The way in which brands reach audiences – particularly Gen Z and Millennials – has rapidly evolved. A decade ago, companies could have anticipated and strategised changes but, in today’s landscape, they mostly react and adapt to them. To further synchronise with consumers, brands understand they need to go to where the consumer is and, for the young generation, that is TikTok.
The Chinese-owned short-form video app, which just a few years ago was merely considered a platform for lip-synching and trite comedic videos, is currently disrupting the social media sector. Hugely popular with tweens, teens and young adults (Marketing North, a consumer research firm, estimated that 41% its audience is between the ages of 16 and 24), its popularity surged last year, surpassing a billion app global downloads. Known for being secretive about its demographics and its algorithm, the tech giant ByteDance - TikTok’s parent company - has yet to ever disclose user numbers but AppAnnie's recent estimation put monthly active users at 625 million worldwide.
The company, which in 2018 become the world’s most highly valued start-up and is now estimated to be worth $75 billion, has been quickly improving and developing tools to suit TikTok users, adding a variety of lenses and filters. It also introduced Hashtag Challenges and Brand Takeovers, drawing the attention of major marketers and retailers. As early as last June, barely a year after the app was launched for markets outside of China, Uniqlo became the first brand to run a multimarket TikTok campaign.
Other brands quickly followed, frequently creating buzzy campaigns and then incentivising users to create their own content, with user participation and views often significantly exceeding expectations. Estée Lauder-owned MAC cosmetics, for instance, recently developed a campaign anchored in a #YouOwnIt hashtag challenge and produced videos that garnered close to 1.5 billion views in less than 6 days, accumulating to over 2.3 billion views. Crocs, a footwear company which was among the first to use TikTok, launched a #ThousandDollarCrocs challenge - referencing a lyric by rapper Post Malone - inviting users to customize their Crocs and post videos boasting the brand’s ‘Come As You Are’ slogan. The campaign generated more than 2.5 billion views and fans have continued to post memes since, even after the challenge came to an end.
Unlike other existing platforms, the content created on TikTok, driven by user-innovation and creativity, is more ephemeral; quickly growing, evolving and disappearing. The ability to sample and remix content has turned many of its teen users into overnight celebrities. If Haley Sharpe or Loren Gray were mostly unknown a year ago, today they are global internet stars. As a way to further capitalise on TikTok’s popularity and lure in a younger generation of customers, high-end brands increasingly seek out partnerships with some of these overnight TikTok celebrities.
In December 2019, luxury brand Celine joined the trending platform and partnered with 18-year-old influencer Noen Eubanks who, with eight million followers and known for his eccentric “e-boy” style, has established himself as one of TikTok’s favourite lip-syncing creators. Celine, a legacy brand which is well over half a century old, named Eubanks its new face, dubbing him a ‘teen idol’. An unexpected move for a luxury label which has typically created marketing campaigns featuring long term collaborators like model Daria Werbowy or acclaimed cultural icons such as Margaret Qualley and Joan Didion; but also a smart strategy considering young viewers continue to find value in influencers (and might have not recognised or identified with the older personalities featured).
Celine’s decision to join the viral world of TikTok marks a steady trend among high-end brands. As the app becomes an indispensable channel for youth-focused companies, luxury labels explore it as a marketing tool to target and expand their consumer base. Other major players in the luxury retail industry have tried their hand at advertising on the popular platform, including Michael Kors, Guess, and Calvin Klein, which last year produced a #MyCalvins video campaign featuring Shawn Mendes, Kendall Jenner, and A$AP Rocky.
Burberry, one of the first luxury brands to run paid and organic campaigns on TikTok, created an account on the platform last summer to coincide with its Thomas Burberry Monogram collection. It simultaneously launched the #TBChallenge, asking users to recreate the monogram with their hands. According to Burberry, the campaign hashtag - which includes its videos and those created in response - generated 57 million views, testifying to TikTok’s potential to breathe new life into heritage retailers. Shortly after, Ralph Lauren made its debut on the platform during the U.S. Open, becoming the first brand to launch a hashtag challenge campaign on TikTok tied to a sporting event. It posted a series of clips featuring Gen Z actress Diana Silvers showing off her tennis game and encouraged users to create similar videos using the #WinningRL tag. The campaign garnered over 700 million views.
While the branded hashtag challenges have become one of TikTok’s most important advertising tools that best encapsulates the app’s uniqueness, the platform continues to progress rapidly, mostly focusing its attention on the needs of the retail industry. The company is currently testing e-commerce features such as adding shoppable product links to videos and allowing users to buy directly from businesses within the app’s interface. As other international luxury brands - including Gucci or Louis Vuitton, which have yet to experiment on the platform - begin to overcome their current security, privacy, and marketing concerns, TikTok is not just likely to become one of the most important apps around but also a decisive marketing tool for brands trying to secure the next generation’s attention.