Digital Marketing Redux   //   March 15, 2024

‘It feels like an absolute mistake’: Brands and agencies are already preparing for a TikTok ban

Agencies and brands are already bracing for a TikTok-less future amid a possible U.S. ban.

Acorn Influence, a digital marketing agency that connects brands with 25,000 creators, is advising influencers to consider using platforms like Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts, the latter of which has “phenomenal cost effectiveness,” CEO Heather Nichols said.

Similarly, Shana Davis-Ross, the founder of Ponte Firm, an influencer management agency, is working with clients on ways to take advantage of other social media and marketing channels. “Hypothetically, if TikTok disappears due to the potential of these new regulations, eyeballs still exist — they’re just going to migrate to another form of consumption,” Davis-Ross said via email.

It all points to the mad scramble brands and agencies are making over fears that the U.S. government may shut down TikTok.

A TikTok ban won’t happen overnight, and many brands are staying the course with their current campaigns. Still, companies and creators reliant on TikTok are starting to form contingency plans in case the U.S. bans the platform. Earlier this week, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would prohibit TikTok from being listed on U.S. app stores unless its parent company ByteDance spins off TikTok. If the bill is signed into law, ByteDance will have five months to sell off TikTok or face the ban.

The bill now heads to the U.S. Senate for a vote. If passed there, it will go to President Joe Biden’s desk. Biden has said he will sign the proposed legislation if both chambers pass it.

U.S. lawmakers supportive of the bill argue that TikTok — which is owned by a Chinese company — poses a national security threat and places U.S. users’ data in danger. Yet, there is no public evidence that China has spied on people through TikTok, per CNN.

Last March, TikTok said it was “proactively” taking steps to appease U.S. concerns. “Over the last two years, we’ve invested $1.5 billion in setting up TikTok U.S. Data Security and have been building a comprehensive framework to isolate protected U.S. user data,” it said in a blog post.

A vital channel

For the past several years, brands and retailers have flocked to TikTok to connect with Gen Z consumers. Bubble, a skincare brand, has built an avid fan base via TikTok. Pair Eyewear traces more than a quarter of its sales back to TikTok, while hydration brand Stur has started developing products exclusively for TikTok audiences.

Many brands told Modern Retail they see TikTok as a vital channel for sales growth.

Last year, months after introducing its new tubing mascara, Milani Cosmetics saw a sudden spike in sales for the product. The marketing team was confused, as it had not changed its approach and “just did our normal content,” Chief Marketing Officer Jeremy Lowenstein told Modern Retail. Then, Milani discovered that popular beauty influencers The Lipstick Lesbians had made a TikTok video praising the item’s formula and packaging.

The moment crystallized what Lowenstein already knew about TikTok, a platform in which Milani has racked up hundreds of thousands of followers since March 2020. “TikTok really helped amplify our brand message,” he said. “Historically, within media, there was always a disadvantage for these small indie brands. But the TikTok algorithm… doesn’t favor how many followers you have. It’s all about the content, the sounds, the hashtags. It helped showcase Milani’s purpose and put Milani on the map.”

August, a period care product company, joined TikTok in 2021 and began posting dozens of times a day. In its first year, co-founder Nadya Okamoto built up a following of 2 million people, she told Modern Retail. TikTok has been crucial to raising awareness of the brand, Okamoto said, which she attributes to the algorithm of TikTok’s “For You” page.

Okamoto said she is worried a TikTok ban would make Meta the go-to social platform by default. Advertising on Meta has gotten more expensive in recent years, in part because Temu and Shein are outbidding other retailers via low ad prices and driving up customer acquisition costs. Getting rid of TikTok “is not a great way to level the playing field,” Okamoto said.

Okamoto also considers TikTok to be a safe platform, even more than some American-owned companies like Instagram. “I do feel that there is some xenophobic rhetoric,” she said.

Today, August, which is carried in Target and on Amazon as well as via its website, has 15 million video likes on TikTok. A large part of August’s TikTok presence is about building community, and the ban would interfere with that, Okamoto said. “What a way to alienate young voters right now,” she said. “When we care so deeply about connection and education and freedom of expression, taking away an app like this, it just feels like an absolute mistake.”

Lisa Guerrera, a TikTok influencer and the founder of Experiment, a beauty brand launched on TikTok that has amassed waitlists of up to 10,000 people at a time, told Modern Retail her initial reaction to the ban was “anger and deep frustration.”

“We have many challenges to overcome in this country, and it’s offensive that a ban on TikTok is the only thing Congress can seem to agree on, specifically when such regulations will negatively impact hundreds of thousands of American small businesses and jobs,” Guerrera wrote in an email.

As of February 2023, “nearly 5 million businesses” were on TikTok, per the company. Approximately 150 million people use the platform in the U.S.

Still, not every brand has found TikTok to be smooth sailing. The Honey Pot Company, which makes vaginal wellness products, joined TikTok in 2021 to post educational videos about health and personal care. It saw good traction at the beginning, Desiree Natali, The Honey Pot’s director of social media and community, told Modern Retail. Then, she said, “In 2022, we one day woke up to a notification that our account had been taken down because we said the word ‘vagina.'”

TikTok said the word violated its standards, according to Natali. “Since then, we have really struggled to get back to what was primarily a really great and successful vibrant community,” she explained. The Honey Pot was able to restore its account, but Natali said it has dealt with its videos being periodically shadow-banned.

Yet, she said, The Honey Pot never considered abandoning TikTok.

“We felt that the information was so important, so we just tried to push through as much as possible,” Natali said. “We have tried everything from creating a new account to changing copy. This past six months, we’ve seen a good turnaround. And then of course, six months later, we’ve been getting the rumblings that the whole channel might be removed.”

The path forward

It could take months for the TikTok ban to be signed into law. The Senate has not set a date yet for a vote, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer did not lay out next steps other than “review[ing] the legislation” when asked about the bill before the House vote.

Some brands, like Milani, are waiting to see what comes from the legislation before taking any next steps, especially because there have been rumors of a TikTok ban for years. “This has been in the news for what feels like three years now,” Lowenstein said. “Am I always talking about it? Yeah. Will it happen? I have no idea. It’s hard to start worrying about something I can’t control.”

Multiple sources spoke of the need to pivot and stay flexible around any possible TikTok ban. “I think it’s always important as a marketer to have your finger on the pulse of all the different channels,” Lowenstein said. August’s Okamoto said she was privileged to have a following outside TikTok alone. “I’m very fortunate and very privileged to know that I’m going to be okay,” she said. “My business will survive, but it will be hard.”

Meanwhile, Native Shoes, which makes water-friendly shoes, sandals and boots for adults and kids, is a relative newcomer to TikTok and is using that to its advantage. “We haven’t become overly dependent on any one platform and are really focusing on what platform is good for what,” Lynsey Lambert, the brand’s chief product and marketplace officer, told Modern Retail.

Whatever may happen to TikTok, social media networks have risen and faded away over the years, Lambert, who previously held roles at Abercrombie and Nike, said. “We’ve seen big disruptions like this happen,” she added. “It’s not new. It just comes in different packaging.”

Additional reporting by Gabriela Barkho.