Businesses wake up to the immense potential of TikTok

Companies are increasingly cottoning on to the fact that the video-sharing app, once seen as the preserve of the young, is increasingly a powerful marketing tool to reach all ages

TikTok celebrated its recent fifth birthday by announcing that more than one billion people – almost one-in-eight people on the planet – now use the video sharing app every month.

And its star is only set to shine brighter: a new social media trends report for 2022 by marketing experts HubSpot and consumer intelligence platform Talkerwalker suggests it will continue to expand and “take over social media”, forcing other brands to adapt. This is based largely on TikTok’s highly personalised feed, which curates different content for each user drawing on known interests as well as previous likes and comments on the platform, instead of simply showing them videos from accounts they have chosen to follow.

Given this colossal global reach and potential, combined with the ability to easily record and edit videos of up to three minutes in-app and then share clips to multiple platforms, it’s no wonder that businesses of all sizes are flocking to the platform. TikTok’s growing corporate appeal, including to B2B companies such as financial and technical services providers, has been boosted by a shift in the user demographic. Once seen almost solely as the preserve of the young, the latest user base statistics show that almost one-in-four users are now over the age of 30.

However, despite this promise, getting started can still be daunting to companies unused to using video as part of their marketing efforts. As inspiration, here are five examples of brands using TikTok in unexpected ways to expand their audiences and boost awareness of their services.

•   Sage

In February, Sage – a cloud business company best known for its accounting software – launched the #BOSSIT2021 Challenge, challenging UK small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to use their creativity to showcase their ‘boss it’ moments inside work or out. Over one million companies took the opportunity to show how they were excelling despite the uncertain times. The overall winner was Broken Planet Market, a recycled fabrics clothing company, which documented the struggle to keep up with storage in the one-bedroom flat it is run from after the company ‘blew up’ on TikTok.  A podcast, a yoga company and a jewellery business were among the runners-up in the campaign, which won the Best Use of TikTok Ads category at the UK Paid Media Awards.

Sophie Fresco, a TikTok specialist for communications consultants Hotwire Global, says Sage is continuing to build on that initial success. “Following the triumph of the #BOSSIT2021 Challenge, it asked followers to use #SageTellMe and create their own videos and explain how they are an SME without saying they are an SME,” she says. “The hashtag has over 4.5 billion views, so far.”

•   Harvard Business Review

The renowned business management magazine posts videos on how to “deal with work, school and life” and has over 1.2 million likes. Its TikTok account is an extension of its global Ascend brand, which targets modern young professionals just starting their careers and is not behind a paywall – unlike the content targeted at more mature workers. Paige Cohen, Ascend’s editor-in-chief, told media trade magazine Digiday that: “We introduce younger people to the brand, help them build better habits, help them make better career decisions. And when the day comes that they’re more in the middle of their careers instead of at the beginning, they will turn to the Harvard Business Review content.” She, and other editors, are the faces seen on TikToks on subjects including interview hacks and tips, and Halloween-themed resumé killers to give “more personality and connection to the brand”.

•   Gymshark

“On TikTok, you’ve got to put entertainment and comedy value before your product,” advises Harvey Morton, digital expert and founder of Harvey Morton Digital. He singles out Gymshark, a British fitness clothing and accessories brand which posts content designed to help its users stay active, as using the platform well. “They have built up a large following from posting consistent, quality videos from workouts, workout memes and inspiration,” he says.

Playfulness seems to be the winning ingredient. Gymshark’s profile description states: “Nothing to do with sharks. Something to do with the gym.” On TikTok, the brand has 3.4 million followers, and its irreverent videos about life in the gym – including men wearing crop tops to work out and pet dogs obediently watching their owners lift weights – have amassed more than 51 million likes.

•   Marks and Spencer

M&S dates back to 1884, but its food division has enhanced its modernity by entering the TikTok scene and using the self-parodying profile description “This is not just any TikTok page…”, in a nod to the brand’s famous marketing tagline. By leveraging the reputation of own-brand sweet favourite Percy Pig, piggybacking #FoodTikTok and responding to viral trends and news, M&S Food has attracted 133,000 followers and over 2.3 million likes. A recent video for Hallowe’en, which showed Percy Pig and friends doing an amusing ‘pumpkin workout’ to a spooky song, generated over 110,000 plays in less than a week.

•   Ryanair

The budget airline offers a perfect example of how a sense of humour can trigger a surge in customer engagement and brand presence on the platform. The consistency and tone of Ryanair’s TikTok output has attracted over one million followers. The formula is simple – often images and footage of its planes with superimposed human facial features, or cabin crew sharing common thoughts – but very effective. Set to funky music, the results are amusing but subtly keep attention focused on the airline’s branding and core product of low-priced flights across Europe.

•    Miss Excel

Used well, TikTok can raise the profile of individual entrepreneurs, too. For example, Kat Norton – aka Miss Excel – has danced her way to becoming a full-time spreadsheet influencer by making Microsoft Excel “fun”. Having attracted over 652,000 followers and had one video go viral with over three million views, she has given up her day job as a consultant to focus on being Miss Excel.

She mostly posts clever dance videos containing shortcuts, tips and tricks for the masses, with a subtle message to seek out her courses. Normally, how-to videos are step-by-step posts, possibly with screenshots with helpful arrows. Not so Miss Excel. The message for other businesses is that it’s not just what you do, it’s how you frame it. Even the dullest of subject matters can become fun and exciting with a quirky twist.

“You have to have an element of polarity,” Norton told Quartz, when asked what makes a successful TikTok profile. “When you take something as boring as Excel and something so different like dancing and combine them… people are flabbergasted.

Joining the TikTok revolution

So, now we’ve shown a snapshot of how other businesses are embracing the TikTok opportunity, why should yours join them? Top of the long list of reasons to post on the social media platform are that it’s free to use and videos can be as short as 15 seconds in length, so content can be produced and published quickly. Crucially, you needn’t be a big brand or have a big budget to make TikTok a success.

Additionally, Jon Abrahams, global managing director of virtual office provider Rovva and a big fan of TikTok, suggests bearing in mind that while the playful nature of the platform is forcing brands to be more innovative, quality rather than quantity of content is still key.

“It’s important to remember that your business’s TikTok account is essentially an extension of your brand, and jumping on trends that don’t fit with your core purpose and values can make your response appear out of place,” warns Abrahams. “This can negatively impact engagement with your brand. Essentially, don’t try to do everything that’s trending; if it’s not in line with your brand personality, leave it.”

Lastly, remember TikTok’s stated mission to “inspire creativity and bring joy”. In this spirit, businesses should not be afraid to experiment, or try doing things differently. And certainly, they ought not shy away from being either bold or quirky with their videos. While there may be an element of trial and error to begin with, those that craft a winning TikTok marketing strategy will discover it can pay off, handsomely.