Making Brands Tik
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Making Brands Tik.

Words by Stacey Purdon
09 May 2023

TikTok shows us what can happen when brands decide to misbehave. And the results defy a lot of things that used to be true about marketing.

In many ways, TikTok is like the upside-down world. When brands try to look good on this platform, surprise! It’s opposite day. Slick, well-crafted content won’t make a brand look good on TikTok - it’ll make them look out of touch. Scrappy, raw, slightly shonky content is the only way to show up here.

True designer Stacey Purdon has taken on the unofficial title of TrueTok Queen, having demonstrated impressive levels of tolerance for Gen X and Elder-Millennial questions. Stacey points out that the infinitely scrollable design of TikTok means anything that looks even remotely like an ad is instantly flicked past. Think of it as an entertainment platform rather than a social media app. “The brands that are having the biggest success on TikTok are the ones that realise you can’t make traditional ads here.”

Stacey highlights brands like DuoLingo who have understood the assignment. Their unhinged green owl mascot jumps on every trend, embracing bad reviews and criticism head-on, and comes off likeably enough to score 6.4 million followers. “DuoLingo’s content is made for this platform, and it shows. TikTok is fundamentally different to YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. You can’t just re-size your ad and hope to succeed.”  

“You have to understand the cultural shift that TikTok has unleashed. Authenticity is key for TikTok. Users come on to be seen or to be entertained. Where Instagram used to rule, creating incredibly curated and unattainable content, TikTok has thrown away the rose-tinted glasses and given people what they want to see – themselves, unfiltered.”

“It’s essential to build distinctive assets on TikTok to ensure you’re getting good brand attribution. But rather than just bringing your current brand cues into this platform, it’s more effective to think about how you can create new ones that feel native to this landscape,” says Stacey.

Even mammoth global brands like Microsoft have had success with adapting their brand and embracing scrappiness. Their self-mocking foray into @microsoft and @windows makes great use of retired brand assets (remember Mr Clippy)? Turns out we all love to see a brand cutting loose and having fun, especially when they’re mostly poking fun at themselves.

There are some common threads to success, and Stacey is happy to share. “I’ve noticed a few tricks that can help you out. It’s all about latching on to trending themes and audio tracks, using the platform’s own built-in editing functions as much as possible, and making full use of captions and graphics.” The content itself is becoming easier to make for those ready to let go of what they know. A great TikTok feels like a conversation with a mate: they know who you are, they aren’t out to impress, and they take this piss. It’s pretty simple – people wanna learn something new or see something funny. It's all about joy and human connection.

When all these things come together in the right way, you can achieve temporary viral nirvana – which happened to a couple of our own True TikToks, racking up hundreds of thousands of views over a single weekend. “Let’s call it a little bit of skill, and a little bit of luck!” Stacey credits some of the success to linking caption copy to onscreen copy, which in turn helped the TikTok algorithm get our video to the right niche audience, in this case Office-Tok. Check them out and give us a few more views 

Of course, like everything in advertising and marketing, all rules are made to be broken – constantly. The latest hit from Hilton Hotels is a staggering 10-minute affair, and people are watching it ALL THE WAY through, which ignores everything that should be true about the platform. As one of the characters in the clip says, “Ten minutes on TikTok is like three years in the real world.” The success of this particular video could be put down to seeing familiar TikTok influencers, creating in their authentic way, even if it was ironically.

What happens on TikTok doesn’t just stay on TikTok, either. It’s interesting to observe the way the trash-Tok aesthetic is beginning to influence other media platforms. For example, when we helped our friends at Warner Bros Discoverylaunch ThreeNow, True Senior Creative Jess Reihana decided ‘scrappiness’ was the right zone to play in.

“We wrote a series of scripts that involved inserting comedian Angella Dravid directly into a bunch of popular ThreeNow shows, like Married at First Sight UKand Dr Pimple Popper. The fast-and-loose editing approach embraces the irreverence of scrappy content to engage our audience through humour,” says Jess.   

We know by now TikTok can cause overnight success, and with this we have seen a rise in the “TikTok influencer”. The idea that anyone can achieve virality caused an over-saturation of creators wanting a slice of the pie. In a way this flattens the playing field. If celebs are no longer our main source of what’s hot or not, does this mean more opportunities for the likes of small businesses and marginalised creators? If scrappiness is the measure, does this mean tiny NZ brands have as much opportunity as the big global brands? What do you think? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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