What retailers need to know to turn heads on TikTok

Ahead of NRF Retail Converge, we chatted with Matt Cleary, TikTok’s director of retail and dining global business solutions, to figure out WTF retailers do with the social media app.
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Illustration: Francis Scialabba, Photo: TikTok

· 5 min read

One of the most talked-about topics at this year’s NRF Retail Converge is also one of the most talked-about topics at almost every brand meeting: WTF do we do with TikTok?

Fortunately for Retail Brew and its readers, we chatted with Matt Cleary, the company’s director of retail and dining global business solutions, ahead of his session today at the giant (virtual) event, about how the intersection of the make-me-famous platform with the ethos of Gen Z has changed the way retailers interact with customers.

“Gen Z is a very discerning audience,” Cleary told Retail Brew. “They can sniff out when a brand is not being authentic.”

So, who’s getting it right? Cleary pointed to Aerie’s viral leggings as a shining example.

Last fall, influencer Hannah Schlenker (878K followers) wore the American Eagle sub-brand’s leggings in a video that racked up thousands of comments asking where to snap up the purple pants. Aerie didn’t commission Schlenker’s content, but did reap the benefits from her organic endorsement. The company quickly sold out of the leggings and received 130,000 emails from customers wanting to be put on a waitlist.

“Once you have a product that really solves a customer need, there's a tremendous amount of evangelism that can cross through to every platform, and TikTok is certainly a great platform to amplify that,” said Kristin Kohler Burrows, senior director of Alvarez & Marsal’s retail performance improvement group.

American Eagle CMO Craig Brommers told us bluntly: “What TikTok creators wear, American Eagle sells.”

Listen up

While companies have been trained to “listen” on social platforms, industry experts suggest that because of the cultural influence TikTok not only has but creates (especially with Gen Z), the act of listening isn’t enough. Brands also need to thread the needle between being honest and being themselves.

“Being aware of what your audience is doing or how they're engaging on the platform every single day is step one of an always-on presence,” Cleary said. “Whether you're looking at a CPG or fashion or beauty, the things that will stand out are [brands and] people that show up authentically.”

And this ties into the company’s content motto: “Don't make ads, make TikToks.” Translation: Be yourself and you’ll see a reward.

Consumers spend a good chunk of their day on the app. According to App Annie data, US social media users spent more time on TikTok than any other network in 2020, averaging 21.5 hours per month. Another study shows that 60% of TikTok users are Gen Z.

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“If you’re not playing on TikTok, you’re not in front of Gen Z,” American Eagle’s Brommers said, noting that the demographic has $140+ billion in spending power. And nearly all of them—97%, per a report by Afterpay—are using social media to figure out what to buy.

Tag, you're it

The platform has a powerful, connected consumer ecosystem that’s in constant flux, while setting trends and creating stars...and, well, companies.

#TikTokMadeMeBuyIt (3.3 billion views) is stamped across tons of videos on the app—where users unbox and review everything from yoga pants and reusable straws to vacuums and neon toilet bowl lights.

“The reason #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt is such a huge trending hashtag is because of this idea of community commerce,” Cleary said. “It's fueled by discovering and sharing new ideas, new products, new brands.”

When Fiona Co Chan created her DTC makeup company, Youthforia, TikTok was top of mind—from the magnetic, stackable packaging to the cosmetics themselves. Applying Youthforia’s color-changing blush oil is an interactive experience that consumers can share with their followers.

“You can just see the reactions on their faces when they try it,” Chan said. “[The product] elicits something that's so visual. If you think about TikTok as a platform, it's extremely colorful.”

Show us the goods

But presentation aside, 100 popular TikToks don’t always equate to one good product.

“Ultimately, the product has to deliver on quality. You can't make something go viral. You can make great products,” Katie Thomas, lead at the Kearney Consumer Institute, told Retail Brew. “The biggest risk is trying to force it. Most brands should still be in a bit of a learning phase.”

As retailers attempt to tame the TikTok beast, they often run the risk of a disjointed strategy—not tying what they do on the platform to what they do IRL.

“A lot of organizations are operating in silos even though in theory, they know it has to be one brand,” Thomas said. “If I go into a store and say, ‘I want the TikTok leggings,’ and the salesperson has no idea what I'm looking for, that's an immediate breakdown and a lost sale.”

So what should brands do on TikTok? Cleary advises to listen, natch. Then, talk.

“It's not about trying to create a trend with their brand,” Cleary said. “It's more about putting their brand in the voice of how their communities participate on the platform.”

With additional reporting by Halie LeSavage and Glenda Toma

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.