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How TikTok-viral brands are switching gears amid threat of U.S. ban

When Shirah Benarde saw sales for her NightCap product surge to $40,000 over a mere two-week period in 2020, she almost couldn’t believe it. 

The company’s NightCap scrunchie, which doubles as a drink cover to protect beverages from roofies and other unwanted substances, had gone viral on TikTok. An eight-second iPhone video that Benarde filmed and posted herself had racked up more than 40 million views. 

Four years later, NightCap has amassed more than 460,000 followers and 20 million likes on TikTok. To date, TikTok drives about 80% — or $4 million — of NightCap’s overall sales, Benarde said in an interview. But there’s a problem: The platform that has helped power NightCap’s success is under threat from a U.S. ban.

Now, NightCap and other TikTok-popular brands are shifting their social media strategies in case the app is shut down.

“If TikTok were to go away, it would be really upsetting for us, and we would probably lose out on a lot of our business,” said Benarde. “But at the end of the day, it’s out of your control, so you just have to pivot and figure out what works again.”

NightCap began expanding to other marketing channels like Google’s Youtube Shorts format and Meta’s Instagram Reels in the last six months, as rumors of a possible TikTok ban in the U.S. intensified. In April, Congress passed a bill that demands TikTok separate from its Chinese parent company ByteDance within a year or face a nationwide ban. The news came just as TikTok was doubling down on its push to transform the social media platform into a full-fledged shopping destination with TikTok Shop, which launched in the U.S. in September of last year. More than 11% of U.S. households have made a purchase through TikTok Shop since it debuted, according to research firm Earnest Analytics.

TikTok’s meteoric rise galvanized some of the biggest tech companies to develop spin-off versions of the popular platform, namely Meta’s Instagram Reels and Google’s YouTube Shorts. And brands are already testing these platforms out.  

YouTube Shorts has been “shockingly beneficial,” said Benarde. “That’s a platform where we started with zero and just repurposed the content we already had, and we’ve already gained 60,000 subscribers,” she said. “The discoverability is there, and that obviously is helping us convert those people to sales.”

Benarde isn’t alone. 

Apparel start-up Collars & Co, which also found early success on TikTok, has been gradually testing out marketing strategies on other platforms. In the last 90 days, the brand decreased its ad spend on TikTok by about 12% and funneled it into other channels, namely Meta and Google, according to Collars & Co’s founder and CEO Justin Baer.

Collars & Co reported $30 million in revenue in 2023. While the lion’s share of the brand’s sales is driven by advertising on Meta platforms like Facebook and Instagram, as well as Alphabet’s Google, TikTok generates about 10% of its revenue. Although smaller, TikTok has been a vital platform in terms of customer growth, due in part to its discoverability algorithm. Product discovery has been harder to achieve on other platforms, Baer said. 

Collars & Co has also been testing out advertising on streaming platforms such as Hulu and Netflix. “But we haven’t been seeing the conversion we’d like to see out of those channels,” Baer said. 

As brands look to grow beyond TikTok, one of the learning curves is adapting their strategies to fit different platforms. 

For example, “TikTok is more casual, where you can post more behind-the-scenes, how the sausage is made-type videos,” said Collars & Co’s Baer. “With Instagram, the branding is more high-level, more polished.”

It’s also harder to go viral on other platforms compared to TikTok, Baer said, especially as the competition for views heats up. 

“There are so many more people posting now that there’s just triple the amount of content there was two or three years ago,” Baer said. “Across the board, whether it’s our influencers or other channels, it seems like views are down on average.”

TikTok did not respond to a request for comment.

Brick-and-mortar retail

For tattoo care brand Mad Rabbit, its diversification strategy has involved a push into brick-and-mortar retail. In August, the direct-to-consumer landed a spot on the shelves of 1,800 Walmart stores. Since then, Mad Rabbit’s Walmart sales have doubled. This has led to a halo effect on the brand’s Amazon sales, said Selom Agbitor, Mad Rabbit’s co-founder and chief revenue officer. The brand reported sales between $15 million and $20 million in 2023. 

“The plan is to hopefully expand into other retail channels,” said Agbitor.  

Other digital-first brands that went viral on TikTok are also trying out physical footprints. Earlier this year, mall store brand Forever 21 bought 8,500 units of Nightcap’s scrunchies to sell at 400 of its stores. Last year, Collars & Co debuted its first storefront in Chicago and has since opened two more locations in Boca Raton, Florida and King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. 

Still, it’s a double-edged sword. For TikTok-viral brands, the video-sharing platform is a key driver of brick-and-mortar sales. 

“TikTok has been very important to us in terms of having our ambassadors and affiliates do things in stores like Walmart to help drive revenue,” Agbitor said. 

Doubling down 

Even as TikTok’s future has been thrown into jeopardy in the U.S., brands are saying they aren’t fleeing the platform just yet. 

Cakes Body, which makes medical grade silicone nipple covers, has been gradually expanding to other marketing channels other than TikTok. In 2023, half of the brand’s revenue came from organic content on TikTok. This year, however, platforms like Meta and Google have made up the majority of Cakes Body’s sales, with TikTok only driving about 20%, according to co-founders and sisters Taylor Capuano and Casey Capuano Sarai. 

But the social media app remains an important part of the brand’s business, particularly its nascent shopping component, TikTok Shop.

“TikTok [Shop] is extremely hot for us right now, so for as long as it exists, we’re pouring as much gas on the fire as we can,” Capuano said.

Despite TikTok Shop’s buggy performance issues, the sisters are optimistic about their sales growth on the social media app’s marketplace.

“About 10% of our revenue comes from TikTok Shop, and that’s only in the first three months of testing and learning with it,” Capuano said. “It could very well be 20% of our revenue by the end of the year.”