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TikTok Ban & its impact on Brand Marketing

For marketing firms, TikTok was the perfect gateway to millions of untapped consumers. With TikTok banned, how are brands coping?

It’s been over two years (2 August 2018) since TikTok launched globally after merging with Musical.ly. Since then, it has overtaken the globe like no other app before. It has launched careers of pop-stars (remember Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road?); mobilized millennials to vote; and made celebritydom accessible to regular folks. But, apart from all this, it provided brands with a fresh way of reaching out to millions of consumers without any significant increase in marketing expenditure.

In India, TikTok had its own special appeal. While YouTube’s preferred by those with an on-camera sense and post-production expertise, Instagram’s a hub for artists, photographers, high-end fashion bloggers and people with strong aesthetic sensibility. TikTok, on the other hand, required minimal prior experience in content creation.

Naturally, TikTok’s popularity caught-on; especially amongst millennials. In the West, TikTok spawned tracks that became major international hits, like Doja Cat’s ‘Say So’ & Tesher’s ‘Young Shahrukh’, and popularized the phrase ‘OK Boomer’; in India, it connected small towns & rural areas directly to the mainstream. Over time, brands started diverting 25-30 per cent of their social media spends to TikTok.

The TikTok that Made ‘OK Boomer’ Viral

For marketing firms, TikTok was the perfect gateway to millions of untapped consumers. Cities like Raipur, Ranchi, Bhopal, Jhansi, Bhubaneswar & Darbhanga were suddenly made more accessible than ever before; and this time communication wasn’t one-way like with traditional advertising. What we saw next was unprecedented. Influencers, who were earlier pocketed around New Delhi, Mumbai and other metros, started to appear in towns that got its first mall post-2010.

Soon, various brands started engaging with TikTok users through carefully crafted marketing campaigns. These campaigns weren’t always designed with the aim of driving sales, but focused on making the consumer aware of the product by turning it into a trending topic. Retailers like Myntra, Zara, ShopClues & SnapDeal; entertainment companies like Dharma Productions, Hungama Music, Voot & Viu; and personal care brands like Clean & Clear utilized TikTok for marketing. Recently, on TikTok, Pepsi’s #SwagStepChallenge, in association with Salman Khan’s Dabangg 3, generated over 5.4 billion views and 1,00,000 user videos over a period of four days! With the total number of views exceeding 30 billion, the campaign created a new world record!

Pepsi India's tiktok account

But, with TikTok now banned, how are brands coping? Is it a major loss? Will it have a long-lasting impact? Or was the app only a fad; like many that came before it? Let’s take a look.

1. Finding the Masses

The one quality that gave TikToK a clear advantage over competitors was its immense popularity amongst India’s small town & rural population. No other app, be it YouTube or Instagram, has been able do the same; yet. 

TikToker Adil Khan, who last had 3.8 million followers, says the reason behind TikTok’s popularity is that the platform isn’t elitist, but rather accepting of people from all walks of life. In comparison, Khan has only 180,000 followers on Instagram.

To elucidate better, between January 2018 & August 2019, TikTok’s reach expanded to 30 per cent of all Indian smartphones, according to a report by market intelligence firm KalaGato. Furthermore, majority of Indian TikTok users were between the ages of 18 & 35 and came from tier II & III cities with 52 per cent earning less than Rs 25,000 ($350) per month. This demographic was a direct pathway to India’s unexplored heartland.

With TikTok banned, brands will have to rethink their strategies dealing with how they reach out to audiences in smaller towns & rural areas. Despite lower incomes compared to urban centers, TikTok users were key when it came to generating awareness about, and interest in, a product. TikTok also added 14 regional Indian languages within the app which not only made it popular, but eased things for brands & marketing firms. Recapturing this vast audience will be challenging in the wake of the ban.

2. Shift to New Platforms

While both YouTube & Instagram have a strong presence in the country, they lack what TikTok offered. YouTube has rapidly been moving towards live streaming & long-form video whereas Instagram launched Reels which enables users to upload 15 second looped videos similar to TikTok. But, then again, this is an additional feature within the app, like IGTV & Instagram Stories, and not the primary function like it was on TikTok.

tiktok social updates

Ever since the ban, erstwhile TikTok celebrities have moved to other apps with many opting to increase activity on either Instagram or YouTube or, in most cases, both platforms. The ban has also pushed homegrown apps, like Chingari, Mitron, ShareChat, Roposo & Trell, to move forward and try filling the void that TikTok left behind. 

For instance, Roposo grew in India from four million before the ban to 64 million while Chingari was downloaded 6,00,000 times the day following the ban. Chingari also raised over Rs 10 crore in seed funding post the TikTok ban. ShareChat downloads spiked by 257 per cent whereas Mitron saw an increase of 54 per cent. Recently, Zee5 announced the launch of HiPi, its TikTok alternative.

TikTok became every brand management firm’s favorite platform due to the distinctive age and geographic groups it provided access to. Soon, only few of these apps will have any significant hold on the market and brands, according to the scenario and statistics, will have to choose what platforms to engage with and to what extent.

3. Restructuring Budget

Through TikTok Marketplace, the ByteDance backed app made sure its platform was regularly engaged in various marketing campaigns. Celebrities from film, television & sports, MPs & MLAs, reality TV stars, chefs, fitness & health experts, fashion & lifestyle consultants; everyone found brand partnerships on TikTok. From multinational conglomerates to local businesses, everyone jumped on the Chinese app to gain traction. As a result, marketing firms started allocating a part of their budgets specifically for TikTok campaigns.

Online fashion store Voonik.com was the first to utilize TikTok in India. In May 2019, the brand spent 20 per cent of its digital marketing budget on TikTok and, by the end of 2019, upped that number to 50 per cent. TikTok later introduced biddable advertising options and partnered with brands like the NBA (who they later teamed-up with in India), Sony, FIFA, Calvin Klein, Huawei & Coca-Cola. Now, brands will have to restructure their digital marketing budgets and find a way to reach the same audience as they did with TikTok.

4. Recapturing Uniqueness

The secret of TikTok’s success in India was that it crossed barriers of social & economic strata. It wasn’t about filters or fancy locations–you saw TikTokers who were farmers on tractors and housewives in kitchens. It also wasn’t about effects or technical skills; all you required was a desire to express yourself. From traditional folk singers to first-time stand-up comedians, many, unexpectedly, found new careers on TikTok. And brands were quick to recognize this.

Indians loved TikTok. This can be seen from the fact that we spent more than 30 minutes a day on TikTok, ahead of both Instagram and Snapchat

In 2019 alone, there was a 240 per cent increase in time spent on TikTok by Indians who accounted for 48 per cent of total hours spent on TikTok by users outside China.

The TikTok ban has left a vacuum that brands and marketing firms will try to desperately fill over time. Even during the lockdown, TikTok was used by brands like Dettol & Lifebuoy to run campaigns about cleanliness, social distancing, sanitation & hand-washing because of the core audience in middle India they reached through it. Now, not only will big tech companies position themselves with new features and products to replace TikTok, but brands will look for the next platform that’s a hit with Gen-Z, villagers, small-town folks, and people from different backgrounds across India.

Author avatar
Mayank Gulati