Bytedance-owned TikTok has been noted for its rapid rise in Japan, but it hasn’t just won over teenagers. It’s also attracting seasoned industry folk. Having built a career as a creative director at Dentsu, Akira Suzuki decided to take a chance on the Chinese-owned platform earlier this year.
Suzuki is head of the X Design Center, which essentially means he helps brands use the platform as effectively as possible. In contrast to other major social-media platforms, TikTok is still seen as relatively free of advertising, and therefore user-friendly, even though brands are present. The idea is that advertisers should not get in the way of people’s enjoyment but instead contribute to it.
The concept makes perfect sense, yet it is still rarely applied online. Suzuki says he joined Bytedance because he saw an opportunity to take the lead in developing a new form of marketing that is more in touch with the way people consume media today. He does not think anyone has cracked vertical-format platforms yet. He also thinks the AISAS marketing theory (which stands for ‘attention’, ‘interest’, ‘search’, ‘action’, ‘share’) needs upgrading to (AL)SAS (‘algorithm’, ‘sympathise’, ‘action’, ‘share’).
Algorithms are necessary to help people make sense of the vast amount of data out there, he says. But beyond that, anyone serving content needs to think from the perspective of those receiving it. In simple terms, he wants to make TikTok “a major marketing tool” that sympathises with its audience.
Asked whether TikTok blocks brand content that just isn’t very good (which would apply to the bulk of online advertising), Suzuki says they do “qualify the content” as well as offer consulting as to what will be most suitable for a particular brand. Key to appealing to TikTok’s audience is working with individual creators, who are also users themselves.
Glico’s work for Pocky, which incorporated original music and dance moves led to a deluge of videos of people pretending to eat Pocky sticks. The content doesn’t pretend to be meaningful, but it doesn’t actively try to sell anything either. “It doesn’t solve anything, but it creates a fun feeling for the brand,” Suzuki says frankly.
He sees the “needs and wants” marketers typically try to cater to giving way to “wishes and whims”. The old approach involved “finding something bad or that needed improving, but from now on the point of what we do is that we have to supply something fun.”
The statement is unexpected coming from one of the people behind Yahoo’s ‘Election in the Dark’, an initiative to help blind people vote. But it does seem to apply in the lighthearted world of TikTok. Even if a piece of work is not completely humorous, it must have entertainment value. In a lot of cases, it is brand- rather than product-oriented. A recent campaign by L’Oréal for Maybelline—a “pure ad” that nonetheless resembled a piece of user-generated content—led to an 80% rise in brand awareness and 48% lift in favourability, Suzuki claims.
As observers have noted, TikTok can be a way to augment content running on TV. If there is any common thread between the diverse content that springs up on the platform, it is that people appreciate being prescribed a set of loose rules. It then becomes a question of who can think most imaginatively and execute most professionally within that box.
At the same time, scenes from daily life, travel, sporting activity and snappy how-to guides are proliferating. Suzuki says advertisers are not yet doing anything based on this trend in user behaviour, but he expects them to soon. But these are not your average YouTube cat videos. “Even with pet movies, people add some sort of quirk,” Suzuki says. “They are not supposed to just be cute. They need something extra.”
Making this sort of content does require some skill. But Suzuki sees TikTok as representative of a bigger shift in social media towards greater democracy in terms of content. Its recommendation-based format means you don’t have to be an “influencer” in order to get noticed. In general when it comes to social platforms, “quality of content isn’t always reflected in the number of views,” he says. “A piece of content might be really nice, but it doesn’t get seen unless you have a big following.”
With a project called Spotlight, TikTok is also inviting people to put forward original music, which will be judged by a panel. TikTok will then connect the winners with a music label.
In theory, good content will be rewarded, regardless of who created it. The same logic should apply to brands.