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Leveraging TikTok for Brands: Don't Follow Trends, Set Them

Jordan P. Kelley, Content Director, Brand Storytelling

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TikTok has inarguably been the social media space brands have put the most work into cracking in the last few years. The popular video app crossed the one billion active users mark this summer, and while users of all kinds continue to strike pay dirt in terms of setting viral trends, achieving high numbers of views, and garnering massive followings seemingly overnight, brands haven’t been as successful.

Some are suited for it – brands like the NBA and Red Bull are built for video and therefore successful on the app. Others like Guess and Chipotle have found unique ways to turn the camera on their products to garner views. But for so many brands, the path to using TikTok as a successful marketing tool isn’t clear. What’s more – TikTok is a harsh proving ground, where failed brand attempts are often lambasted and have a negative effect on brand perception. This is often caused by a brand’s pursuit of ‘virality’ or attempt to co-opt an online trend.

The problem is simple, and the problem is this: too many brands try to behave like people on TikTok. People, individuals, are the lifeblood of the social media app. When brands see something take off, they often see its success and rush to emulate it the way that TikTok encourages its users to do - but the problem is just that: said encouragement is meant for users, individuals, who are being invited to share in the moment. The second that popcorn and corn syrup companies try to get in on the corn kid wave, it signals to everyone else that the fun is over.

So how can brands get away from trying to emulate individuals with their presence on TikTok and find success in the space? There is no one-size-fits-all answer for brands, but a good place to start is with this question: instead of emulating individuals and chasing trends, how can brands leverage the power and creativity of TikTok users by creating their own?

A great example happening right now comes from SweeTARTS. In August, SweeTARTS launched the SweeTARTS Film Fest on TikTok. The concept is simple – for four weeks, SweeTARTS ran different prompts as challenges on the app, calling for users to submit video in categories like best use of story time, best use of video tools, and more. SweeTARTS invited users to weigh in on their favorites, tapping Gen-Z up-and-comer Xóchitl Gómez as ambassador to the contest and making her its lead content judge. Winners in each category will receive $25k when they are announced live by Gómez on October 6th.

TikTok users jumped into action to take on the challenge, with the #SweeTARTSFilmEntry hashtag earning over 263M views since the launch of the festival. Creators of all ages participated week after week in response to the brand’s prompts, generating thousands of quirky, colorful, creative videos:

Rather than having the SweeTARTS TikTok account attempt to behave like a person, they behaved like a brand. They created a contest with a call to action that aligned directly with the way a huge group of users interact with the app and managed to turn each participant into a brand ambassador along the way. The video entries are also so much more authentic, creative, and befitting of TikTok than anything that could be masterminded in a content marketing boardroom (and for a fraction of the cost, considering the sheer volume of entries made).

Brands have the capacity to find success on TikTok. The difficulty is that there is no succinct brand model for performance, and the user model for performance predominantly does not work when applied to brands. The good news is that case studies like this one demonstrate that although there is no definitive brand model for elite TikTok performance, ultimately there are a few core tenets brands can live by – one of them being not to follow trends, but to set them.


About Jordan P. Kelley

Jordan P. Kelley is the Content Director at BrandStorytelling. He is the author of BrandStorytelling's twice weekly newsletter and editor of the Brand Storytelling Forbes Brand Voice Page. He is an avid brand film and advertising trendwatcher and considers himself a "Professional Audience Member".


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