Late to TikTok? How to get your brand on track

The platform allows brands to tap into a firehose of creativity, but it's not without controversy.

Photo credit: Getty images
Photo credit: Getty images

About 800 million monthly active users, 69% of them between the ages of 16 and 24. More than 2.6 million social mentions in June, a 62.5% increase from January. The most downloaded app of 2018 in Apple’s App Store. 

Numbers like these are part of the reason short-form mobile video app TikTok is all the buzz in marketing circles, as well as lip-syncing and silly challenges.

"The differentiator for us versus mature social networks is TikTok’s deep focus on creativity," says Dustin Smith, senior social strategist at Carmichael Lynch Relate. "It reminds us a lot of Vine. A big part of TikTok is the younger audience, but what also makes it distinct is how music is associated with everything. The platform has access to millions and millions of songs that users and brands can tap into."

The platform is also making it easier for brands to access that creativity. Laura Perez, the Los Angeles-based director of comms for TikTok, which is owned by Chinese firm ByteDance, says the platform does not share user or app numbers. However, Perez notes that its first publicly available paid products were recently rolled out for brands: in-feed ads, hashtag challenge campaigns and hashtag challenge "plus" campaigns, which feature an in-app shoppable product page. 

"We are currently experimenting with a variety of models that not only bring value to our brand partners, but also complement our user experience," Perez says. 

Brands can also set up their own TikTok profiles, and many pros say working with influencers on the platform is an easy entry point for experimentation with the new kid on the social media block. 

Brands playing TikTok

In the U.S., TikTok boasts about 30 million active users, according to a leaked pitch deck written about by AdAge. Experts say the brands making waves on the platform include Chipotle Mexican Grill, Fenty Beauty, Sephora and Teen Vogue. 

Chipotle, for instance, created the #GuacDance challenge, encouraging users to show off their moves for National Avocado Day on July 31. The challenge resulted in more than 250,000 videos and "nearly 430 million video starts during its six-day run," notes Regina Wu, PR and external communications staffer in the brand’s communications department. 

It isn’t just brands like Taco Bell with proven appeal that are getting noticed on the platform. The Washington Post is reaching younger readers with posts of comical behind-the-scenes "footage" at the newspaper. A recent clip, for instance, featured an office debate about the reporter with the best job.   

Pros cite Kroger and the National Football League among other non-traditional brands playing on TikTok, but for their content to be embraced by young users, experts say it is best to be unpolished, unconventional and scrappy in execution.

"Users aren’t interested in shiny, highly produced content," says Kat Lapelosa, creative strategy supervisor at Praytell. "Exaggeration, eccentricity and self-deprecation are qualities embraced by the TikTok community. Content which feels forced or pandering runs a high risk of getting negative reactions."

In addition to reaching an elusive audience, there are other reasons that brands should consider integrating the platform into their content strategy: an intuitive editing and distribution user interface and the fact it is meant to be public-facing. That makes it very different from another platform popular with young people: Snapchat. 

"Snapchat is increasingly becoming more of a dark social chat app," Lapelosa says. "So in that sense they are totally different platforms." 

"We have definitely seen interest in TikTok spike with clients over the last few months – everything from creator partnerships to paid media," concurs Kara Price, director of digital at Zeno Group. "The opportunity and challenge for brands with this platform is the need to shed their polished creative and craft authentic, imperfect content that fits the platform’s style. That can be difficult for some brands to embrace." 

The firm’s approach is to integrate into the platform instead of launching owned TikTok channels, giving the brands a chance to understand how it works and its audience, she adds. 

Other PR pros agree launching a profile means committing to a pipeline of customized content, and that can mean a significant investment that might be too much for many brands. 

However, one brand recently jumped in to strong numbers. Crocs attracted more than 100,000 followers in a week after launching its profile. The brand had already been part of user challenges on TikTok, such as one that involved filling the foam clog shoe with shaving cream and jamming your foot in.  

"Everything you’re seeing is widely different and it is unique to every piece of content and it all features our iconic footwear," Crocs SVP and CMO Terence Reilly told PRWeek this month.  

Rema Vasan, EVP and chief innovation officer at Marina Maher Communications, says the firm has done a ton of research on TikTok, and one thing it likes the most is that it doesn't take a creative genius to develop quality content. 

"TikTok helps level the playing field for emerging talent and brands with a more democratized algorithm, which encourages new voices to step up and create," she says. "More so than on any other platform at the moment, influence is democratized between the traditional social influencer and the average user. If a video is engaging to the TikTok audience and taps into a relevant trend, it can do well, even if the user doesn’t have tens of thousands of followers." 

It also offers a great opportunity for brands to interact and engage. For instance, MMC is exploring TikTok as a recruitment mechanism for a client that would showcase its work culture. The agency also likes what it can do to drive users from trending content to e-commerce. 

During back-to-school season, the firm noticed a "challenge plus" campaign from Kroger. The grocery chain worked with influencers on dorm transformations and encouraged TikTok users to post videos of their makeovers using the hashtag #TransformUrDorm. Users could also shop for Kroger products like laundry baskets and popcorn makers within the app. 

"This feature will likely continue to evolve," says Vasan. "We’re looking forward to seeing how TikTok creates a seamless consumer purchase journey."  

Nick Sonderup, executive creative director at Pereira O’Dell, notes that a good TikTok has three characteristics: "they are fast, funny and should not be taken seriously," adding that users don’t need a login or account, they can "just download and have fun."

"TikTok is really figuring out brand offerings in real time, so there’s a huge opportunity for brands to get in on the ground floor," he says. "It’s a little like the Wild West. And as partner, they have been very collaborative." 

Safety and security concerns

TikTok isn’t without controversy. Its largely young user base has raised concerns about kids being exposed to predators and inappropriate content and how their personal data is being managed.  

To that end, TikTok released a set of "awareness" videos on its @tiptoktips channels that promote the actions it is taking to keep users safe. Each video features a creator demonstrating TipTok’s in-app safety features, such as choosing who can send a message, reporting unsafe content and setting screen-time limits. 

It also has come under attack from politicians over its Chinese ownership. TikTok is powered by technology developed by Beijing-based ByteDance. This week, Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) called on U.S. intelligence officials to investigate it for threats to national security. 

For partly that reason, Smith says Carmichael Lynch Relate is advising clients with an older target to take a wait-and-see approach with TikTok. 

"We are telling some clients to just hold a little bit and see how it plays out, but Facebook got ripped apart during the last election and the next year bounced back with even better engagement," he says. "Instead of abandoning it, people just got smarter about using it."

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