Free publicity: It’s what’s for dinner. Provided food brands can meet the increasingly high expectations of their patrons, of course.

In a world in which people will wait in line for three hours to get a Cronut or a rainbow bagel, and then talk about it endlessly online—the #food hashtag is fast approaching 180 million posts—it may seem as though generating free press in the food world is easy. It isn’t. Though the army of amateur marketers on social media is only too eager to share its latest foodie adventures, audiences aren’t easily won over. Brands must figure out how to join the conversation – and start new ones.

Camera Cuisine

The term “camera cuisine,” coined by New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells, refers to the rise of dishes created with the express purpose of racking up Instagram likes, leaving the role of pleasing the palate as a secondary concern. Think hamburgers with a shot glass of bourbon in the center (both garnished with bacon, of course) or the beautiful-but-tasteless raindrop cake made out of translucent gel.

“Besides a powerful research tool, digital food photography is a cheap marketing tool as well,” writes Wells. “Chefs who serve camera-ready plates find their dining rooms full of volunteer publicists, who work for free and leave money on the table when they go home.”

But to impress today’s social-savvy eaters, businesses that deal in food must know how to make a splash, whether with a $12, 1,600-calorie milkshake topped with a slice of cake at Manhattan restaurant Black Tap or by literally branding (i.e., with a hot poker) a wooden coaster tableside and using the smoke as a cocktail ingredient at Chicago bar Aviary.

Fan the Flames

Even the wildest food combination or presentation won’t get much traction if no one sees it. That means it’s important for brands to cultivate a cadre of loyal followers, and that requires more than an old-school campaign push.

Influencers are one option to help pack the stands. Instagrammers with hundreds of thousands of followers are in constant need of a new trend to photograph and share. The symbiotic relationship can help put small brands on the map, while affirming the sharer’s insider status.

For other brands, the answer to social media relevance is not derived from the endorsements of the Instagram-famous, but from the enthusiasm of ordinary fans. Starbucks rainbow drinks are a perfect example of a brand incorporating the good ideas of brand loyalists into the business model. Fans have cobbled together drinks from existing Starbucks offerings and named them for their hue. A Strawberry Acai Refresher with coconut milk instead of water is a #pinkdrink, for example.

Starbucks has added the drinks to its secret menu, a list of beverages that fans create and baristas make without official recipes. The Insta-fame from the popular beverages has been an incredible free marketing opportunity and entices a subset of people to “drink the rainbow,” if only for the photo. The strategy helped catapult Starbucks to become the number one best fast-food brand on Instagram, according to Nation’s Restaurant News.

“The world is a cluttered place – if a brand wants to come in and make a difference, you have to think about all the different pieces, do the research, get organized, and keep the momentum going,” Molly O’Neill, Executive Vice President of U.S. MarComms Practice at H+K, says. “Now brands and customers have a two-way emotional connection, so brands have to keep talking and connecting with them.”

Brands like Chobani have shown the importance of researching one’s target audience as a way to sustain brand engagement. When the yogurt brand joined Instagram, it carefully tracked uses of #creationaday, a tag fans used for dishes that featured yogurt as a key ingredient, and #chobani to uncover the creative ways people were using the product. Building from the recipes already in circulation, Chobani leveraged the #creationaday tag’s built-in-following to expand its reach and connect with interested ‘grammers, As a result of its research, the brand has been able to be an active participant in trending conversations about healthy eating.

Winning in the new food-aware arena requires out-of-the box thinking, big, visual dishes, actively encouraging fans, and listening carefully to social chatter. If they follow that recipe, brands can gain social recognition and stay relevant long after the very last cake pop has gone stale.