How manufacturers are getting inventive on TikTok

Since launching in 2018, TikTok has been attracting everyone from Gen-Zers to boomers in their droves, thanks to its winning combination of snappy videos, catchy soundtracks and viral trends. As the most downloaded app globally in 2021, it’s little wonder that we’ve seen brands turning their focus to the platform too.

For brands, the appeal of TikTok is the potential for big audiences but even bigger engagement – and as a result, action – be it through branded hashtag challenges, organic strategies or some of the platform’s lower funnel advertising solutions.

“Unlike traditional advertising, the old model of pushing products into consumers’ faces would not work on TikTok,” says BBH London creative director, Dillah Zakbah, who is one of the judges for this year’s TikTok Awards. “With TikTok, it is all about finding ways to build meaningful connections through entertaining and/or educational content, that will turn consumers into fans and supporters who feel like they are a part of your brand community.”

A huge array of companies across sectors as varied as gaming and beauty are already embracing the platform. For Mother’s head of content Vairi MacLennan, another one of this year’s judges, brands can learn a lot from the example of luxury fashion houses such Gucci’s early embrace of creator Francis Bourgeois and Balenciaga’s absurdist vignettes. “These brands understand the platform’s micro communities and content trends deeply, adopting and evolving them to bend brand preconceptions and build desirability among a new generation – while never taking themselves too seriously,” she says.

Zakbah praises brands that already have a clear sense of their personality and how this translates to a platform like TikTok.“I feel like Duolingo is killing it in the TikTok game. Having their owl as a clear protagonist that people want to root for and follow its journey makes the brand more relatable. They are also really clever in being up to date with TikTok trends and creating content that is ownable for their tone of voice,” she says.

Other examples come from less obvious parts of brand culture, such as National Rail’s recent campaign encouraging people to re-embrace rail travel post-Covid. “They targeted working with creators who had been isolated during Covid and wanted to connect with loved ones, sometimes after two years of being completely apart,” says Marcos Angelides, chief strategy officer at Spark.

“Because everyone had a similar story, it created this huge swell of participation. I think it was almost a million videos uploaded of other people talking about their own Covid stories and meeting with people that they had missed. It really helped to get people back traveling again.”

When it comes to creating an effective campaign on TikTok, one of the things that makes it unique is that it runs on a content graph rather than a social graph. The app’s recommendation engine serves up content based entirely on users’ known interests and the videos they watch and engage with on a daily basis. For brands, this means being able to reach a massive audience, without necessarily having a huge following to start with.

MacLennan advises spending some time on the ‘For You’ Page to understand the blend of trends, creativity and community that makes TikTok distinct. “The most successful campaigns are fluent in the cultures and codes of the platform – swapping out months of polished production in favour of a real and relevant approach,” she says.

OMD’s chief planning officer Vicky Fox agrees, adding: “The recommendation engine is very strong, with users feeds customised to their passions, interests and what they care about, so it’s important any paid activity doesn’t jar with their viewing habits. All paid activity needs to serve a purpose.”

Using the platform to have a two-way conversation with the TikTok community can also be highly effective approach. “Don’t be afraid to lose some control,” Zakbah advises. “Invite users to collaborate. Unique TikTok features like stitching and duets let brands interact with users in a completely new way.” Some of the best campaigns essentially become acts of co-creation, while user-generated content inspired by a new product or service can transform a campaign that may have had just a few executions to having millions.

Another vital way to amplify brand visibility on TikTok is to pay close attention to the platform’s ever-changing trends. Creating organic content that capitalises on the popularity of trending hashtags, which appear on the app’s discovery page, can put a company in front of millions of eyeballs – a simple but effective way to create enormous reach.

“Nobody’s ever going to read through an endless thread on Twitter with thousands of comments, but on TikTok if you like the Pepsi Challenge, or the feta pasta trend, it will surface other videos that are connected because they’re doing well,” explains Angelides.

While there are an array of ways to make your mark on TikTok as a brand, the principle at the heart of them all is understanding what is going to resonate with the people who are interacting with the app on a daily basis. “This is really how any marketer should think of any platform, starting with the users and what they’re going to find interesting and useful, and to quite honestly review your creative,” says Angelides.

“If something just thrown out there, like an ad that doesn’t really take into account what people are interested in, what’s going on, what the features of TikTok are, it stands out like a sore thumb. So having a clear role for creative within the TikTok universe is really key.”

Read a marketer’s guide to creating successful TikTok ad creative here, and find out how to enter the TikTok Awards here