Some people are familiar with TikTok only through its recent notoriety. The social media app, which allows users to make and share short videos, was fined $5.7 million by the Federal Trade Commission in February for violating children’s privacy by collecting personal information from underage users. The news was covered briefly in PPB’s October 2019 issue. But there’s more to this tool that suggests marketers shouldn’t judge a book—or an app—by its cover. Let’s look into this new tool, what it offers and how consumers are using it.

What is TikTok? To understand what TikTok is, let’s first look into how it got started. TikTok was formerly, a Shanghai-based social media platform launched in 2014 that allowed users to express themselves creatively by sharing 15-second clips of them lip-synching, dancing, singing and practicing comedy. Think digital karaoke, of sorts, for younger users. ByteDance, a Chinese IT company based in Beijing and worth more than $75 billion, according to TechCrunch, and the parent company of TikTok, purchased in November 2017 for $1 billion. TikTok and were popular in different parts of the world— in North and South America and Europe, and TikTok in Asia. ByteDance absorbed to draw users to a single, cohesive app. Currently, TikTok, which goes by the name of Douyin in China, has more than 300 million active users each month and has been downloaded more than one billion times.

How Do You Use It? Users, which mainly include teens and young adults, can download the TikTok app to their smartphone using Google Play for Android, or Apple’s App Store for iPhone. TikTok’s policy requires users to be at least 13 years old, and asks them to register using their email, phone number or through their Facebook, Google or Twitter account. Despite age requirements, the app has also garnered attention for being popular with underage, or “tween,” users. Users can customize their username, privacy and profile settings, though there are no parental control options. On every video, there’s a panel of icons along the righthand side, which users can select to “follow” the profile of the person in the video they’re watching, “like” the video and view comments other users shared about the video. If the user clicks the spinning “record” icon, they will be taken to other videos that feature the same sound clip or song as the one they are watching. The app encourages collaboration and allows users to share screens with each other, known as a “duet.” was mostly about lip-synching, but TikTok is a bit more expansive. Dancing is particular popular to view on the app, along with other activities, like gymnastics and cheerleading. Media companies, like NBCUniversal and Seventeen, also host short “shows” on the app aimed at younger users. “Celebrities” have emerged in the app, some with millions of followers, and fans can donate anywhere from five cents to $50 to their favorite users, known as “Musers.” Lisa and Lena Mantler, 14-year-old identical twins from Stuttgart, Germany—twins are popular on TikTok, too—whose account has since been deleted for unrelated reasons, were earning some $25,000 per month through partnerships in 2017, according to Slate. TikTok is also big with “challenges,” which typically require users to follow a format for a video, adding their own interpretation. If you follow the hash tag #MatildaChallenge (the app uses hash tags to conduct searches), tagged videos feature users attempting telekinesis, as the main character does in the 1996 movie Matilda. If you follow the hash tag #UnMakeupChallenge, you’ll come across users removing their makeup. The challenges are random and wide sweeping. And perhaps one of the biggest appeals of TikTok is that it's timeless. None of the posts are time-stamped, so if users come across a popular video, they won't know whether the video was created this morning or six months ago. This means any content shared on TikTok can go viral at any moment, no matter when it was created.

How Can Brands Use TikTok? Many brands have already established a presence on TikTok, from Chipotle Mexican Grill to Ralph Lauren and the National Football League, to the Washington Post, the San Diego Zoo, Guess and the United Nations’ International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). These brands are using the platform to communicate messages, oftentimes by creating their own “challenges,” which is particularly crucial to engaging users in new ways. Here’s three examples.

Chipotle started its #GuacDance challenge on TikTok as part of a campaign to celebrate National Avocado Day on July 31, when Chipotle offered free guacamole with any entrée purchased through its app or website. The challenge called for fans to create a dance to the “Guacamole Song” by musician Dr. Jean, which went viral on social media. The campaign received 250,000 video submissions and 430 million views in a six-day period on the app. On National Avocado Day, more than 800,000 sides of guacamole were served, and the use of avocado increased 68 percent to more than 420,000 pounds of the fruit. This turnout is impressive, considering the company has just over 81,000 fans on the app.

IFAD started a challenge with a different approach. The #DanceForChange challenge, launched in May, featured a video made by Sherrie Silver, a choreographer, and Mr. Eazi, an African recording artist, to demonstrate how self-expression and dance can be used to communicate a powerful message about hunger and food insecurity. The challenge, which included the slogan, “Make your moves matter,” generated 5,000 videos or memes created by users throughout Canada, India, Germany, the UK and the U.S. Aside from the challenge, and unique to much of the humorous content shared on TikTik, IFAD publishes short videos of people farming internationally. The organization has nearly 12,000 fans on the app.

The National Basketball Association (NBA), which has 5.6 million fans on the app, uses TikTok to make its athletes, and overall brand, seem more relatable. Some of the short videos feature players sharing motivational quotes, exercising and dancing on the court, along with funny clips of the teams’ mascots.

According to Retail Dive, since TikTok is still relatively new, the digital space hasn’t been overcrowded by marketers yet, meaning that while many major brands are using it, many still aren’t. This can be seen by the number of fans following popular brands. Though the NBA is considered to have a high following on TikTok, the corporation has more than 40 million followers on Instagram, and while Chipotle has more than 81,000 fans on TikTok, it has nearly 700,000 followers on Instagram. The app still has a lot of room to grow and a lot more users to gain, which means it can offer branding opportunities that separate companies from their competitors. For brands looking to walk the talk—or tick the tock—here’s a few questions to consider before breaking into this new app.

What is the demographic of your audience or end user? TikTok mainly attracts younger users, and since it’s new, not everyone may know about it. The app’s success, thus far, has also been largely based on “the fear of missing out” (known as “fomo”), binge-watching and participating in the challenges; activities that are also characteristic of younger users. Make sure this is who you are targeting before using the app for a campaign.

What’s the angle? Are you considering TikTok to create a campaign around a product or service, to call attention to a social issue or to show the more human side of the business? Or, do you have something different in mind? The challenges that prompt action, such as dancing, seem to be most popular on the app. If you use TikTok to launch a campaign, make sure it’s one that has action behind it—and one that users, particularly younger ones, can get behind.

Are you considering working with influencers? Social media influencers aren’t restricted to Instagram or YouTube. TikTok has plenty of influencers on its own. Partnering with an influencer, whether micro or major, may help get the word out about a new product, service or campaign with younger gens.


Danielle Renda is associate editor of PPB.