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How Brands Go Viral On TikTok

Becoming the subject of a viral challenge on the video platform can be like catching lightning in a bottle. But there are certain strategies that can help beauty brands strike it big on TikTok.
Beauty brands caught up in viral TikTok challenges can strike it big. | Collage by MC Nanda for BoF
  • Chavie Lieber

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NEW YORK, United States — A few weeks ago, Jean Baik, chief executive of the beauty brand Miss A, noticed a huge spike in visitors to her company's website. Traffic soared 450 percent, mostly from Google. Sales were up too, more than quadrupling a typical day's tally.

It took about a day to find the source: a viral TikTok video that featured Miss A products. The video, where a shopper showed off her haul of Miss A lashes, foundation, lipsticks, and eyeshadows, had racked up over 3 million views in just 3 days, causing excited teens to flood the brand’s online store.

“I didn’t even have TikTok on my phone, so I had no idea what type of effect it could have,” Baik said. “The girls on my team told me TikTok is mostly about dancing and lip-syncing and so I never thought beauty product content would work on TikTok. But people are really engaging with our product.”

Since that January bump, Miss A products have featured in three other popular videos. The company recently started its own TikTok account, but Baik said the brand is still figuring out the best way to use it.

While many brands have accidentally gone viral on the platform, doing so on purpose is much harder. Brands like Burberry, Poshmark, Calvin Klein and Victoria's Secret have launched accounts on TikTok or dabbled in sponsored content. TikTok even sent three creators to New York Fashion Week. But unlike Instagram, ads aren't as ubiquitous on the platform.

The payoff for companies that figure out how to monetise TikTok could be huge. The short-form video platform is challenging Instagram for Gen Z’s attention, and is the source of many of today’s biggest, if fleeting, trends. TikTok had 680 million monthly active users in November and was the second-most downloaded app in 2019 behind Facebook’s WhatsApp.

Back in June, MAV Beauty Brands experienced a 60 percent sales increase for its Marc Anthony True Professional line because its curly hair products were being used in a viral video challenge. Since October, brands like Redken and Clairol have seen their purple shampoo products flying off the shelf thanks to the #PurpleShampooChallenge, where creators are dumping an egregious amount of purple shampoo on their head in the hopes that it will change their hair purple.

I never thought beauty product content would work on TikTok. But people are really engaging with our product.

And while brands can’t always control which products will get swept up in the next viral TikTok challenge, they can increase their odds by creating content strategies that will win credibility with TikTok’s young users.

Put on Your Dancing Shoes

While brands like Miss A experienced a TikTok boost without being on the platform, Vic Drabicky, the founder of digital marketing agency January Digital, said brands typically need to have some presence before their big moment.

Content from YouTube, Twitter and Instagram should not be transferred over to TikTok, Drabicky said. The best videos should be native to the platform. Alice Delahunt, the chief digital officer of Ralph Lauren, which works with TikTok stars like Dixie D'amelio and Andre Swilley told BoF that "Instagram is for beautiful, stylized photos while TikTok is fun, viral content."

Brands can start by building content around whatever challenges are trending on TikTok’s Discover page. And though tutorials and before-and-afters may be popular on YouTube and Instagram, TikTok is all about dancing.

“TikTok is about quick, digestible, dance-based creativity, so you need to get close to that,” Drabicky said. “Each step you take away from that, the less effective you are going to be.”

TikTok is about quick, digestible, dance-based creativity, so you need to get close to that.

Drabicky noted that TikTok isn’t a good fit for anyone; he warned that creating goofy videos could dilute the image of some luxury brands. But he maintained that there is an opportunity within challenges to promote products, citing how Nike seamlessly promotes its sneakers while posting athletic challenges as part of the #MagicBoots challenge.

“People aren’t coming to TikTok to follow makeup brands — they want fun, quirky content,” he said. “But there are spaces to show off makeup, or footwear.”

Feel the Rhythm

Brands that sponsor challenges can hit it big on TikTok — if executed correctly.

In October, e.l.f. Cosmetics hired Movers+Shakers to help with a rebrand. The Brooklyn-based creative agency commissioned artist Holla FyeSixWun and songwriter iLL Wayno to create an original soundtrack for its sponsored challenge, titled #eyeslipsface (the name of the company). The song featured the lyrics, “Do that thing with your eyes, let me see them lips, attitude and gimme face,” and invited users to post selfie-like videos.

Within six days, videos featuring the hashtag had racked up over 1 billion views. The beauty brand had worked with seven TikTok creators to give the challenge some momentum, but Reese Witherspoon, Jessica Alba, Lizzo and Patrick Starr participated organically, along with over 3 million other users. E.l.f. chief marketing officer Kory Marchisotto credited the soundtrack for the challenge's success.

“The track was specifically developed for TikTok, and it was thought of frame by frame,” said Marchisotto. “The 15-second clip is broken into parts that call for creators to exercise their self-expression and there’s a stopgap each time to let people do something different.”

Eric Jacks, chief strategy officer of Collab, a content studio that works with hundreds of TikTok stars, agreed that nailing the perfect sound for challenges is crucial.

“It needs to have something that has rhythm and beat to it,” Jacks said. “It tends to be more pop and hip-hop stuff, but must be something you can easily dance to.”

If there's a weird or fun track happening, they'd be more likely to embrace it.

Developing a musical hit for an ad makes the challenge more appealing to users, he added: “The TikTok community doesn’t like to feel like they are aggressively being promoted to, but if there’s a weird or fun track happening, they’d be more likely to embrace it.”

Shut up and dance

Reaping the benefits of e.l.f’s #eyeslipsface challenge took longer, said Marchisotto. While the sponsored hashtag was one of TikTok’s most successful campaigns, it didn’t translate to sales — not immediately, anyway. Marchisotto said the goal of the campaign was to execute “full-funnel marketing, where you start with awareness and become top of mind so customers will engage with the company later down the line.”

Over the last few weeks, some of e.l.f’s eyeshadows and lip exfoliators have gone viral on TikTok, which Marchisotto said happened because of the company’s continual presence there.

Drabicky, of January Digital, noted that brands shouldn’t think about their TikTok presence as a way to generate sales.

“Brands that try to associate this with money will be frustrated because there aren’t saw-an-ad-and-bought-it metrics,” he said. “It’s mostly about brand awareness that’s measured off of comments and likes.”

TikTok has experimented with shoppable videos in the past (the beta test has been discontinued) and experts say it’s only a matter of time before the platform rolls out shoppable links from its content.

“When TikTok becomes shoppable, it will become the biggest acquisition play for Gen Z,” said Allegra Salke-Hussey, an associate account director at marketing fim RQ. “The more brands understand how to use it now, the better off they will be getting in front of young consumers in a few years from now.”

Find the Right Dance Partner

Like every other social media platform, the best way for brands to build awareness on TikTok is with influencers.

But the TikTok influencer game is quite different to other social platforms. While it has its fair share of platform-specific celebrities, including Jacob Sartorius, Charli D'Amelio and Lauren Godwin, any video can go viral when it’s placed onto the app’s For You page (content lands there when the hashtag #ForYou is used). It’s for this reason that TikTok marketing experts recommend brands cast their nets far and wide.

You don't need a ton of followers to go viral, and people will quite often go from 20,000 to 1 million quickly.

“There’s a real opportunity to work with small influencers because of the way the algorithm works,” said Mae Karwowski, founder and chief executive of the influencer agency Obviously. “You don’t need a ton of followers to go viral, and people will quite often go from 20,000 to 1 million quickly.”

Jacks said the best strategy for working with TikTok influencers is to not plan too far ahead.

“The trends change so quickly, so the strategy is literally to be executing content the week of,” he said. “You have to just embrace the platform at any given moment.”

@ralphlaurenReady to take your look to the next level? dixiedamelio shows you how to #LoUp with her favorite pieces from #PoloRalphLauren #RalphLauren♬ Go Low (feat. NewAgeMuzik) - Jelani Blackman

Jacks added that the best performing content on TikTok has little brand oversight. Marchisotto, of e.l.f Cosmetics, admitted that working with TikTok influencers without much brand oversight was a “painstaking process that stretched us out of our comfort zone.”

“Tiktok content is unedited, silly, raw one-takes, and that’s the complete opposite of what brands do on Instagram,” he said. “There can’t be lights or fancy cameras, or anything that looks overly-produced. It’s about letting go.”

The future could involve brands developing products for TikTok

Last month, Nick Sylvester, a music producer and co-founder of Godmode, an artist development firm that searches for musical talent on platforms like TikTok, told The New York Times music podcast Popcast that songs are now being developed with TikTok in mind: they “emphasise short, unusual potentially-quirky micro sections.”

There can't be lights or fancy cameras, or anything that looks overly-produced. It's about letting go.

Jacks, of Collab, believes the beauty industry should similarly move towards creating products that are set up to go viral on TikTok. He said companies should be thinking about items that produce exaggerated effects — like lip plumpers and coloured shampoos.

And while much of the industry is focused on sustainability, Jacks believes brands that want to nab huge audiences on TikTok need be focusing on attention-grabbing packaging.

“Basic moisturisers will not get people to stick around and watch videos, let alone create them,” added Karwowski. “It’s the weird, purple shampoo kids like to dump on their heads type of stuff. Products that entertain.”


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