Marketers of the Year No. 1: TikTok
It was pummeled by security concerns over its ownership by Chinese company ByteDance, public rebukes from the Trump administration and spent months in the political crosshairs, yet TikTok’s marketing is cruising along as coolly as Nathan Apodaca (aka Dogg Face) lip-syncing “Dreams” and sipping Ocean Spray. Marketers including Mtn Dew, Hyundai, Procter & Gamble, e.l.f. and Chipotle made it a key component in their marketing, issuing popularTikTok challenges; the platform forged deeper ties with influential sports leagues like the National Football League and the National Basketball Association; and TikTok drew interest from Walmart and Oracle as potential buyers. With 100 million active users in the U.S.—up from 40 million in October 2019—TikTok has truly broken into the mainstream for advertisers who, as Fleetwood Mac’s song says, have dreams to sell.
Given these hurdles, its success seems to have surprised even TikTok. “We had these kinds of domino effects throughout the year,” says Blake Chandlee, TikTok’s VP of global business solutions, in a recent video call from his home in Austin. “And so each one of those, you kind of look at them and say, ‘Woah, that was a big deal.’ And now looking back on what was 2020 for us as a team ... I can tell you this, we are far and away further along than I ever thought we’d be given the situation and circumstances.”
TikTok does not disclose its U.S ad revenue, but parent ByteDance, which operates another TikTok-like app in mainland China called Douyin and other mobile properties, is reportedly the second-largest seller of digital ads in China and will generate about $27 billion in ad revenue this year, according to Reuters.
Since August, the Trump administration has waged a battle to force ByteDance to sell TikTok based on fears that a Chinese-owned company should not have widespread access to U.S. consumer data. At first, Microsoft made an offer to buy TikTok, and then Oracle and Walmart became suitors.
A key date arrived on Dec. 4, which was the extended deadline the Trump administration put on TikTok to sell its U.S. business or cease operations. This story went to press before that date. Courts have so far saved TikTok in appeals cases that are ongoing, and it’s unclear whether Trump’s executive order to stop the app will carry much weight once he leaves office. In any case, whether TikTok faces a shock shutdown or outlasts Trump, the app has already left its mark on 2020 and internet culture.
“It starts here’
TikTok launched its first major marketing effort with its new creative agency Known Global that highlights its place in shaping pop culture. The campaign was called “It starts here,” referring to the number of trends and cultural hits that emerge from the video platform, like Apodaca’s video which made him a TikTok star while unintentionally boosting sales for—of all things—cranberry juice and tripling downloads for a 43-year-old song.
Nick Tran, the head of global marketing at TikTok who has turned these breakout moments into TV ads on programming like “The Voice” and Major League Baseball, says moments like Apodaca’s are not simple serendipity. “On one hand, you see this amazing moment that people claim was lightning in a bottle, but I genuinely believe that’s not going to be an isolated incident,” Tran says. “I really think that we now have the sort of recipe within the platform and the products to find more moments like that and elevate them.”
Its star turn on TikTok was actually an education for Ocean Spray. “We leaned in more quickly to TikTok than we had planned,” says Chris Ferzli, Ocean Spray’s director of global corporate affairs. “We shifted our marketing, whereas the whole point was to talk about our sustainability and purpose, and health and wellness, those pieces now are proof points to our overall mission to spread good vibes.”
After the video, which has notched 72 million views, Ocean Spray’s social media accounts took off. Ferzli says sales of the juice featured in the video ticked up. TikTok videos with the hashtag “Ocean Spray” generated 350 million views, Ferzli says. Ocean Spray CEO Tom Hayes was bitten by the TikTok bug, too, and joined the site. His tribute video to Apodaca has 3.8 million views.
“It’s just an exciting time to know that TikTok is out there stepping up their game,” says Doron Faktor, director, connections and social at VMLY&R, which worked with Walgreens on a graduation season campaign that featured pop star Bebe Rexha. Faktor says that TikTok’s commercials reassure marketers that may have been wary of walking into a political minefield: “Their TV commercials got a lot more prominent, which I thought was interesting and to be honest made me feel a little bit more relaxed with the whole situation.”
Behind the scenes, TikTok execs are also trying to teach brands that they are safe on the platform given its relatively young user base and the potential for social media messes. TikTok has pledged to U.S. advertisers that it will continue to work to protect users, according to one ad agency exec briefed on the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity. Other agency insiders have been briefed on what TikTok calls a “transparency center,” which it claims proves that data cannot be accessed by Chinese authorities. “TikTok doesn’t exist inside China,” Chandlee says. “My general view on this is, I think we are really and truly a global company.”
Reach and effectiveness
The deciding factor for advertisers is effectiveness and reach, and TikTok offers plenty of both. Consider Charli D’Amelio, the most famous star to emerge from TikTok, who in November reached a gobsmacking 100 million followers. Sixteen-year-old D’Amelio has been signed by United Talent Agency, her family is becoming this generation’s Kardashians, and she has deals with brands including Dunkin. When D’Amelio was on the brink of notching that follower record, she faced an onslaught of negative attention over an online spat that led her follower count to drop by a million people before she rallied to the top.
TikTok employees were rooting for D’Amelio to reach that watershed number. “As much as I don’t think it’s the metrics that should matter, whether you have 100 followers or you have 100 million followers, the stuff that you make could inspire people … It’s still an amazing achievement that we celebrated,” says Tran.
Procter & Gamble was inspired to work with D’Amelio this year to create the #DistanceDance challenge, which went viral during the pandemic. Mtn Dew also integrated TikTok into its Super Bowl campaign early this year, incorporating special effects that users apply to their videos. “Innovation is key to breaking through given the rapid pace and fluidity of the format,” says Nicole Portwood, VP of marketing at Mtn Dew. “We were the first CPG brand to create a TikTok in tandem with our Super Bowl commercial, and the interactivity and fuel for creativity clearly struck something real with our fandom.”
An early adopter was e.l.f, another one of Ad Age’s Marketers of the Year, which launched its first campaign on TikTok built around a 15-second “Eyes, Lips, Face” video reminding people what the brand acronym stands for. The effort reached 10 billion views of its content on the platform.
TikTok is still facing some political uncertainty with a new administration taking office in Washington. “We’ll continue to see some friction there, I think there’s going to be headwinds,” Chandlee says. “I don’t think we’re out of the woods on that one yet, but I think that throughout the whole thing we’ve just had this conviction that we’ve done everything right.”
Amanda Grant, new global head of social at GroupM, says that advertisers have been slowly coming around to TikTok, but there will continue to be some advertisers waiting to see how the situation resolves. “Everyone is just kind of holding tight until there is more clarity, but there is still excitement,” Grant says. “So, everyone is kind of learning about the product and the offering until we have more information. TikTok is definitely doing both at same time, training and keeping everyone abreast of what’s happening.”
In the end though, through the tussle with Trump and all the crises, TikTok might even emerge stronger, says George Manas, president and chief media officer at OMD U.S. The bidding war for TikTok from some of the biggest U.S. companies over the summer serves as an endorsement that the company is doing something right.
“Two of the world’s most recognized brands, Microsoft and Walmart, were right at the forefront of this effort,” Manas says. “That’s a huge vote of confidence in TikTok, in the platform, in its potential, and in its promise.”