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Brand success on TikTok: what does it take to gain a following on the popular social media platform?

Posted by Megan Hill on 14th February 2023

TikTok has taken the world of social media by storm since its inception in 2017. What was once an app for teenagers sharing dance videos is now one of the most used social media platforms in the world, with 1.5 billion monthly users globally.

In fact, the BBC reported in September of last year that TikTok was hot on the heels of social media goliath YouTube, with average time spent metrics indicating a higher level of engagement and retention on TikTok. Pretty impressive considering each video is only up to three minutes long.

TikTok’s audience has expanded too. No longer just a home for 12-years-olds,  today, 55% of UK TikTok users are over the age of 25, with jobs and cash to spend. Given this shift in the user base, companies are taking note, wanting to capture the attention of new potential customers. So…

How can you succeed on TikTok?

Naturally, big brands want a part of this action, and many have already succeeded in gaining masses of followers on the platform.

Take Ryanair as an example. The often-controversial brand has 1.9m followers and 23.2m likes to date. So how did it gain such a big following, especially when it was faced with a nationwide travel crisis not so long ago?

The answer is simple: personality.

Unlike Instagram where aesthetic is everything, TikTok is a warts-and-all platform.

Sure, there are beauty filters and visual effects, but TikTok remains Instagram’s more down to earth, younger sibling. The social media equivalent of Millennial versus Gen Z – the focus on ‘being real’ is crucial.

Just as many popular Instagrammers have failed to garner the same huge followings on TikTok, brands will also fail in garnering popularity on the channel if they just repurpose promotional content that doesn’t resonate with the audiences’ need for ‘realness’ – in whatever form the algorithm thinks it should take for them.

But being ‘real’ comes with pitfalls of its own.

Avoiding ‘corporate cringe’

It’s never a good thing to make someone cringe – I work in PR, trust me, there’s no believable positive spin to put on that word. Yet companies failing at TikTok are being branded with the insult ‘corporate cringe’ by customers and influencers alike.

So, what constitutes cringey behaviour on TikTok?

Generally, it comes down to companies trying — and most importantly failing — to be seen as relatable. It’s the ‘you’re not my customer, you’re my friend’ approach, which is simply not a believable concept to the ‘woke’ social media populous.

While I won’t be putting any brands on blast for poor use of TikTok (this is a friendly blog after all) we can again take some learnings from the unlikely TikTok star Ryanair.

One thing you’ll notice as you scroll through Ryanair’s TikTok is that sales is never mentioned. The companies’ social team never push their product. They never tell you why Ryanair is better than its competitors. Frankly, they practically ignore the fact that Ryanair is a business altogether.

What Ryanair has realised, that many others have failed to see, is that TikTok – in its current form at least – is a top of the funnel platform. Its main benefit is brand awareness.

As a result, the social team don’t use TikTok to tell you to book your flights through Ryanair, they make you laugh instead. They connect to you in a way that doesn’t feel forced (because they aren’t forcing product on you) and this keeps Ryanair at top of people’s minds when they look to book their next budget break.

It’s this simple understanding of how brand awareness works that has allowed Ryanair to find success through tongue-in-cheek videos that are short, humorous, and, most importantly, not crammed full of messaging.

But it’s not just globally-known brands that are letting personality propel them to viral status. ‘The dancing butcher’ (or Richard Mounfield) found TikTok fame filming himself dancing, often in his shop, and is now using that fame for good through charity events and promoting body positivity.

What can we take from this? Again, TikTok watchers don’t want your promotion. They don’t want to be sold to (unless it’s on TikTok shop, but that’s a blog in itself).

Treating TikTok as an individual

If you look at the way TikTok is laid out, the platform itself has made it pretty clear that there is little space for pushing corporate agenda.

In a TikTok video you only see the first three words of a caption and there is no swipe up link function. Even links added for TikTok shop need to be done by the creator and often offer huge discounts over traditional stores rather than pushing you back to the corporate site to pay the same price as everyone else.

Simply put, TikTok doesn’t want to be Instagram, Facebook or, dare I say, Twitter, so you can’t treat it as such.

If you want brand awareness on TikTok, you have to embrace the messier side of marketing:

  1. Ditch the guidelines and lean into the personality of your brand: no, not your brand values, your personality — and if you don’t have one you need to figure it out before you start.
  2. Jump on trends: planning in advance might work on channels like Instagram, where aesthetic is king, but in the fast-paced world of TikTok, relevance and trend spotting is key.
  3. Don’t be afraid to make fun of yourself: take a page out of Ryanair’s playbook and don’t take yourself too seriously.

Happy TikToking!

Want to find out more about working with influencers? Check out our case study with Blue.

Megan Hill