Little did Murad Osmann know that he would start a viral photo series when he snapped a seemingly simple picture of his then-girlfriend, Nataly, and uploaded it to Instagram while on vacation in 2011. The couple was spending a few extra days in Barcelona after a work trip when Murad took a simple shot of her walking through a door spray-painted with graffiti, his arm outstretched to hold her hand.
"She grabbed my hand and pulled me forward," Osmann told Adweek. "I took one photo, and then we published it—that's how we started doing this."
The picture sparked the #Followmeto Instagram project, with Murad capturing similarly styled photos of his now wife in exotic and breathtaking locations around the world since the pair loves to travel. Five years after uploading the first photo, Murad counts 4.3 million Instagram followers while Nataly Osmann's account has another 1 million. And users inspired by the project have uploaded more than 337,000 photos on Instagram with the #Followmeto hashtag.
Osmann credits Instagram's explosive growth in part for the account's initial success but also said he recognized an opportunity early on to turn his passion project into a legitimate travel business.
"When our project gained all this popularity, the audience for Instagram just boomed," he said. "At the same time, you can say the same about the whole blogging platform. Five years ago, the bloggers and this whole industry was completely different—nobody was building businesses around it."
Buoyed by such numbers, the couple has turned the account into a bona fide brand. They're working with top marketers like Macy's and Napa Valley's Beringer Vineyards to create compelling ads, and they're launching a platform to match brands with bloggers.
The #Followmeto project has also morphed into TV and book deals. The couple hosts a 20-minute travel TV show on Channel One Russia that takes viewers behind the scenes of their online photos. While Osmann still stays behind the camera for the television show, there's also a production team and a drone that follow the couple's excursions.
And last year, Nataly and Murad worked with Skyhorse Publishing to publish a book of their best photos.
"We're trying to build a lot of projects so that it's not just [about] the photos," explained Murad.
Thousands of fans have mimicked the couple's photos on social platforms, and the media has shown a strong interest in the project. A 2013 Daily Mail article led to "a lot of followers; a lot of media picked it up after that," Murad said.
Even with the internet stardom, the couple both have jobs to support themselves. Murad studied civil engineering in London before becoming interested in photography. He is now the owner and executive producer of Hype Productions, a Moscow-based production studio that worked on Cannes Lions-winning commercial videos in 2015 and 2016, and Nataly is a journalist.
Building a brand
Part of building the #Followmeto brand means increasingly taking on more commercial projects.
Visit the homepage of Napa Valley's Beringer, and you'll find a photo series called "Beringer Beckons" featuring Nataly stepping into beautiful scenes with a glass or bottle of wine in tow. The brand is using the shots on Instagram and TV, too.
And Murad and Nataly became the faces of Macy's private International Concepts label earlier this year, replacing previous spokeswoman and fashion model Heidi Klum. In addition to shooting branded Instagram pictures in Mexico and Morocco, the couple's shots are featured in print, out-of-home ads and in-store signs.
Unlike the thousands of social influencers who blatantly hawk products in sponsored posts, the Macy's campaign is intentionally subtle in its branding. Similar to the couple's other pictures, the ads show Murad holding Nataly's hand, but this time, Nataly got to pick clothing from the Macy's line to wear.
That kind of work lends itself to lots of creative control and a long-term vision that appeals to the couple.
"We try to work with brands that share the same philosophies as us—if you do one or two posts on Instagram, you can charge a little money, but it's not going to help you or the brand," Murad said. "We're very specific about how we try to keep the integrity of the projects. If you go to our Instagram page, you will never see a direct commercial."
With that philosophy, the Osmann's are launching a website that's a community for bloggers and a resource for connecting brands with like-minded influencers. As Murad describes it, the site is a "private club of travelers."
On the site, travel bloggers can set up accounts and talk to one another, and the couple publishes travel-related articles like "100 Spontaneous Reasons to Buy a Flight Ticket" and "250 Places You Should Go Right Now."
The goal is to build the site into a platform that creates sponsored content. For example, a hotel brand could sponsor an influencer's post about top travel tips.
"We're trying to get away from banners and the typical way of advertising and create branded content. Typical advertising is getting more and more difficult, and everyone is going to the influencers for the audience," Murad said. "Maybe in the future, we'll be a kind of agency as well because it's a communication platform."
There are also plans to launch #Followmeto-branded merchandise like passport covers, iPhone cases and suitcases. Murad is mum on the details but said, for instance, his team could partner with a suitcase brand like Tumi to design and promote travel gear the brand would then sell in stores.
As with sponsored Instagram pictures, Murad is wary that working with brands too quickly will scare off the millions of followers the project has amassed over the years.
"There are so many ways that this can go wrong, so right now, we're trying to develop a system," he said. "We don't want to do a lot of commercial projects. We want to do a few—but really good ones."
Read more about the tactics and trends reshaping the tourism industry in Adweek's Travel Marketing Report.