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TikTok Social Media Media

Can you be big on TikTok without being a brain-rot brand?


By Alex Wilson, Senior strategist

June 17, 2024 | 7 min read

Do brands have to sound idiotic to get big on TikTok? And if so, is it a worthwhile trade? Pitch’s Alex Wilson brings a skibidi hot-take.

A decaying cartoon brain

In need of a quick burst of entertainment, you open TikTok. You scroll through several videos, some of which capture your attention, some of which don’t. Then, a silly video from Duolingo appears, and you think it’s funny. You open the comments to see what others think, and you see the top comment is from the Microsoft Edge account.

You know Microsoft well. It’s been an uncontroversial and reassuring presence throughout your school and work life. The comment from Microsoft Edge says: “Duo I edge to you.”

If you’re not familiar with ‘edging,’ it’s the sexual practice of...’ [Editor’s note: No]

When you take a step back and think critically, you might think it’s odd that Microsoft’s flagship browser is leaving TikTok comments that reference sexual techniques. This is just a particularly eye-catching example of brands clumsily adopting the day-to-day slang of younger generations on TikTok.

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Every generation, of course, has its own slang and cultural touchstones. But TikTok has made the current younger generation’s slang, which they’ve humorously termed “brainrot,” visible to anyone with the time and inclination to open the app. In previous generations, parents and teachers were essentially the only groups of adults regularly exposed to teenage slang. Today, however, any middle-aged grown-up with an internet connection has the power to search “What is a Fanum Tax?”. This has led to some bizarre behavior from brands.

Some more youth-focused brands, like KFC and Duolingo, have done a credible job of understanding youth culture and have made sure they’re in on the joke, not the butt of it. Unfortunately, too many others have the “How do you do, fellow kids?” vibe.

Earlier this week, television manufacturer TCL posted an ad promoting one of its new models with the caption, “This TV is so skibidi. 98”, 4K 144hz, you’d be so sigma if you bought this”.

Opera also contributed to the browser hall of shame by reposting a dancing meme from the videogame Fortnite alongside the caption, “Me trying to distract u from our competitors cuz they r [poo emoji].”

Meanwhile, Heinz UK jumped on the Four Seasons Baby trend with a shonky greenscreen post promising “delectable beenage” to an audience of… a few.

The awkward adoption of youth speak is a problem that’s ultimately caused by panic: faced with a fast-growing platform that they don’t understand, brands have been hoodwinked into believing they need to throw out a century’s worth of proven marketing practice to be effective on TikTok (rather than just adapting what they’ve always done to a new platform). For brands that are youthful and irreverent, embracing TikTok brainrot can help content fly on the platform. But for older brands with well-established associations, there’s a real risk of undermining the brand positioning they’ve spent years and millions of dollars establishing.

If you’re in charge of a brand on TikTok and want to avoid death-by-corporate-cringe, I’d humbly offer three recommendations:

  1. Have a TikTok strategy that aligns with your broader brand strategy. If you find your tone of voice on different platforms is completely different, it’s a sign that something’s gone wrong.

  2. By all means, hire younger TikTok natives to create content that feels authentic to the platform. But you also need to make sure they’re adhering to your brand’s guidelines. You don’t need to keep them on a tight leash, but you do need to keep them on a leash.

  3. Don’t let anyone convince you that you need a different tone of voice on different platforms. If you’re a brand positioning itself as youthful, it’s fine to embrace modern slang and youth culture. But if you’re not, it’s also okay to talk like a grown-up and sound like you do on other platforms.

Ultimately, an edgy TikTok video riffing on the latest brainrot trend might offer the sugar-rush of boosted reach and fattened vanity metrics. But few things will undermine your credibility faster than misapplied youth speak. And if I’m wrong about that, you can call me a skibidi toilet.

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Alex Wilson is a senior strategist at Pitch. He may also be a skibidi toilet. Let him know on LinkedIn.

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