instagram grid—was being rejected in favor of a more unfiltered, candid, and deliberately casual look and feel.
This change, like so many slow shifts beginning to emerge before 2020, was further accelerated by the pandemic. Suddenly, the mundane moments of lockdown replaced the manufactured highlight reel that had once been social currency.
Meanwhile, TikTok experienced explosive 325% growth that same year.
TikTok armed the average mobile user with easy video editing tools and an algorithm that suddenly made it possible for everyday people to reach a much larger audience via the FYP. When “anyone can be a creator,” as TikTok often claims, it should be no surprise that traditional influencers are losing some of their commands over the ideal social media aesthetic.
On Instagram, one manifestation of this shift is the “photo dump,” which has been described as “a way of participating in the Instagram economy without seeming like you’re taking it too seriously; of being simultaneously curated and carefree." A photo dump is a carousel post of photos and snippets of life that individually may be considered too imperfect or insignificant to be deemed “grid-worthy.”
As others have pointed out, photo dumps generally follow a certain formula: “Casual selfies are mixed in with pictures of food, sunsets, and candid shots to give you an overall 'vibe.'” Memes and screenshots may also be included. The key to a good photo dump is to nestle brag-worthy shots among messy, mundane, lower-quality images to convey an appearance of effortlessness—the worst thing you can do is look like you’re trying too hard.
There’s a very similar feel on BeReal, and both are a pretty good representation of the fundamental change we’re seeing in social media culture as the new generation takes ownership: the overtly aspirational is going out of style.
The highlight reel of the past is still there, but it’s now disguised under layers of self-deprecation, irony, and the occasional unfiltered selfie or silly meme. What’s being pitched as “authenticity” is often just a performance of carefully projected nonchalance. BeReal’s own social content pokes fun at the lengths people take to strike the perfect balance between effortless and enviable.
So, while this messier, less polished vibe may look like a loosening of aesthetic standards, the truth is that these expectations are higher than ever—they’re just subtler than they used to be. A quick scroll through the #millennialcringe hashtag on TikTok reveals the small generational tics the younger generation now sees as dated or out of touch with social media technology. Overusing the zoom feature for dramatic effect, the 😂 emoji, using Portrait Mode, forced puns in Instagram posts, and of course, the dreaded Millennial Pause, that split-second pause to make sure TikTok is recording.
This all probably sounds very complicated, that’s because… well, it kind of is.
If millennials were the first generation to grow up with social media, the generation that never knew a world without it has even more nuanced expectations of what’s cringe and cool. That’s why BeReal is worth paying attention to.
In addition to the low tolerance for obviously performative behavior, there are some learnings we can gather by observing what’s made the app so popular:
1. To start with the obvious, the rise of an anti-advertising social media app is an indication that trust in brands is down.
Gen Z’s expectations of transparency from brands are higher than generations before them.
THE TAKEAWAY: Don’t pretend you’re not a brand. Part of the reason brands like Duolingo have been so successful on social media is the self-awareness about the odd tension between the representation of the brand and the real person responsible for creating the content.
They lean into it with behind-the-scenes views of content creation and community management, paired with an over-the-top depiction of the brand in a full mascot costume. And, like Oatly demonstrates, sometimes it’s more effective to just admit that you’re trying to sell something.
2. “Real” is an aesthetic preference.
There are some interesting, thoughtful discussions happening about whether the content on BeReal is actually any more authentic than what gets posted on older forms of social media. Whatever your opinion on the matter, we do know that BeReal is pushing a type of authenticity that resonates with users, and brands can take a page out of their book.
THE TAKEAWAY: Sharing imagery people can relate to, rather than aspire to, is more likely to resonate and inspire trust. For example, skincare brand Starface earns credibility by showing models with imperfect skin.
3. FOMO over feed posts.
Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri recently confirmed that users are becoming increasingly reluctant to share content to their social media feeds, opting instead for less public and more ephemeral forms of posting, such as DMs or stories.
One thing I hear a lot is people asking to see more friend content in Feed. I'd love for there to be more friend content in feed, but all the growth in photos and videos from friends has been in stories and in DMs.
They’re also moving away from older platforms in favor of TikTok, where they spend more time consuming entertaining content passively than they do sharing content with their friends. To counteract this problem, BeReal uses FOMO to incentivize users to post — you can’t see your friends’ content unless you participate in the same CTA.
THE TAKEAWAY: Unless you’re able to offer something as important to the user as BeReal does, don’t expect users to post or share permanent content on behalf of your brand just because you ask. Instead, create opportunities for people to engage with your brand in less visible ways, or through lower stakes, ephemeral, and/or 1:1 content.
4. “Photo dumps” can still work for brands.
Using a photo dump to convey a “vibe” rather than a highly-produced product image of your product can be a great tactic to bring to life the emotion or experience you want people to associate with your brand. For example, Our Place, the Instagram-famous cookware brand behind the viral Always Pan and its 30,000-person waitlist, frequently uses photo dumps to tease new product launches, like this assortment of memes dropping hints about their new baking set. The design-focused reusable bag brand Baggu uses an abstract assortment of images as visual style inspiration associated with each new line of bags.