With bans on the horizon, it’s time for brands to picture life after TikTok
As the West’s suspicion of the app heightens, advertisers will have to decide if their new favorite media channel is worth the risk. The Drum reveals which brands will have the hardest time coming off of TikTok.
Which advertisers are most vulnerable to the proposed TikTok ban?
In a TikTok tit-for-tat, the West may emulate China's Great Firewall and ban a foreign social app it suspects may mishandle user data. These fears have already seen TikTok restricted from US government devices and many educational sites. In Europe, following the EU’s lead in February, Belgium just banned the app on government devices. And soon, the UK will make a decision on this “hugely important question”.
On March 23, TikTok chief exec Shou Zi Chew will testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. During this pivotal appearance, the Singaporean will have to convince lawmakers that TikTok does not constitute a national security threat. It’s an argument that failed in India back in 2020. It then bled some 200 million users.
Even shy of a ban, advertisers must monitor the situation. Could the rhetoric alone translate into lost users? And should they pull spend from an app the FBI has already said “screams” of US national security issues?
TikTok will reach 834.3 million monthly global users in 2023. It will need to beat the ban if it ever wants to breach one billion. And it’ll need to convince its biggest-spending brands it’s worth the coming headaches.
These brands have the biggest ad spend on TikTok
TikTok's US net ad revenues could double in two years to $11bn in 2024. Its 2022 2.4% share of US digital ad spend is comparable with YouTube’s takings, it already outpunches Twitter, which itself has proven contentious to advertisers. TikTok’s share sits at around a 10th of Google and Meta’s. The ByteDance-owned cultural behemoth is big, but it’s not quite yet a giant. It’ll need to court more blue-chip advertisers to reach those heights.
More advertisers like Amazon. The brand spent the most on TikTok advertising in 2022 according to data provided exclusively to The Drum by Pathmatics, revealing that Amazon had an 18% share of the top 10 total US ad spend, sitting ahead of L’Oreal, HBO, DoorDash, Google, Pepsi, Disney, P&G, Samsung and Yum! Brands. Much of Amazon's spending hit the festive holiday period, up 43% in Q4 2021. More recently in 2023, DoorDash has overtaken Amazon. That could merely be a seasonal fluctuation.
Amazon is clearly one of TikTok’s biggest supporters but both have a commerce and content play, Amazon is trying to develop its own live-shopping competitor, and it too banned employees from using TikTok in 2020, albeit briefly and supposedly in “error”. Amid the competitive concerns, could US-headquartered brands also be pressured into ceasing their spend? They did when Russia invaded Ukraine. A majority of western brands adhered to the trade embargo and ceased any affiliation. Unilever even ensured it ceased all adspend in the region unless it funds the nation’s platforms.
A separate pool of data from VaynerMedia shows the top brands buying ads on TikTok in the US in 2023. Amazon, Booking.com, DoorDash, Peacock, Disney+, Capital One, Uber, Mondelez, Chipotle and Mailchimp are the biggest spenders.
In the UK, meanwhile, the top spending brands were Samsung, Mercedes, KFC (owned by Yum! Brands), P&G (Oral B), Under Armour, EE, Hilton, Uber (including UberEats) and The North Face.
All will have to assess whether the platform will continue to tap them into Gen Z in a cost-effective, brand-safe manner.
Do marketers trust TikTok?
Kantar Media compared how marketers and consumers see ads on the platform how marketers and consumers see the platform in 2022.
Users rate TikTok much higher than the marketers running ads and comms on it. In 2021, TikTok was the consumer's favorite, but it wasn't on the radar of advertisers. This was a 2022 survey of nearly 1,000 marketers from around the world, as well as 18,000 consumers.
Most tellingly, despite Google and Meta facing their share of privacy complaints and investigations throughout the years, trust in them sits at more than double the level of the Chinese-owned app. It’s by far the most innovative app – but at what cost?
Data published soon after this article by the World Advertising Research Center (Warc) forecasted that TikTok will reach $15.2bn in global advertising revenue in 2023. US ad revenue will roughly account for a third of that. It claimed that all product categories will increase TikTok advertising investment. Brands vote with their wallets but is trust holding it back?
TikTok’s organic social panic
TikTok isn’t solely a pay-to-play platform. Brands invest in the platform through advertising, organic posting and influencer marketing. It is not a space where brands enjoy huge followings.
Data from influencer agency Billon Dollar Boy shows only 30 of the 1,000 most followed accounts on TikTok are brands, and a great many are publishers, media companies and sports teams with fandoms hungry for content.
PSG is the 39th most followed account, and Netflix is 66th.
This could just be because the FMCG, auto and beauty brands that ounce built huge followings on other platforms are now focusing on different objectives, like brand building or direct response ads. Many marketers were burned by the supposed end of organic reach on Facebook, for example, they are unlikely to make the same mistake twice.
|Uefa Champions League||23m|
|Guinness World Records||23m|
For context, 130 of Instagram’s 1,000 most followed accounts are brands. Nike is on top with 272m followers. Excluding publishers and football clubs (of which there are many), Victoria’s Secret comes next at 51st with 74m followers, then Zara, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Gucci, all of which just miss the top 100 with more than 50m followers each. Luxury fashion, auto brands and tech feature prominently. One factor to remember is that Instagram has been on the market longer, so brands have had longer to build their empires here.
|Company||Instagram followers||Top 1,000 account placement|
The changing face of influence in social
So that brings us to influencer marketing, which may well be the real strength of the platform. Brands may best exist on TikTok on the terms of its biggest creators.
Data released July 2022 indicates that TikTok drew $774.8m of influencer marketing spend in 2022, overtaking Facebook, and soon YouTube by 2024 - leaving it in second place only behind influencer behemoth Instagram. Brands can now better coordinate influencer campaigns and engage a high volume of micro-influencers. In 2022, TikTok’s US influencer marketing spend was nine times lower than its US ad revenue but that remains a significant slice – one which will be the priority approach for many brands.
While not all influencer mentions are initiated by brands, mention volumes can be instructive of this spend, or the influence of paid ads. In short, there's no smoke without fire. To that end, Shein, Target, Netflix, Sephora, Amazon, Starbucks, Disney, SheGlam, PrettyLittleThing and Fashion Nova globally saw the most influencer marketing mentions on TikTok in 2022.
Matt Garish, head of customer engagement of B2B specialists the Croc, admits that it is “really hard to work out a lot of the mechanics behind TikTok” but believes “follower size is not linked to who pays more but about how creative they are and how they leverage creators”.
He says that brands like Netflix, NBA, Nickelodeon, Duolingo and Gymshark are “getting a lot of traction” with custom-created content. “They’re not strictly ads – so the correlation isn’t about who’s spending on media, but who’s spending on creative.”
What will brands do if TikTok is banned?
For many Americans, and particularly Gen Z, TikTok IS the internet. For that demographic, it became the primary search bar over Google. Meanwhile, the ACLU argues that a ban on the app would “violate our right to freedom of expression.” Americans will not lose TikTok lightly.
For marketers, according to Garish, TikTok’s targeting options are “quite limited”. Instead, brands must latch onto the trends dominating the platform. Garish believes a ban would “cause uproar in the short term” but could see the ad industry rally behind one of the products that are already looked to imitate TikTok, like Instagram Reels or YouTube Shorts, which both have “a lot more marketing and targeting abilities – like retargeting”.
Meanwhile, Megan Malloy, creative director of the digital marketing agency Blue State, said: “The bottom line is that we need to take a real look at the system by which TikTok operates, how we might regulate it, while addressing our national security concerns and how addressing these might make the platform better overall.”
She points out that a great many politicians use the platform to reach younger voters too. For all parties involved, a resolution must be reached. TikTok’s compromise is Project Texas, its plan to bolster data security.
Speaking to The Drum earlier this week about a worrying beauty filter operated by the app, Gleam, managing partner, Melanie Kentish admitted that brands are caught between a rock and hard place. “There are huge audiences on TikTok and if you look at the return on investment in terms of reach and impressions, it’s cheap media,” she explains.
Kentish is seeing brands spend less on TikTok as budgets tighten and marketers get more risk-averse. “What would have been an Instagram and TikTok campaign will typically then turn into an Instagram with TikTok being dropped rather than it being around,” she reveals.
If political pressure continues to rise, tech giants may have to deplatform the app. Users will still be able to access it - but with difficulty. TikToks may still be created, and they may well even continue their viral spiral onto platforms, but the oxygen of access will likely smother enthusiasm until the next big app comes along.
Brands, as important as they are in funding the platforms, tend not to deal the killer blow. With the many Facebook boycotts, for instance, adspend floodgates reopened when things quietened down. Marketers will rationalize moral dilemmas after following the eyeballs. But this time, journalists will be obliged to ask them when they are investing in an app the US government claims is a national security risk.
Additional reporting from Hannah Bowler. Further reading includes:
As Biden issues ultimatum to TikTok, some worry marketers have too many eggs in the basket
Congressional push to ban TikTok advances. How worried should marketers be?
Chinese spy balloon scrutiny and Texas crackdown ‘a wake-up call’ for marketers on TikTok