How Do Brands Survive on TikTok?

Kushaan Shah
Nov 23, 2020 · 10 min read

✍️ This piece was originally published as part of my new Substack newsletter, the Marketing Mind Meld. Subscribe there for weekly marketing reads!

December 29th, 2019 changed the trajectory of my life as a marketer.

After a cold kept me in bed for a good part of the morning, I slipped to the refuge of my phone and began my journey on a new app called TikTok.

The rest is history. Whether it was nonsensical skits, dance challenges, music, or even simply the sheer energy of content creators, I was hooked. It was truly the next frontier of consumer social apps.

But even as I mulled my own optimistic outlook, I could also easily understand why corporations and brands were skeptical. This was different than any other platform to reach consumers, one that had much more of light and playful reputation amongst a core younger demographic.

How do you navigate this complex ocean of quick memes and fun dances to get people excited about your product? What are brands doing differently on TikTok? Where do you even start?

Spurred by this curiosity, I decided to take a peek under the hood at brands that nailed TikTok. I reviewed some of the top brands on TikTok, read 40+ case studies on virality, and watched hundreds of quick videos in succession.

The patterns started to emerge slowly — the obvious realization is that there was no one approach to successful content, but there were a few large categories that seemed to capture what most brands were creating.

It prompted me to create my own framework, PIRANHA, to capture these larger use cases. I’m excited to share my learnings and some new perspectives on some of your favorite brands.

Let’s take a deeper dive into the world of TikTok brand strategy.

Why Do Brands Get Popular on TikTok?

First, it might help to set some context: Who are the brands killing it on TikTok?

Like any platform, TikTok has its upper echelon: Chipotle, NBA, ESPN, The Washington Post, Gymshark, Fenty Beauty, Elf Cosmetics, Nickelodeon, Fortnite and Red Bull have all been included in multiple case studies and third-party TikTok brand reviews for their innovative use of the platform.

Why these brands?

We don’t see many patterns from the industry categories. Food, sports, fitness, cosmetics and more comprise the top accounts. We also don’t see many differences in objectives — most brands are posting on TikTok for brand or product awareness.

A flagship indicator of popularity from other platforms — follower count — also doesn’t tell us much. Here is the follower account for TikTok accounts that have been praised for their use of the platform:

When you add in video likes, you’ll see something even more puzzling.

Smaller brands like Young Nails, Starface, and the Marine Mammal Rescue are crushing it on TikTok despite lower follower numbers. With a mere 500k following and a paltry budget compared to CPG behemoths, Starface has managed to get millions of likes on its videos.

While it is definitely easier for a Netflix or Nickelodeon to get an early follower count strictly from brand recognition, their strategy isn’t all that different from a Starface or even a Marine Mammal Rescue.

What ties all these brands together?

They all follow the content principles of PIRANHA.

What is the PIRANHA Framework?

It’s not enough to just have content — you have to make your content unique to your brand, your products, and your value proposition. But there are general patterns amongst content that perform really well for brands on TikTok.

This is where the PIRANHA framework fits in.

PIRANHA is a content genre mnemonic for the following:

Almost all of the top performing brand TikTok profiles hit at least one element of this framework consistently in their content:

  • Practical — Useful, brings a general utility to the table
  • Influencer — Uses a big name to drive momentum
  • Repackaged — Low-lift, repackaged and thrown on the platform
  • Affective — Drives an emotional chord or impacts mood
  • Neural Sensory — Drives light euphoria and tingles the physical senses
  • Hushed — Shows behind the scenes or exclusive access
  • Active — Interactive and gets users to react and respond

It’s easy to make generalizations about the TikTok audience and what the audience wants — and while Gen Z does make up a significant portion of TikTok, it’s hard to justify simply making dance challenges viral in order to win the like and engagement war on TikTok.

That’s where it helps to diversify and explore the avenues of PIRANHA.

Let’s look at each a bit closer.

Practical Content

Practical content is easy enough to define — content that serves a general utility. Quick tutorials happen to be some of the easiest in this category. Makeup brands like Kaja, Fenty Beauty and Elf Cosmetics are quick to show make-up tutorials using their products. GymShark is famous for its fitness niches with quick workout videos and brands like Walmart are quick to share deals on products — all effective due to the time constraint of TikTok. Quick information in less than 60 seconds to accomplish someone’s intended goal.

Influencer Content

This is also easy enough to identify — content that uses an influencer to endorse the brand via TikTok. Calvin Klein’s early TikTok strategy focused on interviewing celebrities like Shawn Mendes and Kendall Jenner on fashion tips. But TikTok even dangles beyond traditional celebrity endorsements, with brands often forgoing these to focus on TikTok’s platform-grown influencers. Famous TikTok sisters Charli and Dixie D’Amelio are a huge hit for brands the two made a video with Hollister Jeans that went viral, proving the jeans were easy enough to dance in. This highlights an increasing focus on authenticity in influencer marketing: endorsements from people who actually use and believe in the product.

Repackaged Content

Repackaged content is another mainstay of TikTok, especially any account that works in sports and entertainment. Repackaged content is largely unplanned and under-strategized — simply just repurposing old content with a new text of caption. A simple basketball highlight reel does wonders for TikTok engagement. Even Netflix will sometimes simply just upload old clips to bring back, actual excerpts and cathartic moments from shows. The Hamilton Musical account is one of my personal favorites — using dozens of random backstage videos and clips to throw on TikTok and give them a new life. The very definition of not reinventing the wheel.

Affective Content

The Marine Mammal Rescue posted a video on its account the other day of a seal ready to go free after months of rehab, accompanying it with music from Jim Well’s “Will You Be There?” instrumental.

The result? Tears.

Affective content is simple — content that is evocative and designed to strike a particular emotion. In fact, most of the videos on the Mammal Rescue’s page are designed this way. A cute seal barking? A baby seal eating ice? A seal waving through a window set to the tune of a lullaby? None of that is necessarily practical but it is useful nonetheless.

Science points to an actual connection between watching cute animal videos and moods — people report feeling more hope, happiness, and contentment, activating the emotion and reward circuits in their brain after a mere 20 seconds of looking at cute cat videos.

Nickelodeon is another brand who does a stellar job at this — using waves of clips from former shows like Spongebob Squarepants in new contexts. The science here is powerful, as simple nostalgia and immersion in the past can be a huge boost for avoiding negative stimuli.

Most content that doesn’t have a clear purpose may simply fall under this umbrella — if something makes you throw out an aggressive chuckle because of how weird it is, the brand has succeeded.

Neural Sensory Content

Sensory content goes a level beyond affective content — content that doesn’t only improve your mood or emotions — but actually makes your skin tingle.

Have you ever gotten goosebumps from listening to a great song or chills from hearing a particular sound?

Did you know there’s an entire genre of content designed to bring you those feelings?

ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) is a relaxing, often sedative sensation that begins on the scalp and moves down the body — also known as a brain massage. Coined in 2010 and immensely popular on Youtube, an ASMR can be triggered from a number of different stimuli — from popping a bag of chips to a whisper.

A thriving youtube ASMR influencer community eventually made its way to TikTok and beauty brands have been thriving. Take a look at this video from Milk Makeup — doesn’t it just make you want to jump?

One of the most popular trends for fashion brand High Snobiety is the concept of streetwear ASMR. It sounds complicated — but it’s literally just a person stepping on things with shoes and creating a satisfying crunch sound. A somatic goldmine.

Hushed Content

Hushed content taps into the exclusive access, behind the scenes, and unique stories of brands. The NBA, one of the top brands listed above, has crushed it with insider content, often doing exclusive interviews with players here, a formula Radio Disney has also leveraged to perfection.

My friend Anthony Mcguire also talks on a podcast about how this can be used as a lever for people to tell “startup stories”, a concept I found fascinating. Here’s a great example from Backyard Athlete. It taps into both the affective component (evoking strong empathy and relatability around the founding of the brand) as well as giving a look under the hood. It also gives people a fun fact to share about the history of brands.

Why do we love exclusive content? I touched on scarcity marketing in an older issue of the Mind Meld, but the same general psychology applies here:

If we’ve bought a great product on an urgent timeline, bought an exclusive product, or a rare product, we’ve gotten the reward that comes with it: to express status. To increase our perceived value. To fill the need to be unique.

Over time, we move away from caring about the actual product — the utility, the functions, the details — we just want the reward. The dopamine hit that’s come with status.”

We want to feel unique — and insider content delivers that for us.

Active Content

Active content is the last category here and likely one of the content genres that is most popular on TikTok — an interactive content strategy around simply making users do things. This could be a dance challenge, a challenge using the product, a music challenge, or anything else that prompts the user to respond.

If you ever wonder how Chipotle gets praised for their TikTok use, they have an endless stream of challenges: The #Boorito challenge prompting people to dress up for free Chipotle, a #GuacDance challenge to celebrate National Avocado Day and even a #FlipTheLid challenge that simply prompted users to buy a Chipotle bowl, toss the lid in the air, and get it perfectly on the bowl. The beauty of these challenges? It forced everyone to get Chipotle.

A recent example I love is Dettol, who ran a multi-market hand washing challenge. Nothing super clever, just a simple #HandWashChallenge hashtag with the focus of promoting best practices globally around the pandemic. The result is astounding: 100 billion views from that campaign alone!

People want to be part of the in-group. They want the social enhancement of being included. If you have a hashtag growing, they will jump in instantly.

It’s worth noting that the UI behind the interactactive component is largely what separates TikTok from its antecedents at Youtube, Instagram or Facebook.

TikTok allows you to make react videos next to the original video with a simple tap, add a hashtag with a simple tap, and add a sound to your video with a simple tap. The sheer simplicity of its creator studio has opened its doors for brands.

Final Thoughts

To get content particularly unique to TikTok, there is no easy path. You can post practical advice in a Youtube video, sponsor influencers on Instagram, and even repackage video content on Facebook and Twitter.

But what separates brands that do well is how they often pair elements of the framework. Simply putting music on a repurposed video is enough to evoke emotion or nostalgia. Adding an interactive component with practical advice will make lots of people likely to share it. Fusing influencer content with insider content is much more effective than someone like Kendall Jenner just needlessly promoting an image of the Fyre Festival.

Branding on TikTok is like playing a game of sorts, turning the right dials at the right time. Mixing different PIRANHA ingredients until one of your cocktails become a hit.

Think of some of the best brands you’ve seen on the platform — can you reverse engineer which parts of the PIRANHA framework they use? Can you recreate their desired brand strategy?

In his longer essay on TikTok, investor Turner Novak comments on the phenomenon of TikTok democratizing distribution, allowing almost any brand or person to do well on the platform:

TikTok is the largest social media company that has little reliance on a social graph. TikTok doesn’t require any friends, followers, or even an account. The hyper-personalized algorithm recommends content based on thousands of objects and tags analyzed in each individual video. This runs in stark contrast to the algorithms of legacy social products based largely around interactions from other users.

It’s this that levels the playing field. There’s no inherent value in simply being a large brand. There is one size fits all for a TikTok audience. Content is still king.

If there’s anything we know about piranhas, what matters is not the size of fish but the power of the bite.

I’m currently a growth marketer at Livongo based out of the Bay Area and enjoy sharing insights around growth, careers, and personal anecdotes. I also like meaningless controversies (check out ranking of the best fast food fries) and spending my days finding the best Super burrito in San Francisco. All opinions are my own. Get in touch here or via @kushaanshah on Twitter!

Plus Marketing

We’ve been working to build the best marketing publication + more on Medium.

Kushaan Shah

Written by

Growth @Livongo • Bostonian • Fan of sports and quirky theatre • Marketing Nerd • Weekly reads http://mindmeld.substack.com ✍️

Plus Marketing

We’ve been working to build the best marketing publication + more on Medium.

Kushaan Shah

Written by

Growth @Livongo • Bostonian • Fan of sports and quirky theatre • Marketing Nerd • Weekly reads http://mindmeld.substack.com ✍️

Plus Marketing

We’ve been working to build the best marketing publication + more on Medium.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store