How the TikTok tension is affecting brands’ back-to-school campaigns
In late June, when a host of marketers joined forces to boycott Facebook and Instagram, many brands said they were redirecting their dollars to TikTok. As the digital platform of the moment for teens, TikTok provides a direct line for brands to reach younger generations. That’s been apparent in recent weeks, when retailers including American Eagle, DSW, Hollister and Dick’s Sporting Goods have all used TikTok for their back-to-school campaigns.
Now, with TikTok’s future uncertain, those investments are in jeopardy. ByteDance, which owns TikTok, is in talks with Microsoft over a possible sale of the platform's U.S. division, before the Sept. 15 deadline set by President Donald Trump is reached, and TikTok is potentially banned from the U.S. altogether.
Many brands are taking a wait-and-see approach as they navigate the uncertainty. Others are exploring alternative plans, and using the back-to-school season as a litmus test of sorts for the holidays. The fourth quarter, normally the most important selling period of the year for retailers, is all the more crucial this year as sales remain in decline. The coronavirus pandemic has already hastened the demise of several established brands. This week, Tailored Brands, which owns Men’s Wearhouse and Lord & Taylor, and which rental startup Le Tote bought last year, have joined the ranks of retailers filing for bankruptcy protection, a roster that also includes Brooks Brothers, Sur La Table and J. Crew.
“Brands are learning to be very comfortable with uncertainty, in particular with back-to-school,” says Andrew Lipsman, a principal analyst at eMarketer, noting that the lack of definitive plans for many school districts across the country has made marketing challenging. He adds that diversifying marketing mixes now could ultimately prove beneficial for the holiday season.
“The fact that they may be forced to consider contingency plan now puts them on better footing for holiday season, which will be even more important,” says Lipsman.
After delaying its back-to-school campaign by a few weeks this year, Old Navy currently has a campaign running with TikTok in support of its new collaboration with media lifestyle brand Popsugar. A spokeswoman for Gap Inc.-owned Old Navy said that despite the tension around TikTok, Old Navy is still “moving forward with what we know at this point—which is that they have a growing, engaged audience.” If the platform is banned, the clothier will “re-evaluate and tweak” its social media mix, a spokeswoman said.
Indeed, TikTok’s audience is a coveted one for marketers. Last year, a leaked pitch deck revealed the platform has more than 30 million users in the U.S., a figure that has only grown with bored teenagers house-bound during pandemic-related lockdowns. The engagement is luring marketers such as Dick’s Sporting Goods, which is hosting its first TikTok challenge this month, and DSW, which recently debuted on the platform with the challenge #TooManyShoes. The footwear brand attracted more than 2.6 billion views for the campaign, which featured influencers and singers. A spokeswoman for DSW declined to comment on how the company is handling the current TikTok situation.
Eddie Bauer, which was one of the earlier brands to join the Facebook boycott in July, told Ad Age at the time that it was exploring TikTok as a channel to reinvest its marketing dollars. A spokeswoman for the outdoors brand said the company has “no concerns” about TikTok right now, but that it is “monitoring carefully.” Eddie Bauer has yet to return to Facebook, as it continues to pause all advertising on the social network.
Like DSW, PacSun, the California surfwear brand, has seen success with TikTok; the brand’s views on the platform are tracking upwards of 100 million, according to Chief Marketing Officer Kristen D’Arcy, who notes that a recent back-to-school challenge is resulting in both engagement and user-generated content.
In case of a TikTok ban, PacSun has been testing new platforms where kids are spending time, D’Arcy says. “Gaming obviously has popped more than ever, as has streaming video,” she says, adding that the company is testing new versions of creative with influencers that can be placed in different media.
EMarketer’s Lipsman says the risk of a TikTok ban is low, and would also occur after the traditional back-to-school shopping period is over. Yet should the platform disappear, brands could always find a new way to use the content they created.
“TikTok is an emerging marketing channel but it’s also an emerging content and advertising format, so what you have is a lot of brands recognizing that this is something that’s new, emerging and exciting and they’re designing for that,” he says. “They’re going to lean heavily into that because that sort of content and advertising is resonating with their core consumers. At the same time, if the marketing channel evaporated tomorrow, they’d be able to re-purpose and adapt that content to other channels, whether Instagram, Snap or Twitter.”