Charli D'Amelio is a new kind of social media marvel in that she's, at the heart of it, a teenager from Connecticut who only joined TikTok in May 2019 with a video of her lip-syncing next to a friend.
Nineteen months later, D'Amelio has a digital fanbase roughly the size of the population of the Philippines. She has sat front-row at Prada shows and landed Hollister sponsorships; she got her own drink at Dunkin' and has appeared on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon." If the app were to have a face, it's her — and yet, fashion still doesn't know whether to shake her hand or give her a kiss on the cheek.
By and large, brands and retailers may not be entirely sure how to approach the viral video-sharing service as a concept, let alone how to use it to their advantage. After a decade spent crafting media strategies around the prim polish of Instagram, fashion companies may find TikTok to be intriguing at best and alienating at worst. But the platform isn't going anywhere, and experts agree that even the most hesitant of industry fixtures will have to recalibrate their game plans by this time next year.
Don't worry, Brands™ — no one really knows what they're doing on TikTok, anyway.
"On TikTok, there's no paths to success," says model, stylist and Voices4 co-founder Marc Sebastian Faiella, who joined the app in February and has since accrued more than 760,000 followers. "There isn't a brand on TikTok that everyone can look at and be like, 'Oh, this is what I want to do. This is how it should be.' Everyone's just trying their best."
Across the greater social media landscape, TikTok is still relatively new — which is partially what makes its sudden dominance so overwhelming. The popular teen-karaoke app, Musical.ly, rebranded as TikTok just two years ago, in the early fall of 2018. Until fairly recently, TikTok was still largely thought of as a children's app. That started to shift, though, as the coronavirus crisis began prompting a spate of stay-at-home orders across the globe.
In the week of March 16, TikTok was downloaded 2 million times — a reported 18% increase from the previous week, according to a report from Music Business Worldwide. The same study found that the app also saw a 27% increase in downloads in the first three weeks of March. By October, TikTok announced that it had more than 800 million active users, and had been downloaded from the Google Play store more than 1 billion times.
"People who wouldn't ordinarily see TikTok as the platform for them were more willing to explore it," says Adesuwa Ajayi, the founder of Influencer Pay Gap. "I witnessed an influx of creators from other platforms use TikTok to explore ways of diversifying content, especially after seeing the quick growth of other creators who made the jump earlier in the year."
Throughout a traumatizing spring, there was something else working to TikTok's advantage: dopamine. As USC professor and author Dr. Julie Albright told Forbes in January: "When you're scrolling, sometimes you see something that's delightful and it catches your attention. And you get that little dopamine hit in the pleasure center of the brain. So you want to keep scrolling."
In psychological terms, Dr. Albright explained, this is called "random reinforcement," wherein algorithmically, sometimes you win and sometimes you don't. While that's extra-enticing to users, that's also what can make it so difficult for brands to succeed.
It doesn't exactly help that TikTok and a platform like Instagram could — hyperboles aside — not be more dissimilar. For fashion and retail brands, Instagram and its illusion of gilded perfection have served as the Great and Powerful app experience for nearly a decade. TikTok is anything but.
"You know what doesn't work on TikTok? Perfection and succeeding," says Faiella, with a laugh. "Once you talk about succeeding, TikTok users want to see failing, embarrassing yourself, laughing about it, getting back up, trying again, failing again. They want to see the humanity in you. They don't want to just see an overly-treated picture of you at the beach."
Mary Keane-Dawson, Group CEO of London-based influencer-marketing agency Takumi, attributes TikTok's skyrocketing user base to this dichotomy between platforms. Social media users, she says, perceive TikTok as more escapist than Instagram. In a 2020 report focusing on TikTok and YouTube, Takumi surveyed more than 4,000 consumers, marketers and influencers across the U.K., the U.S. and Germany, and found that 36% of 16- to 24-year-old consumers believe TikTok to be the most creative social media app.
"With this seal of approval," says Keane-Dawson, "we expect TikTok to build on its status as the most entertaining social media app next year, as more brands look to collaborate with TikTokers and launch campaigns based around short-form video."
TikTok is an app that thrives in the most stripped-down authenticity there is, and so far, the few brands that have done TikTok right have done so almost by accident. For brands like Gucci and J.W. Anderson, TikTok success hasn't been a result of some brilliant strategy, but rather coincidentally.
Late this summer, the TikTok-wide #GucciModelChallenge began picking up steam, despite having no initial association with Gucci itself. With creators layering one eccentric garment over another, each clip ended with users looking quite like an Alessandro Michele creation. Gucci soon took notice: The Italian luxury house started sharing the videos to its own page, some of which have been viewed upwards of 8 million times.
J.W. Anderson, too, could be seen responding to a viral challenge and making it the brand's own: After one Harry Styles was seen wearing a chunky patchwork cardigan from the label's Spring 2020 menswear collection, creators took to recreating their own versions with such gusto that creative director Jonathan Anderson himself released detailed sewing instructions for the pattern.
Some brands, like Celine, have taken a more active approach, benefitting from careful, strategic planning. In July, the Hedi Slimane-led house presented its Spring 2021 menswear collection, called "The Dancing Kid," with the help of some of TikTok's biggest stars, like Chase Hudson (Lil Huddy), Anthony Reeves (LuvAnthony) and Noen Eubanks. (Eubanks, for his part, inked his own blue-chip Celine contract in late 2019.) In a release, Slimane revealed the line to be largely inspired by the teenagers and e-boys who have stayed creative while in isolation.
With the majority of brands, this type of partnership-driven content may be the most realistic TikTok entry point. After all, influencer collaborations have been an ubiquitous cog of fashion's brand-marketing wheel since the dawn of influencers themselves. But Faiella suggests that companies should also think more deeply about personality over curation, and the ways in which those personalities can be showcased as authentically as possible.
"Cool doesn't exist on TikTok," he says. "Everything in fashion is whether or not something's cool. The kids on TikTok or not looking for cool. They're looking for the opposite. They're looking for things that aren't cool that they can make cool."
Faiella believes there to be enormous opportunity within the modeling sector, specifically. (IMG Models is already scouting talent on TikTok, anyway.) "To give these faces personalities is so important, and that will help brands figure out their foothold," he adds. "If you can start getting models who are also on TikTok to start modeling for your brand, that's it, baby. You got it. That's how you get all the Generation Z kids to aspire to buy your stuff."
In practice, it may not be quite so elementary. The app itself is still fairly beleaguered, and may only become more so in the New Year as it faces off with Reels, its direct Instagram rival. TikTok was even dragged into a geopolitical conflict between the U.S. and China this fall after being considered a national security risk — and after TikTok teens tanked a certain presidential campaign rally in Tulsa.
It's also crucial that fashion brands consider — and address — the ways in which Black creators have experienced the platform. In June, TikTok released a statement that apologized to members of its Black community who felt unsafe and unsupported on the app. A month later, TikTok was still receiving criticism for suppressing Black Lives Matter content that left Black creators at a disadvantage. "Whether that's because of the way that it's programmed or because of the way that users interact and engage with content, it's not an app that you see a lot of Black creators getting hugely successful on," Chinyelu Mwaafrika, a 20-year-old TikToker from Indianapolis, told Time this summer.
Faiella notes that the app itself isn't quite as financially democratized as the general public may believe, either: In July, TikTok announced a $200-million Creator Fund, the contents of which are being distributed to users who have met a handful of age and engagement qualifications.
"I think a lot of people get wrapped up in this," he says. "But in reality, you need to have a good amount of followers and a good amount of consistent views to constantly be making money. I wish that there was a way for smaller creators to have as much success as larger creators on the platform."
TikTok can just be the app that teenagers like D'Amelio dance on. But it can also be a new and categorically more human social media experience that can promote creativity and intimacy, inclusivity and equity. It can also be both. In 2021, fashion brands will be forced to determine how they want to play it — because by this time next year, TikTok will be more of a fact of digital life than a hypothetical.
"People are just tired of feeling bad about themselves," says Faiella. "Instagram and other platforms have done their damage, with everyone feeling like they have to put their best foot forward. But in reality, everyone's going through something. The difference is that TikTok just shows you what other users are going through."