Barely a year old, yet reportedly boasting more than a billion downloads, short-form mobile video app TikTok doesn’t need to work too hard to convince brands to work with it to reach its global users—two-thirds of whom are said to be under age 30. With more established social networks like Facebook and YouTube under increasing scrutiny, TikTok’s rising cultural cachet is palpable—and seemingly irresistible to marketers.
Although TikTok is still in its infancy as a commercial platform and brands and agencies are still figuring out what TikTok is and how they might be able to tap into it, that hasn’t stopped director of U.S. marketing Stefan Heinrich from being one of the more in-demand characters during the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, where just after sunscreen and rosé, the most common scent along the Croissette is that of the sales pitch.
“It’s very early on,” says Heinrich. “The focus is clearly on the community, growing the community. But we wanted to start the conversation here at Cannes, talk to creatives about the platform, and what they’d like to do with it.”
Known as a Vine 2.0 aspirant, one thing that makes TikTok different from so many social media platforms is that it’s not powered by personal connections, preferences, or friend circles. You see what’s popular. Heinrich also credits part of the app’s popularity to a backlash against the cultivated perfection that has come to define Instagram for some critics.
“Part of the reason TikTok has taken off is that things move in trends,” he says. “People have been in a perfect, manufactured world for a while, where they have to live up to expectations and ideals. Now it’s about real life. Real people. It’s getting a window into someone else’s life, with surprise and delight. And because it’s content-driven, not connection-driven, you see people you wouldn’t normally see, outside of your traditional circle.”
The app doesn’t currently have a broad paid advertising business, though brands and organizations—from Chipotle to the UN to the San Diego Zoo to the NBA—have signed up and are creating content, as individual users, not official advertisers. Given its revenue potential, that won’t last long. TikTok does have an ad-tools platform in beta being tested by a select number of agencies right now, but for the moment Henrich says they’re simply working to connect brands with their community of creators.
It’s working so far. Back in May, Chipotle experimented with a paid marketing campaign, working with influencer David Dobrik on the #ChipotleLidFlip challenge—asking users to flip a Chipotle container and land it just right—that got more than 100,000 submissions and 230 million views.
One trend within TikTok that will get marketers drooling in anticipation is that users are now commenting on videos with videos of their own.
“That’s what’s unique about the app and Gen Z. They’re not just passive consumers anymore. They want to see things in an authentic way, and leaning into that by reacting immediately,” says Heinrich. “They aren’t just watching. They’re creating in response. You’re turning them into brand ambassadors without even doing any influencer marketing.”