NEW YORK: Brands such as Whole Foods, Red Bull and Starbucks are taking to social sharing platforms like Instagram and Pinterest in a bid to connect with consumers in new ways.

Whole Foods, the natural and organic grocery chain, has been active on Pinterest, a service enabling users to recommend image-based content, since July 2011. From December 2011 to March 2012, referrals from this source to its own site increased by 337%.

"Visual storytelling is essential to building a strong online identity," Michael Bepko, Whole Foods' global online community manager, told Fortune.

"I think it allows us to tell a story - through posters, through banners, through text. We can get particular messages across through image sharing ... in a very instantaneous way."

In reflection of the rise of camera phones with internet access, Red Bull, the energy drink, became an early adopter of Instagram, the photo-sharing app recently bought by Facebook for $1bn. It now has 230,000 followers on this site.

"The ongoing growth validates this type of positive connection our fans feel with the brand," said Nate Warner, its digital marketing director.

"We saw a constant stream of people sharing their own images from our events as well as images pulled from [our] properties, or re-sharing images from Red Bull's social media accounts."

To date, some 620,000 photos have been tagged with the label "#starbucks" on Instagram, including over 16,700 of the coffee house chain's Frappucinno beverage.

"The beauty of that platform is its elegance and simplicity," said Alex Wheeler, vice president, global digital marketing, at Starbucks. "[It helps show] shared values and product experiences that are very personal around life moments."

American Airlines has also run a campaign asking consumers to submit "themed" photos each week, combining Instagram, Twitter and its own website, and yielding a high level of engagement.

"The visual images associated with the themes provided a more compelling call to action and structure for consumers to create on behalf of the brand versus a standard promotional call to action," says Tom Edwards, vice president, digital strategy at The Marketing Arm, the agency for the campaign.

Vanessa Holden, creative director of West Elm, the furniture and homewares group, similarly suggested that lifestyle brands cannot afford to ignore Pinterest.

"It's a bustling, incredibly vibrant place of inspiration and sharing around design, cooking, entertaining, crafting, making, you name it," she said. "Pinterest really enables us to have a visual conversation with our community."

Data sourced from Fortune; additional content by Warc staff