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POV: Bringing brands to TikTok

Four lessons I’ve learned

By Jean-Frédéric Barrette

I’m nothing if not a die-hard TikTok fan.

But I admit to breaking out in a cold sweat whenever I’d think about integrating it into my job as a copywriter. How could I take everything I found exciting about the platform and adapt it to the complex needs of a brand? Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned while exploring this new territory with local companies.

1. You need to know your internet

TikTok relies heavily on pop culture references. A trend that’s everywhere one morning may have come from a YouTube video from 5 years ago, which played off a scene from a 2002 episode of Degrassi. “Fake it till you make it” isn’t really an option when it comes to hopping on these trends.

The key is to either become an enthusiast or surround yourself with people whose thumbs are calloused from scrolling through the platform. By using it on a daily basis, you’ll see how sounds, filters and video templates evolve – and how they can gain momentum, run out of steam or change completely at any time. Take, for example, the “ATTENZIONE PICKPOCKET” vigilante who dominated the platform for weeks, only to vanish in a flash once her political affiliations were revealed by curious users.

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2. Don’t focus too much on yourself

Here’s a short lesson in recent history: For a long time, TikTok was an ad-free oasis devoid of branded content, and after dealing with Facebook and Instagram, users liked that. When brands inevitably found their way in, people weren’t impressed – and I don’t blame them. In a climate like this, content becomes the best ad.

So what does this mean?

Get chummy with your community

People have a lot to say in the comments and no one wants to chat with a customer service representative.

Don’t be afraid to make inside jokes

Targeting specific audiences pays off – making a joke that’s too broad can undermine the humour. In a TikTok brief, a client I’m especially fond of said to me, “If I don’t get the jokes, you’re on the right track.” I knew right then and there that we were going to have some fun.

Let loose

On traditional platforms, we’re used to checking our brand guide to make sure everything is just right. We choose the safer option to avoid making the higher-ups mad. On TikTok, you need to do the opposite. Giving yourself more creative freedom will give you an edge. And using aesthetic codes that reflect your users’ tastes can be equally rewarding.

3. Brands will never be users

No matter how hard companies try to emulate the behaviour of a “citizen” user, they’ll never be one. I’ve had to mourn this realization.

When I first started experimenting with brands, I really tried to blend 100% into the user feed. Unsurprisingly, there were obstacles everywhere: You can’t use that trademarked sound, you don’t have enough time to shoot, you don’t have the go-ahead to take advantage of a trend’s momentum, you absolutely need a punchy reference, etc.

Images and sounds used within the community come with a much higher level of risk for corporate entities wanting to be part of the club.

As experts, we need to understand that each brand has its own risk tolerance for a variety of valid reasons. Once I understood this, I began to see constraints as creative parameters that could lead to unique recipes. It was a big “ah-ha!” moment for me.

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4. Find your angle

The angle is the creative solution that emerges from the recipe: a brand’s unique point of view, based on its resources and ambitions, that makes it memorable.

With National Bank, we were presented with the challenge of including a mascot (a logo-shaped stuffed animal) in our TikToks. As charming as the mascot was, how could we pull off showing up on an ad-free platform with a giant logo? By creating the ultimate internet red flag. By sticking with an evergreen web code (the famous red flag), our mascot became a vehicle for a variety of comical and/or informative messages. And it works so well!

Here’s another example: With Mondou, we were looking to generate brand love, but in a way that would allow us to promote products whenever necessary. Our solution: Passion Niche. A TikTok Series in which animals present “features” on food, decor, fashion and more. A kind of animal Queer Eye! Once again, the result was faithful to web codes, with a unique touch that allowed us to meet the advertiser’s objectives.

On your ring lights... get set… go!

I won’t pretend that getting started on such a unique platform is easy. There’s knowledge to acquire and deconstruct, and challenges to overcome. But the visibility of the work can be astronomical. Especially when you compare it to the production costs!

Mull it over, and if you feel like you’re ready, just take the plunge. I promise you, that cold sweat will eventually go away.