How Legacy Brands are Using TikTok to Win with Gen-Z Audiences

(As an instructor in U of T’s School of Continuing Studies, I relished the opportunity to donate some words to promote this excellent school. This article was first published here.)

Senior copywriter, content strategist, and SCS instructor Samantha Mehra, explains how some major brands are taking the TikTok leap, and doing it right.

Created in 2018 by its parent brand, the Beijing-based ByteDance, TikTok is one of the newer kids on the social media block. With its millions of users and downloads, the video-heavy platform has given new meaning to the idea of virality. The interface allows users to infinitely scroll and find only the funniest, best, and brightest content that suits their needs (and viewing habits), whether it’s a dance challenge, a political statement, or a powerful lip sync. Both individuals and big-time brands are trying every which way to amplify their video content and sell their wares by resonating with new audiences on this platform.

The eyes of almost every advertiser or marketer have been transfixed on TikTok as a result. And it’s no wonder: in 2020, TikTok was the most downloaded app on the planet (we’re talking 850 Million downloads); in September of 2021, it reached a milestone of converting 1 billion monthly active users. For those on the hunt for new audiences, TikTok holds exciting possibilities. But given that the growing platform has remained relatively mum on its significant stats, especially as to how its app encourages purchases, brand impact, and other worthwhile metrics,  understanding how best to develop winning strategies and tactics on the ever-growing app has been a bit of a challenge. 

TikTok offers paid advertising as well as the ability to promote in-app purchases from its user base, meaning that companies can establish a revenue stream and a paid ad plan. But a significant spend on ads for this kind of app is only a small piece of the puzzle. It’s the ability to consistently adjust content to suit the needs (and keywords) of the intended audience and leap into trending conversations with gusto, that can help buoy a brand on this timely app.

Some major brands out there are taking the TikTok leap, and doing it right. Let’s look at a few of them.

Elf: Going viral through musical engagement

Elf Cosmetics took engagement on TikTok to new heights with its Tik Tok campaign, which includes a catchy original song called “Eyes Lips Face,” and holds the prestigious position as the very first commissioned song for a TikTok ad campaign. TikTok users were game to participate by sharing videos of themselves lip-synching to the song (including celebrities). With every iteration and share on TikTok, the song brought more and more visibility to the beauty brand. In fact,  it’s the fastest-ever TikTok campaign to reach 1 billion views. This success gave Elf a fighting chance in a flooded industry and earned the trend-setter some serious cosmetic coin.

Chipotle: Taking engagement cues from its employees

Then there’s Chipotle, whose strong understanding of its Gen-Z audience, and its own employees’ use of social media, encouraged them to create the #ChipotleLidFlip campaign. After one of its employees, Daniel Vasquez, posted a video of himself impressively flipping a Chipotle bowl, the video took on a life of its own, and Chipotle made the smart move to create a hashtag and invite other users to show their own lid-flipping skills. 

The result was epic engagement and a brand visibility that marketers can only dream of: 110,000 video submissions, and at least 230 million views. This is the kind of audience engagement most marketers can only dream of.

Even if you’re growing from a grassroots place and don’t necessarily have an ad budget in hand, you can still take inspiration from both Elf and Chipotle’s attempts to engage TikTok users by “gamifying” their content – that is, asking their communities questions and prompting them to respond with their own content, all in an attempt to encourage meaningful engagement in the form of shares and comments. Offering contests, and providing incentives for users to embrace a hashtag and create their own content in response, is a savvy way to engage key audiences. These brands also encouraged users to leap in with videos that align with trending topics, really allowing people to organically engage with both TikTok and their brand.

Ocean Spray: Going Viral Through Listening and Monitoring 

In Foundations of Digital Communications Strategy and Social Media at SCS, we often talk about listening and monitoring as key components of success for brands who are upping their social media game. By monitoring, we mean constantly scanning social media for mentions of your brand, products, key people, and competitors, and always being on the lookout for hints of a potential crisis. By listening, we mean actually jumping into the conversation, taking the brave leap into reacting to social posts around your brand, which can result in meaningful engagement and better help you plan out future social media strategies. 

A strong example of listening and monitoring on social media to bring greater brand awareness and sales came in the form of Idaho potato worker Nathan Apodaca (TikTok user @420doggface208). Nathan posted a feel-good video on TikTok – a self-shot cinematic view of himself riding a skateboard to a soundtrack of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams”, while effortlessly downing a bottle of Ocean Spray. He shot the video after his truck had broken down and he opted for his skateboard instead. The uplifting video, which seemed even more poignant during the COVID pandemic, went viral across social media channels including Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

What happened next? The video saw a lot of love online (with Apodaca racking up close to 7 million TikTok followers); Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams (first released in 1977) reentered the charts and tripled in sales; celebrities like Jimmy Fallon and Mick Fleetwood himself start creating their own tribute videos; and the content became a central news story on social media channels and major news networks. 

90-year-old brand Ocean Spray, who had been monitoring this TikTok user-generated content, finally took the ‘leap into listening’ by assessing the success of Apodaca’s video and their product placement, and then in a carefully thought-out publicity boost, bought him a new truck packed full of Ocean Spray bottles (and enjoyed a newfound brand boost and took full advantage of an uptick in sales!). 

This is not only a good example of TikTok audience members becoming marketing content; it’s also a good example of how a gentle product placement in a light-hearted TikTok video can breathe new life into a tired brand, and how that brand leveraged TikTok content to take its sales and its public image into the 21st century.

Demystifying TikTok in 2022

Whether they understand the magic TikTok formula or not, companies large and small will continue to demystify this newer platform, and leverage it by listening and monitoring the conversations that resonate with their social-savvy target audiences across the planet (in this case, 35% being between 19 and 29, and 28% being under 18). Some will see big wins with contests, hashtag challenges, and clever musical ad campaigns.  Others, like Ocean Spray, will enjoy sold-out products and great quarterly sales numbers when TikTok influencers begin rooting for them (like The Ordinary’s peeling solution – a TikTok-certified skin conditioner!). And retailers in particular will be looking to TikTok to tell them what to have in stock in their store. 

Exactly who and what will be trending in the hearts, minds, and TikTok feeds of the global community is still a mystery, but we’ll be watching. 


Samantha Mehra (MA) is a senior copywriter and content strategist in Toronto, and an instructor at The University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies. With a diverse background in technology, history, and arts journalism, her writing credits include The Canadian Encyclopedia, Feathertale, Oxford Journals, and Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism. She is a National Magazine Award nominee and enjoys puns.

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