For all their innovation, Chinese internet companies have largely failed to make themselves known in Japan—until now. Over the course of the year, TikTok has emerged as one of the most popular free apps (and most aggressive social-media advertisers) in the market. What sets this short-video platform apart—and is it any use to brands?
Known as Douyin in China, TikTok entered Japan last year and has since attracted interest from the likes of SoftBank, which in November made an undisclosed investment through its Vision Fund in Bytedance, which owns TikTok. The platform claims to have around 130 million global monthly active users, according to Apptopia. TikTok declined to provide statistics specific to Japan, but in an analysis of Japan’s internet sector in August, CLSA noted that TikTok showed good monetisation potential through services to both brands and users. Bytedance’s financial stability means TikTok has the advantage of time in cultivating that potential.
Why it’s different
TikTok has taken off in Japan partly because of the existing popularity of music videos, as well as a culture of ‘idol’ worship through specific fan gestures, says Omri Reis, strategic planner at AKQA Tokyo. “What TikTok does is to enable music fandom and more importantly visualise it in a way that was simply not possible before,” he says. “The app shows you how fans everywhere are reacting physically to a selected musical piece. It’s not lip-synching but more elaborate, personal and shorter snippets that are entertaining to watch.”
Kiwa Kawada, senior strategist at R/GA Tokyo, believes TikTok stands to become an important player in terms of both video content and advertising in Japan. “YouTube is still the strongest, and other video platforms will continue to exist, but TikTok has given everyone a new form of entertainment. It’s uniquely positioned itself in a highly competitive market.”
Part of its appeal is that it isn’t inundated with advertising. The commercial content that exists on the platform is often co-created with users and avoids being “ad-like”, observes Akira Amano, associate chief researcher in Dentsu’s media innovation department and the author of a book on the psychology of sharing on social media.
Amano says there has never been any conscious dismissal of Chinese services in the past. “No one cares where it’s from,” he says. It’s just that TikTok has struck the right note at the right time, when people are looking for a more democratic music scene that isn’t monopolised by a few big players. “The music market…has a new exciting opportunity to empower creativity,” Reis says.
TikTok has found the most favour among teenage girls, who are often the first to adopt new social platforms, he notes. But it has also become popular with people in their 20s who have followed their favourite YouTubers to the platform, Kawada says.
TikTok’s appeal as a social channel is that it makes it quick and easy to produce and explore video creativity. “Filters, effects, stickers and the 15-second limit makes creating easy, which means there’s a low psychological barrier to entry for users,” she explains.
As well as a range of visual editing options, TikTok gives people access to a large catalogue of music. Avex Group, Japan’s biggest record label, recently signed a deal to licence 25,000 tracks available to users across Asia.
“Short-form video content has been a long-term trend, but external experience has been required to create it,” says Kawada. “TikTok’s point of difference is that it gives you the creative power to make original, high quality, share-worthy content anywhere, anytime.”
While the option to create ‘quality’ content is there, people don’t necessarily exercise it. TikTok’s original proposition was dance videos, and they are still part of the content, along with lip-synching and rapid transformation sequences (such as to makeup or hairstyle), Kawada says. But not everyone is a ‘performer’, which means random slices of life set to music now also proliferate, says Amano. He thinks its casualness has proved attractive to people who were intimidated by the pressure on Instagram to upload polished pictures. TikTok’s advantage over Instagram’s Stories is that it offers more possibilities in terms of editing. But much of the content is essentially similar.
Usefulness and usability for brands
TikTok gives brands clear access to a usually hard-to-reach young audience, and also serves as a window to their interests. Of course, it’s also an environment where it’s easy to seem like an imposter. “Teenagers and millennials in Japan are sophisticated,” Kawada says. “They don’t want to be bombarded with advertising, can tell when a piece of content is a paid ad, and will simply ignore it.”
Ultimately, brands should see TikTok as a “democratic community” rather than just a video platform, Kawada advises. One way they can be part of it is to generate original content that parallels that of regular users. But a better way is probably to support creative expression. TikTok offers a lot of opportunity to engage with people and connect to offline events, but should not be seen as a way to drive traffic to external sites, she says.
Amano says brands need to work with the community mentality by giving users interesting themes to play with, with some guidelines. He points to an example where Chupa Chups provided the tools to make cutesy Halloween videos. The point is to encourage people to do something fun that they would be unlikely to do of their own accord, he says.
Amano sees a connection between TikTok and TV, whereby users create segments aping TVCs or TV dramas. The first example of a brand using TikTok was Suntory, which saw 20,000 users recreate the dance to its ‘Japan & Joy’ theme song for Pepsi’s J-Cola (albeit a very minor brand), which initially aired as a TV spot. Amano thinks TikTok can benefit both TV stations and brands by helping to promote and amplify their longer-form content. Key to this is that users will do it in their own style, based on whatever raw materials the brand or media owner provides.
An example of linking online and offline, which Kawada highlights, was from Cyber Japan, a talent agency. Companies typically struggle to gain uptake of their hashtags on the platform, she says, but Cyber Japan managed 5,000 shares in an effort to promote its Ultra Japan dance event. It took a three-stage approach, firstly showing a video featuring its own dance unit, then running a promotion giving users of the official event songs the chance to win tickets, and finally hosting a TikTok-dedicated booth at the event where users could film videos.
TikTok lends itself well to food and beverage brands, and Amano sees food-related content continuing to be popular, as it is on Instagram. But he sees room for lots more categories to develop in a way that they have not on the Facebook-owned platform: sports is a growing category that stands to attract male users, for example.
More than a fad?
In its note, CLSA said it would be “unwise to dismiss TikTok as a summer phenomenon”. It faces direct competition from Facebook’s Lasso, a similar offering that launched without much ado last month. But Kawada thinks TikTok’s user experience and quality of output give it a strong head start and give it long-term potential. “I don’t know if it will be short-lived,” counters Amano, “but the demand to share life through short movies is always likely to be there.”
Vine and the domestic equivalent, MixChannel, have fallen by the wayside in Japan, despite attracting some highly creative examples of short-form storytelling. Amano attributes their demise partly to their failure to attract many “influencers”, in contrast to TikTok. These people extend an app’s lifespan, he says.
“TikTok…should continue to shape the market for the time being, but to stay ahead, they’ll need to build on their lead and create a unique, loyal community,” opines Kawada.