A guide to TikTok for Brands

TikTok for Brands

Since the Coronavirus pandemic hit, quarantine appears to have driven a Global download boom for TikTok. We are throwing back to February when Carat UK provided WARC with this brilliant guide to assist brands in making the leap to the platform.

A guide to using social video app TikTok as a marketing platform, including its organic and paid advertising opportunities, working with TikTok influencers, and how to measure performance.

  • TikTok is the first truly global social app and can help brands to quickly create awareness and affinity for their products, as well as engage in social commerce
  • For those brands looking to exploit the entertaining and light-hearted nature of TikTok, it's unique sponsored ‘Hashtag Challenge’ format is the most attractive paid format
  • Infant nutrition brand Friso reached 22.5 million consumers in China with a TikTok campaign, achieving its goal of getting closer to its core audience of millennial mothers.

Why TikTok?

TikTok is a global phenomenon, with 500 million users in China, over 150 million in India and 40 million in the US – and it continues to grow rapidly. However, users of the app have clear expectations of content that brands using TikTok as a marketing platform must adhere to.


In western markets, the app is known as a destination for entertaining video content; in China TikTok’sdiverse age base means younger users are often seeking informative content.

TikTok’s Hashtag Challenge ad format is perfect for brands looking to engage authentically with millennials and supports consumer journey all the way through to purchase.

When running truly global content on TikTok across multiple regions, brands need to be aware that platform functionality varies from market to market.

Born out of the lip-syncing app Musical.ly, social media app TikTok, or Douyin as it is known in native China, is at the heart of the current zeitgeist. With 500 million monthly users in its homeland, 155 million in India, 40 million in the US, seven million in the UK, and more than 1.5 billion downloads worldwide, TikTok is the first truly global social app.

It’s responsible for launching musicians like No.1 Billboard-charting artist Lil Nas X with his hit ‘Old Town Road’, which originated as a TikTok meme. It’s no surprise the platform has also attracted an array of notable users.

These include publishers The Washington Post and The Atlantic, US government and law enforcement bodies such as Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, celebrities Britney Spears, Jimmy Fallon and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and sporting teams including the NBA’s Chicago Bulls.

In this guide, we’ll look at how brands can win with mobile-native audiences on TikTok.

What is TikTok?

TikTok is hard to categorise. While seen as a social network, unlike other platforms, users are not required to sign up to access content. All user-generated content is video, mostly 15 seconds or less, repurposing real-life moments into funny, ironic, off-the-wall content.

It differentiates itself from other social platforms by making sure that users always have the opportunity to discover fresh content. Its parent company, Chinese firm Bytedance, is extremely proud of maintaining content discoverability through artificial intelligence, which aims to make the platform experience as entertaining for the user as possible.

To TikTok, or not to TikTok?

TikTok is a natural fit for brands looking to reach a broad audience instantly. TikTok can help brands create awareness and affinity for their products as well as engage in social commerce, particularly in established markets like China, India and the rest of Asia, where social commerce is more mature.

In western markets, the app is known as a destination for entertaining video content. In China TikTok’s diverse age base means younger users are often seeking informative content, whilst older users are dancing around and enjoying themselves.

In western markets, TikTok is primarily used by Generation Z, who go to the platform to smile and be entertained – it is also a fantastic tool for discoverability.

Brands looking to use TikTok in markets such as the US and UK should have defined objectives around engaging with younger audiences and changing perceptions of their brand or a particular product or service.

The opportunities for brands on TikTok

As a platform where brands can be fresh and create conversation, it is key to partner with the right content creators (often younger platform natives) who can affect and impact culture at scale.

Brands can engage organically with users, reach users with paid advertising, or work with influencers to spread content, all using TikTok’s advanced creative toolkit.

1. Organic

Creating an organic channel on TikTok allows brands to have a constant presence on the platform that can act as a destination for users. As with other social platforms, it can be tricky to scale organic content if your brand isn’t already TikTok-famous.

That doesn’t mean that the Chicago Bull’s mascot, Benny the Bull, doesn’t have more followers on TikTok than Instagram. For most brands, their first foray into TikTok should ideally be supported by influencer partnerships and paid advertising support.

The beauty of TikTok is that the product team have deliberately built functionality into the platform so that users and brands can easily share video content (organically) elsewhere – whether it be via YouTube or Facebook, giving organic and paid content the opportunity to travel further.

2. Paid

There is a range of advertising formats in TikTok. For reach and awareness, Discovery page takeovers work well as this is the initial experience users have when they open the application. In-feed native video and sponsored lens filters work like other paid media formats found on other social networks and can be used as tools for reach and consideration.

Ads can be bought on CPC, CPV or CPM models directly for activity in most western markets. There is also targeting available for profiles such as age, interest and CRM lists. Typically, TikTok will work with a brand’s media agency, creating all-inclusive packages that blend paid and influencer advertising. The platform is currently working on scaling out a self-serve model across all markets to help attract performance-focused brands.

For those brands looking to exploit the entertaining and light-hearted nature of TikTok, its unique sponsored ‘Hashtag Challenge’ format is the most attractive paid format. Hashtag Challenges are campaigns directed at Generation Z, prompting users to post videos of themselves with the brand’s hashtag visible.

Brands usually encourage users to show off their product or participate in a crafted viral video like lip-syncing to a song or jingle. Hashtag Challenges are perfect for brands looking to engage authentically with millennials.

Recently, TikTok released its Hashtag Plus Challenge format, which adds a further shoppable component to the hashtag. In the Plus format, users not only make and view videos featuring the brand’s sponsored hashtag but can also purchase products directly through a separate tab on TikTok.

CASE STUDY: Kroger launches first Hashtag Plus Challenge in the US, #TransformURDorm

To help get college-aged kids excited for the coming school year, Kroger, the largest grocery retailer in the US, teamed up with Dentsu Aegis Network’s 360i and TikTok. The Hashtag Plus Challenge encouraged young adults to post their cool and essential “dorm room transformations” to the platform using the branded hashtag #TransformUrDorm.

Kroger made the challenge go further by enlisting four college-aged influencers – Joey Klaasen, Mia Finney, Victoria Bachlet, and Cosette Rinab – to showcase how they “transformed their dorm” by shopping at their local Kroger store. In true TikTok spirit, the influencers’ synchronised their transformations to the beat of fun music and thumb-stopping video effects.

The challenge stood apart from other original Hashtag Challenges because it was the first brand to utilise shoppable products within the app itself. That means users could browse and buy products right from Kroger’s dedicated brand site while remaining in the TikTok app.

Results: Throughout the campaign, Kroger’s Challenge was participated in more than 477 million times.

3. Using influencers

In China, well-known ‘key opinion leaders’ (China’s term for macro-influencers) and celebrities such as musicians and TV stars are actively posting on TikTok. Brands also work with TikTok to find micro-influencers popular for their informative content to help brands get closer to key consumer segments.

Outside China, influencers on TikTok are nascent and often cheaper per post than other social platforms. The benefit of working with influencers on TikTok is that they deeply understand what resonates with younger audiences. Well-known TikTok influencers are happy to work with brands on posts, long-term partnerships and support hashtag challenges or, further afield, helping brands create memorable TikTok style content for other platforms.

It’s essential for brands – while being mindful of protecting their image – to let TikTok influencers guide the type of content that will appear on the platform. These influencers will use a combination of their inherent knowledge and data mined from previous posts to create partnerships that strike a chord with TikTok users.

CASE STUDY: Frisco drives sales to store in China using TikTok

Infant nutrition brand Frisco partnered with Kidswant, a maternity-infant-children speciality retailer, to leverage its physical stores and digital channels to get closer to its core audience of millennial mothers in China.

To do this, Frisco needed to reach this audience on a platform that was native to them, TikTok. Working with Carat and TikTok, the campaign ran ads geo-fenced to areas within a defined distance of Kidswant stores in 17 cities that were critical must-win battlegrounds for Friso.

Carat and TikTok identified a mother in each major city that was popular for posting informative parenting content on TikTok. They became the campaign’s spokeswomen, talking extensively about parenthood and providing useful tips within TikTok with a call to action to redeem discount vouchers after watching their content. 

Additionally, playful, entertaining video content of the mothers playing quiz-like games was distributed to keep users engaged in the campaign for longer.

Results: The campaign reached more than 22.5 million users across the 17 target cities. New user purchases accounted for 87.9% of all Frisco purchases made at Kidswant stores using a coupon redemption during the campaign period.

4. Creative opportunities

TikTok’s unique advantage for brands is its advanced video editing suite that can add commentary, quirky special effects, place the user in off-the-wall scenes, and also help sync videos to music.

A large portion of the content found on TikTok syncs to music found via the platform’s extensive music library.

Recently Home Depot’s jingle found its way into TikTok and went viral. More than 62 million pieces of content were created using the hashtag #HomeDepot and synced to the catchy tune – a boon for a brand whose core audience traditionally skewed older.

The challenges brands should be aware of when using TikTok

TikTok is relatively new to the advertising space and involves working with new creative suites and advertising interfaces. Advertisers may experience the growing pains of working with a new media owner. To overcome this, brands should look to involve their PR and media agencies, which have strong experience in this space.

Brands that have worked with other social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat will be familiar with the need to work within the limitations, and opportunities, of the platform’s strict creative guidelines.

When running truly global content across multiple regions, brands need to be aware that platform functionality varies from market to market. It is also worth noting that social commerce functions currently integrated into the Chinese version of the app may not be available in some markets, with no current alternative.

TikTok has not been without its brushes with controversy. Last year, the platform faced a temporary ban by the Indian government following several accidents and mishaps that were reportedly related to the use of the app, and the US Federal Trade Commission fined TikTok $5.7m for collecting children’s personal data without consent. There have also been allegations of censorship and a lack of moderation.

Brands need to consider how comfortable they are about appearing around user-generated content. For some brands, by the very nature of regularly talking to younger adult audiences, they will be comfortable with the setting. For other brands that need to abide by strict government laws and other regulations, they should take careful thought before choosing to invest in marketing on TikTok.

Measuring advertising performance on TikTok

As with all new channel investment, brands should test their way to success. TikTok outside China is still primarily used as a brand awareness channel to reach and change perceptions with the extremely lucrative Generation Z and Alpha audiences. TikTok supports brand tracking studies with Nielsen and Millward Brown, enabling brands to track changes in brand metrics such as awareness and salience.

Within platform native performance reports, brands can understand how their campaign delivered. TikTok also supports third-party tags from major ad servers and viewability tags from well-known ad verification partners, meaning brands can verify delivery, measure downstream site actions and track online sales.

It is also integrated with many mobile measurement partners so that brands can trackback to activity within their native apps, i.e. sales and content engagement.

How brands can succeed on TikTok

For brands that are considering TikTok remember:

  1. TikTok has an enormous global reach, yet user behaviour differs from market to market. Chinese users can expect both informative and compelling content, while western users are more familiar with playful and entertaining content. Brands must carefully define who they are trying to reach and why, before adopting a media strategy for TikTok
  2. To make the most of the wide range of organic, paid and influencer partnership opportunities on TikTok and create content that feels authentic to users, brands must work with the tools and communication styles native to TikTok
  3. Before brands run advertising on TikTok, they should define the results that matter most and ensure they use the correct tools to capture those results, whether it be mobile app downloads, sales or brand perceptions.

China has shown us that TikTok is an effective way to reach consumers, especially for brands looking to drive awareness, create affinity with consumers, entertain and sell products and services – all without users ever having to leave the app.

Outside of China, TikTok continues to capture the imaginations of Generation Z, helping brands struggling to talk to younger age groups by providing the toolkit and reach to engage in creative and relevant conversation to sway perceptions and connect with younger audiences' day-to-day lives.

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