Is Gen-Z’s Favorite App TikTok The Next Big Opportunity For Beauty Brands?

Since it’s 2016 launch, TikTok has become the lip-sync and talent app. Created by Chinese tech firm Bytedance, it acquired an earlier lip-sync app,, which aided its rapid growth in popularity among Gen Z users. And it has begun to pull big name beauty brands away from their more conventional social media marketing — because it offers a new and engaging way to reach a younger audience.

The app’s potential for tapping into an increasingly lucrative Gen Z market is key to its value for beauty industry players. Before we look at the beauty brands utilising TikTok in creative campaigns, let’s take a deeper dive into why this unlikely tech is used by 500 million people around the world. And in particular, why 66% of those users are under the age of 30, according to data analytics firm Business of Apps.

The TikTok and Gen Z Love Affair

Rapper Lil Nas X uploaded a new track to TikTok in February 2019 in the form of a social media-friendly meme. It went viral. Now, at the end of July, the track entitled Old Town Road has been at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 17 weeks. This serves to highlight the cultural power of TikTok amongst Gen Z consumers; a viral hit on the app can convert into real sales.

Research firm MoffetNathanson notes that the largest TikTok user bases are in India, the US, Turkey and Russia. The difference between TikTok and every other social media app out there is its inherently interactive nature; instead of passively scrolling through Instagram or pinning images to boards on Pinterest, TikTok users are actively encouraged to perform and upload their own comedy sketches, dance, or lip-sync videos using sound samples and effects in-app. Users can even reply or add to other videos in split-screen using a ‘duet’ feature.

Mark Terry-Lush of social media agency Make Honey says that the app’s core audience is 16-18 years old old. This is a digitally native generation; 18 year olds today haven’t known a world without Internet or smartphones. They have an intuitive understanding of social media and, by extension, social media marketing; and they’re familiar with viral content. For this audience, TikTok takes out the need for video and sound production efforts behind the scenes; unlike YouTube and Instagram, it allows users to create and upload effect-laiden and edited videos instantaneously.

And TikTok doesn’t take itself too seriously. While much of the content uploaded to Instagram and YouTube is polished to perfection, with a high expectation for serious value of some kind, TikTok — and its users — embrace silliness and fun. It’s the wild kid at the party; the unreserved, uninhibited attendee whose freedom and unselfconsciousness makes it popular with pretty much everyone. Users get to have fun. So perhaps the app is, in fact, winning over a generation disillusioned with the increasingly competitive and judgemental culture of social media in general. It offers a subversive alternative; a place to let go and use tech for joy rather than projecting an unattainable image of perfection.

From a tech perspective, TikTok is user-friendly and knows its audience. Its ‘For You’ feed makes it easy to discover content, and makes users easily discoverable to others too. It rejects the clicks-and-views focused algorithms used by other social media platforms, and instead, anyone can be placed on the For You feed by using the hashtag. This means that users have been able to grow large followings much more quickly than they would have done on Instagram or YouTube, for example. TikTok makes it easy for users to find content they like, rather than pushing content that plays into the demands on an algorithm. This in itself appeals to Gen Z users — they value transparency and authenticity, and TikTok’s tech encourages them to be themselves.

But slightly removed from this overarching desire for authenticity, TikTok’s social influence has birthed a new kind of cool kid — the egirls and eboys. They encapsulate 90s cool, and their social lives are played out on the platform. The app offers a space for creativity, but also for developing and expressing a personal brand — you can craft and live a personality from scratch. At the centre of the egirl identity is her makeup. Thick black eyeliner, shapes and cute images drawn in eyeliner under the eyes, bright blush and matt lipstick. These users are usually teenagers, and they devote daily attention to their TikTok lives. For beauty brands this could present an unusual opportunity for tailored beauty lines and consumer-led product development and marketing.

Beauty Brand Advertising on TikTok

TikTok started testing ads on the platform in January 2019. Among the first brands to try it out was fashion resale company Poshmark, with a casual and user-driven, review-based campaign. Calvin Klein also ran its most-viewed digital campaign of all time via TikTok — with around ten times the engagement rate of its 2015 Justin Bieber ad.

Interestingly, one of the first advertising successes for the beauty industry on TikTok was led not by a brand, but by users themselves. Marc Anthony True Professional began to notice spikes in sales in April this year; specifically, a curl defining hair product from its ‘Strictly Curls’ line was being snapped up at an unprecedented rate. The brand started to investigate and discovered that the sales were being driven from an unexpected place: TikTok.

Almost overnight, the Marc Anthony curl defining hair product had become a viral meme on the app. Users were sharing looped videos of themselves with the product’s yellow bottle and showing off the bouncing beachy curls it helped them create. By the beginning of June there were more than four million video views using the hashtag #strictlycurls, and Marc Anthony reported a 60% increase in the product’s sales as a result.

That is something of a dream for a beauty brand — a successful marketing campaign created and run entirely by consumers themselves, with no input of effort or funds from the company. Other brands have become popular in TikTok without actually using the app themselves; the #LouisVuitton hashtag, for example, has been viewed 23 million times although the label itself has yet to join the platform.

The Long Game

At present, beauty brands who launch marketing campaigns on TikTok may not be able to expect fast conversions into sales. Instead, they are playing a longer game — focusing on expanding their reach and building interest and loyalty among future Gen Z customers.

This is, at least in part, because the app has not created click-through or purchasing-friendly features. Users cannot click links to access brand websites or ecommerce stores or purchase products directly from the app. TikTok says that its focus is on creating the best user experience it possibly can, and that it will consider advertising opportunities later on.

The future of any social media app is uncertain at this early stage. But there are signs that suggest brand engagement now could pay off in the future. TikTok is set to take part in the Cannes Lions Festival, with a discussion about ‘disrupting entertainment’ — suggesting that it is aware of, and gunning for, its potential space beside the big names in social media.

Brands that capitalize on TikTok’s potential big future now could expect big returns on relatively low investment. Influencers on TikTok at this stage charge less for sponsored content than they would on Instagram, Facebook or YouTube. According to LA advertising firm MC Projects, an influencer on Instagram with a few million followers might charge $10,000 to $15,000 per post, in contrast with TikTok, where the same influencer — or influencers with equivalent followings — might charge $5,000 to $6,000 per post. In addition, engagement rates on TikTok are sky high. Terry-Lush suggests that engagement on some sponsored posts is approaching 50%, whereas 2% engagement would be considered a success on Instagram.

Thomas Rankin of social media analytics firm Dash Hudson compares TikTok to the fledgling days of Facebook and Instagram. Brands who gambled on those platforms at the start benefited from huge payoffs later on. TikTok is young, but it holds great promise for the future for beauty brands willing to take the risk and cultivate their creativity.