Creative Future of TV Creative Works

TikTok explains why it's pitching itself on TV amid a lockdown growth spurt


By Imogen Watson, Senior reporter

May 26, 2020 | 8 min read

TV ad spend is facing a reckoning as marketers tighten their belts, but young short-form video app TikTok has just invested in its first small screen push in the UK. Its top marketer in the region explains why.

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TikTok explains why it's pitching itself on TV amid a lockdown growth spurt

TikTok's first UK TV ad, a feel-good spot dubbed ‘A Little Brighter Inside’, works to showcase the short-form videos that have flourished in confinement, including cameos from Little Mix and Tinie Tempah, as well as Olympics star Tom Daley and The F Word chef, Gordon Ramsey.

“We wanted to tell the TikTok story,“ Jana Ulaite, head of brand and partner marketing, tells The Drum. “And celebrate the inspiring content people have been creating during these difficult times.“

Breaking TikTok's TV virginity in the market, the move demonstrates how the young short-form video app has matured as it looks to build its brand at scale among a wider audience.

The rise of the TikTok empire

TikTok‘s rise provides a lesson for all on how to scale up an app at breakneck speed. Despite launching only in 2016, by the end of 2019 the short-form video app had already hit the global 1.5 billion users milestone.

Owned by Bytedance, the world’s largest internet start-up (valued at $78bn), TikTok merged with, after Bytedance acquired it for $1bn in 2017.

In the UK market, TikTok has swiftly risen in prominence since it became available to the public in 2017. In 2019, the app experienced 205.3% growth, with 8.7% of the UK’s smartphone-owning population holding an account.

But it has been during the coronavirus pandemic that TikTok has become a household name. In Q1 2020, the app received the most downloads ever in a quarter.

In a way, it feels like the platform was made for lockdown. While people have been locked inside, TikTok has made a space for itself with streams of lighthearted short-form video reflecting the experience of lockdown back out at homebound users. Setting a number of hashtag challenges, TikTok has helped to seed conversations about lockdown on the platform; ‘#StayAtHome‘ has garnered 600 million views and ‘​‘#LifeAtHome‘ brought in 2 billion views worldwide to date.

The new TV campaign is TikTok's way to showcase the ways that people are tapping into its platform.

Ulaite says that TikTok‘s decision to launch a campaign just as other brands are tightening their purse strings was about marking a special moment for the platform. “A lot of people have been coming to TikTok during the lockdown and we wanted to celebrate it,“ she says.

TikTok has been most-popular with younger audiences who have been dropping away from rival social networks. For its first years of growth, it remained an enigma for anyone over the age of 25.

Yet, over the last year, TikTok has been attracting a wider age-range of audiences.

Its adoption among the celebrity class – the likes of the Kardashians, Gordon Ramsey and J-Lo have got on board – suggests it has now penetrated the mainstream proper. And accounts catering to older audiences, such as Grampa Joe (who stars in the campaign) and NHS fundraising champion, former British Army captain Tom Moore, have broadened the platform‘s reach further.

“I think our proposition is relevant for everyone,“ Ulaite claims. “Even before lockdown, we‘ve seen different people from all ages and backgrounds joining TikTok.“

While TikTok's previous campaign targeted a younger users with time on their hands at Christmas, ‘A Little Brighter Inside’ is a noticeable departure, featuring creators across a wide range of ages.

TV venture

The campaign has been programmed to feature during a range of primetime slots including Britain’s Got Talent, Gogglebox and Modern Family.

While broadcasters struggle to fill ad slots abandoned by the collapse of travel and leisure brands, TikTok is taking advantage of the window to drive brand awareness.

“We've tested out-of-home (OOH) and digital in the past, but TV felt like a natural environment right now, with families in lockdown,“ Ulaite contends. “We're excited to explore the channel.“

Indeed, the move is an opportunity for TikTok to showcase how it has matured since launch. At the end of 2019, a quarter of 18 to 24-year-olds were using TikTok. This number drops to 9.3% for 25 to 34-year olds and 4.7% for the 45 to 54 bracket.

Prior to the pandemic, analysts estimated that TikTok was set to reach 10 million users in the UK by 2021, translating to almost one one in five Brits. TikTok therefore has its eyes on a broader audience base, to compete with the likes of Facebook and Instagram.

At the start of this year, it was the most downloaded non-gaming app, surpassing WhatsApp and Facebook. Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg aired his concerns over the threat TikTok poses to Facebook and has since launched a competitor app called Lasso. It has been installed just 425,000 times since it launched in November, while TikTok has 640 million installs in the same period outside of China.

Granted, investing in TV is a sure way for it to double down on its growth spurt and provide a way beyond the ‘streaming generation’ populated by millennials and Gen Z.

Although the future looks bright for TikTok, it will certainly be wary of past failures. Snapchat, after all, has struggled to build on its foothold among teens.

Indeed, with Zenith predicting that UK digital ad market will grow by 4.9% in 2020 (up from 3.2% in 2019 and a figure that will likely be exasperated by lockdown) the region is an all-important one for the TikTok‘s user growth as it looks to grow its nascent programmatic ad offering.

Last week, the app scored another victory by hiring Kevin Mayer, a veteran Disney dealmaker, as its chief executive.

Mayer will take charge of TikTok‘s plans to cement its growth in the West and take on rivals. So, UK viewers can expect to see a lot more big-ticket brand investment from the new kid on the block.

“We likely gained some valuable insight about the strategic ambitions of TikTok by way of the company’s new chief exec hire,“​ Evercore ISI analyst Kevin Rippey wrote in a report last week.

“Ultimately, we think TikTok naming a well-tenured Disney executive as its boss speaks more to a company looking to join the ranks of the media establishment rather than break them.“

He continued: “Ultimately, TikTok’s ambitions toward disruption may be less than we had thought. While we’re sure Mayer is an extraordinarily talented operator and exceptional executive – to this point – true disruption in consumer internet has not come by way of the media establishment.“

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