689 million. That’s how many people across the world use TikTok every month, according to a recent filing the company released in August 2020. To say that the short-video social network was the star of the past year would be an understatement. Posts tagged with #quarantine have over 70 billion views at the time of writing and unique visitors increased by more than 30% from January to March of last year.
Like other social media apps, what started out as a fun way to be creative and share a laugh has become a serious business for its leading creators. The most popular person on the platform, Charli D’Amelio, has 107 million followers. The 16-year-old who garnered an audience dancing in front of a camera now has partnerships with Dunkin’ and Morphe, a New York Times bestseller, and an online store. And she’s not the only one cashing in on the meteoric rise of TikTok.
To The Moon
Funded with investment from Softbank, Sequoia Capital China, and others, TikTok exploded in the years following its acquisition of Musical.ly. Summer 2019 marked the addition of many of the most-followed accounts like Addison Rae Easterling (Addison Rae) and Charli D’Amelio and the platform even took Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” (released two years earlier) and Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” from meme to the mainstream.
Smaller talent groups are also forming to specifically serve YouTube and social media personalities. The bridge between YouTube and TikTok is natural: Users that consume short-form videos on TikTok can continue watching long-form reviews, tutorials, and lifestyle content from their favorite creators on YouTube. Digital management agencies like sociaLebs, which represents Iris Beilin (a beauty blogger active on YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram), helps digital creators forge their relationships with brands looking to partner with them.
A New Frontier of Brand Content
TikTok sensations are furthering their cultural reach, partnering with established brands on special collaborations and releasing their own lines of apparel, beverages, and especially, makeup. In turn, these TikTokers are introducing legacy brands to fresh audiences.
Last October, user @420doggface208 (a 38-year-old potato-warehouse worker from Idaho) posted a TikTok of him drinking cranberry juice while on a skateboard with Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 song “Dreams” in the background. The post went viral and sent “Dreams” back to the charts as well as boosting Ocean Spray’s cranberry sales.
It seems like everyone is trying to crack the TikTok code. In 2019, Glossy reported on how Estée Lauder-owned Too Faced Cosmetics was unexpectedly selling out of its Lip Injection Extreme lip gloss, which had been released six years earlier. They soon uncovered teens had been competing in a challenge on TikTok, resulting in massive site traffic. Later that year, Too Faced became the first beauty brand to officially partner with TikTok on a campaign.
And while we’re certainly seeing intentional campaigns on TikTok, some companies have also gained traction organically. Clean-beauty company ILIA Beauty doesn’t have an official account or pay influencers, but has gotten exposure from users simply loving their products and posting about it: “With social media, people want to see real people, real skin concerns, real wrinkles—someone they can relate to. In makeup as a whole, we are seeing that people want to look like themselves, but just a little better,” ILIA told me. TikTok is fast becoming the platform for people to have real conversations about beauty in an authentic way.
“With social media, people want to see real people, real skin concerns, real wrinkles—someone they can relate to. In makeup as a whole, we are seeing that people want to look like themselves, but just a little better,” ILIA told me.
How They’re Using TikTok
I was interested to hear how these new-age Tik Tok stars were navigating the landscape and partnering with brands, so I reached out to a few to get their POV. Irishcel Puello (who goes by Iris Beilin) is a beauty vlogger with over 500K followers on TikTok who got her start working as a store associate at MAC Cosmetics. “I always loved makeup. I used to go to my grandma’s house and steal her red lipstick and put it on,” she told me. “One day I was at the MAC store and the manager looked at me and she goes ‘do you want to work here?’” Iris Beilin slowly developed her expertise in cosmetics at the MAC counter. She recently started posting reviews of the same type of products she got to work with every day.
When asked about what’s occurring with influencers launching their own brands, Iris Beilin told me “I think it’s great! I think that if you have a passion for makeup and you love what’s in it, if you have the ability to come out with your own and you deliver amazing products, go for it.” Known for her honesty in reviewing products, she’s also weary of some new launches, “But when it comes to people who are just doing it for a money grab because they have a following, that’s the part when I’m like ‘ugh.’”
Currently, she’s loving TikTok versus YouTube or Instagram because of its accessibility: “I feel like TikTok is a little more freeing and is the place to grow more organically.”
While Iris Beilin has a large audience and is able to garner attention from the biggest brands, TikTok is also allowing microinfluencers to get in on the action. Dani Lee is doing TikTok as a side hustle with just under 17K followers on the network, but is still able to leverage the algorithm to get discovered and gain a following. She said “I definitely see a lot of growth potential because it’s been pretty recent... My first five months on the app, I didn’t really see any brands reaching out to me or know how that worked, but ever since I passed the 10K mark, I’ve had a few brands reach out to me for paid and unpaid collaborations which has been really fun.”
Lee is optimistic about where the industry is headed and believes this new relationship between creatives (and now entrepreneurs) and their fans will produce more innovative and accommodating options for consumers, “I feel like smaller brands are more quick on their feet… brands like ILIA will comment and engage with my posts,” she told me. The beauty expert thinks that 2021 and beyond will bring trends including shade-inclusive collections more sustainable packaging.
Similar to Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae, Olivia Ponton isn’t necessarily focused on reviewing brands or doing makeup routines, and doesn’t even use a complex stack of cosmetics. The model and TikTok star gained a following from her dance videos and joined Hype House—the same collective that helped the D’Amelio twins and Addison Rae focus on creating content—last year.
Ponton is optimistic about TikTokers going into business, she said “It is amazing that influencers are allowed to create such amazing collaborations with big brands! I also think it’s better when the products they create stay in line with what they love.”
Will we see more brands launching off of TikTok’s success?
There certainly appears to be every indication that this trend will continue. As TikTok’s domestic and international user base grows, so will the opportunity. Statista data shows that countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Peru are among the fastest growing markets for the app; this may look like brands for different cultural looks and lifestyles emerging in the space.
Brands like Kulfi and Melyon have launched in recent months to serve those needs. Kulfi is a beauty brand tailored to South Asian skin tones and Melyon is hoping to serve inclusive skincare: “You cannot find makeup for every shade: I mean, we’re in 2020. After Rihanna launched [Fenty Beauty] people started to pick it up…” its founder told Vogue.
I asked Iris Beilin if she had any plans to launch her own brand and while she couldn’t give many details, she said she’s working on some exciting new projects that would probably launch in 2022. Ponton, who has previously partnered with brands such as White Shore Swim, stated that it was definitely a dream of hers to release a simple skincare or makeup line eventually.
The power of these rising stars’ followings—and eventual communities—is creating a marketplace that’s more raw and authentic. The messaging and marketing are not perfect, and customers are loving it. Loyal fans are able to give direct feedback to their favorite voices, and the most nimble brands can adapt quickly.
In the 2020s, a successful marketing campaign and brand could look less like Gigi Hadid advocating for Maybelline on a billboard and more like an army of TikTokers trying a product and giving their honest review. This has a flustered beauty industry, classically reliant on celebrity endorsements, looking for the next Addison Rae or Charli D’Amelio to help create the next blockbuster brand. Who knows, maybe you’re up next...