The surge in TikTok users during the pandemic can largely be credited to consumers hunkering down at home and looking for new ways to entertain themselves. But the platform had the added advantage of providing retailers a new way to directly communicate with their audiences.
“[TikTok] is a really powerful tool for brands and creators alike,” Matt Cleary, head of retail and global business solutions at TikTok, told WWD’s technology reporter Adriana Lee during Fairchild Media Group’s Tech Forum, in a session titled “The TikTok Phenomenon: How Classic Brands Find New Life Online.”
“Seventy-three percent of our users feel a deeper connection to the brands they interact with on TikTok, compared with other platforms,” Cleary continued. “It’s a place where brands could become an integral part of the fabric of those communities. During the pandemic, we lost some of that [experience of] going into a store to discover something new. And the ‘for you’ page in TikTok became a new place for product discovery; where you could be introduced to new products and new brands and start your shopping journey there.”
Legacy brands and established retailers were quick to pick up on this trend, offering original content, as well as partnering with others on the platform, in an effort to meet more consumers. Two such brands were Abercrombie & Fitch and Express.
“Everyone [was] getting on the TikTok train at the beginning of the pandemic,” Megan Brophy, head of brand strategy and senior director of marketing at Abercrombie Brands, said during the virtual forum. “It all happened organically. And we were noticing that our customer was so quickly moving over to the TikTok platform and creating all this amazing content about their shopping experiences and trying to rediscover the Abercrombie brand and share it with others and show off their favorite styles. So we took notice and really decided that we want to try and own this [space] and embrace our consumers, kind of, moving over to this platform, and [consumers] loving rediscovering our brand. So, what started organically has now become quite robust and quite holistic.”
The company has been able to achieve this by way of consumer content, as well as Abercrombie-original content and content created in partnership with others, such as the nonprofit group The Trevor Project.
“So it’s really becoming 360, but [TikTok] started really organically, based on where the platform was starting to fit into people’s lives,” Brophy said. “The platform has enabled us to go viral and sell out many, many times.”
But Brophy and others have acknowledged that the platform is still changing. And the companies and brands that can stay ahead of that curve will fare the best.
“We’re so excited to see how [TikTok] will evolve and become even more of an e-commerce platform than it is today,” Brophy said. “That’s clearly what customers are wanting out of it. They’re discovering new brands and products. While this is largely thought of as a marketing channel, it is significantly more than that. Our design team is watching, our merchandising team is watching. Our PR and social teams are watching. I think it’s our brand president’s favorite platform and she’s always watching and understanding trends and what’s coming. So it’s really something we look at incredibly holistically to — not only inform talent — [but] to inform marketing messaging, to inform style, to understand what our consumers are loving and not loving about our product and learning how we can evolve what we offer because of it. It truly is a billion-person platform focus group. And that’s how we look at it to ensure that we’re using it to approach all aspects of our business.”
Kendra Stokes, vice president of brand marketing at Express, said there’s a constant learning curve when navigating TikTok.
“There’s no one formula for any one brand,” she explained. “The trends that emerge [on TikTok] really inspire our content strategy, as well as our social strategy, because TikTok is such an important, trends-setting culturally, phenomenon place. It just filters out across every other social platform.”
Cleary added that it’s not just specialty retailers either.
“Even high-fashion houses — like Prada and Celine — are taking cues from creators and things they’ve seen to influence their future collections. So a lot of what we’re focused on is not just how do you connect with that audience, but [also] how do you learn from them and how do we take those insights in as real time as possible and create around them? We’re thinking about — with our partners — how do we turn it into a trend forecasting tool?”
In the future, both Abercrombie and Express said they will experiment with live shopping and use of different types of talent on the platform, as well as learning better ways to merge the digital space with in-person events.
“We’re staying true to who we are,” Brophy said. “There’s a lot happening on this platform. But that doesn’t mean that brands should show up in every aspect of it. So [it’s about understanding] how do we ensure we find our place where consumers want to hear from us and maybe expect to see us.”