TikTok’s new fashion strategy is attracting luxury brands to the viral video sharing app and gaining momentum just as its future in key markets is being called into question.
During the pandemic, TikTok has encouraged a pivot to fashion by recruiting established influencers to join the app and helping luxury brands launch TikTok accounts, collaborations and campaigns. Gucci, Balmain and most recently Balenciaga have launched TikTok accounts this year; others have sponsored TikTok influencer content. When the company launched a TikTok for Business service to help brands produce content in June, it was a watershed moment for fashion partnerships, says Kristina Karassoulis, who manages luxury brand partnerships at the company.
“For fashion brands, in particular, this opens an entirely new window of opportunity. TikTok allows these brands to be the epicentre of trends of where culture is born,” she says.
With 800 million active users, TikTok’s vast audience and popularity with Gen Z customers make it a competitive force to Instagram, which has long been fashion’s de facto social media platform, thanks to its focus on commerce and visual layout. But TikTok’s prospects have been clouded in the US, where privacy concerns have prompted a potential ban of the app, which is owned by Chinese tech company ByteDance. A pending takeover by Microsoft of TikTok’s US operations will have to be secured by 15 September, or the app will be shut down, according to President Donald Trump. The app has also been recently banned in India. With TikTok’s future up in the air, its investments in the fashion industry will be put to the test.
TikTok’s fashion strategy: recruit key players, then differentiate
TikTok’s turbulence as a social player in the US comes as the app is developing its own identity in the crowded fashion online sphere.
Brazilian influencer Camila Coelho, who has 8.8 million followers on Instagram, joined TikTok in February 2020 after the company reached out and encouraged her to join because “they wanted more fashion content on the app”, she says. TikTok’s approach was open-ended in terms of what fashion content to post. Fashion video formats were already starting to bubble up on the app from regular users, the most common being quick transitions between outfits, usually to music. Coelho now has 672,000 followers and has since created sponsored TikTok content with Stuart Weitzman, and gifted unboxing content for Louis Vuitton. Coelho regularly posts fashion hacks or styling tips such as “how to tie a T-shirt three ways” (2.3 million views) and has found that young audiences gravitate toward educational fashion content. “Whenever you’re teaching people something, your engagement is higher,” she says.
Educational videos, as well as creators’ more inclusive takes on the industry, help differentiate TikTok’s approach to fashion content from competitors. Wisdom Kaye, one of TikTok’s most-followed fashion creators with an audience of 2.7 million, posts professionally edited videos comparing cheap and expensive outfits. While Kaye believes there’s a place for luxury brands on TikTok and has recently partnered with Balmain and Zegna, he balances this high-end content with more relatable, lower-priced looks from brands like Asos. Plus-size influencer Denise Mercedes, who has 2 million TikTok followers, has found a community of highly engaged fans who follow her style tips and clothing recommendations for plus-size people. She says TikTok is better for reaching specific communities that luxury brands have previously not addressed because it better highlights individual personalities.
“Traditionally, luxury brands are used to producing highly edited, highly polished, highly produced content,” says Sarah Willersdorf, global head of luxury at Boston Consulting Group. “That’s not what TikTok is.” She says luxury brands should hand over to creators who are better placed to create authentic and unfiltered videos that engage a TikTok audience.
TikTok’s goal is not to create highly curated and aspirational content that you would see in the pages of a fashion magazine, says Karassoulis. “Now is time to add another dimension to your brand personality. The side that is bold, relevant and authentic and speaks to your customer’s values and beliefs.”
TikTok provides luxury brands with tips on posting frequency (quality over quantity is key, it advises) and highlights examples of viral fashion content on the app, like JW Anderson’s viral crochet cardigan tutorials, to inspire brands to produce educational and fun videos. Tools like TikTok for Business, which assists brands with video production, and the TikTok creator marketplace, which helps them find high-impact influencers to collaborate with on the app, are available to encourage participation. For branded content, the emphasis is on creativity.
“Any brand using TikTok must be aware that content, not followers, is the key. The power of our algorithm, along with the high quality of content that creators produce on TikTok, means anyone can go viral — it all comes down to the creativity and the power of their content,” says Karassoulis.
Most engaged Gen Z
Luxury brands particularly like TikTok’s accessibility to Gen Z. Dior says the app offers access to a more engaged Gen Z audience than any other platform. The brand, which joined the app in November and began posting in July, has used it to promote digital fashion shows post videos, including footage of its Puglia Cruise 2021 show, Travis Scott wearing the new Dior Air Jordans and influencers like Chiara Ferragni reflecting on Covid-19. A video showing the making of the new Dior Bobby flap bag, for Autumn/Winter 2020, has garnered 2.3 million views.
There is some way to go for luxury, and TikTok luxury and fashion brands as a whole still have a lower presence and lesser impact on TikTok compared with other platforms. However, its audience is growing, and the account is seeing strong organic reach, follower recruitment and engagement, per the brand.
Popular fashion influencer Leonie Hanne joined the platform in March this year and works with luxury brands like Dior, Prada, Givenchy and Fendi. Prada asked Hanne to create TikTok content in support of their SS21 digital show and gave her total creative freedom. She highlights the importance of giving creators creative control if brands want to resonate with young users. “For luxury brands, the more free and open to spontaneity you can be with your brief, the better your results will be on TikTok,” she says.
Dior is still in the testing phase on TikTok. For now, the platform is not taking marketing spend away from others like Instagram or Facebook, the brand says. Instead, TikTok spend comes from targeted allocations for sponsorships and content creation. Other brands have invested resources in the app in the last year: Balenciaga’s shoppable Christmas campaign drove 25 million views, says Karassoulis.
Between a ban and an acquisition
A TikTok ban in the US would cut off one of TikTok’s — and luxury’s — most significant markets. With an estimated 190 million downloads since 2014 according to research firm Sensor Tower, the US is TikTok’s third-largest audience after China and India, where the app was banned at the end of June. “If [the ban] does happen, it’s a blow,” says Craig Chapple, mobile insight specialist at Sensor Tower.
With more than 2.3 billion downloads globally from Google Play, TikTok would still have access to a massive audience and significant advertising revenue worldwide, Chapple adds. And TikTok’s young users are well-equipped to circumvent a ban by switching to VPNs to access communities until they “organise migration”, avoiding a major “audience collapse” for the app, says Julia Errens, pop culture and media editor at trends intelligence company Stylus.
Competitors are ready to welcome TikTok’s former US audience if that migration happens. Instagram is launching TikTok-like video feature Reels in August in the US after testing it in Brazil. The social media company has already approached TikTok creators, offering financial incentives to try the new feature. Short-video platforms like Byte, Triller and Dubsmash could also take up the torch in the event of a ban. TikTok influencers who have built audiences on the app could refocus their energy on more established platforms like YouTube, which provides a more stable and profitable source of income with its straightforward pay-for-views system.
A Microsoft acquisition would maintain TikTok in its current form while making it a local competitor. The deal would put to rest some of the concerns around cybersecurity and privacy, says Mark Moerdler, senior research analyst at Bernstein. “Given Microsoft’s large cash position, technology and AI capabilities, [TikTok] would be positioned to continue to become a major player in this space,” he says. A ban, on the other hand, could have a “domino effect” on other countries.
The possible US ban has influencers worried, but not too much. Influencer Addison Rae says that, if the ban happens, “it will be a sad day”, but adds that she would have “tons” of other projects to focus on, including her American Eagle campaign and her podcast. Kaye, who has his largest following on the platform but doesn’t see himself as a TikToker, thinks the app’s future is “up in the air”. “Instagram is a lot more solidified, so I would put my money on [it],” he says.
Errens agrees that brands should diversify. “I would always recommend to not focus too much of a brand’s engagement budget on a single platform, no matter how big its heyday,” she says.
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