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Marketers seem unconvinced of an impending TikTok ban, but are putting together contingency plans just in case

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The threatened ban on TikTok is coming back to the fore after Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell spoke out. On Monday, McConnell voiced his voice in calling for TikTok to be banned in the US unless ByteDance, its Chinese parent company, sells its shares. McConnell's endorsement of the bill has once again fueled the news cycle and put the TikTok ban in the spotlight. But by and large, brands with active presences on the app seem unfazed.

After a vote in the House of Representatives earlier this month, US lawmakers have moved ever closer to a possible ban. The bill’s next stop is the Senate. Until then, its future in the US is uncertain, which somehow hasn't deterred marketers – at least not yet.

However, viral marketers, particularly direct-to-consumer brands that rely on TikTok for growth, may have reason to worry. If the ban is imposed, the countdown for TikTok will begin, as will the viral nature of the short-video app that lies at the core of its success.

“We’re hardly worried about that,” said Gabby Hirata, global brand president of clothing brand Halara. “Even if TikTok shuts down tomorrow, I don’t think our business will be greatly affected.”

The direct-to-consumer athleisure brand has gained viral status on TikTok in recent years thanks to influencer videos and TikTok Shop placements. Halara recently began its first brand building campaign. But even given TikTok's virality, Hirata says it has long diversified its social media strategy to avoid being dependent on one platform.

Halara is not alone with his feelings. The language learning app Duolingo regularly goes viral with its mascot Duo, the owl, with trendy sounds and a so-called unhinged persona. But like Halara, Duoligo has focused over the past year on growing its audience and reach on platforms like Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts to diversify its social media presence, according to Kat Chan, head of global social media at Duolingo.

“We are confident that our social marketing strategy will continue to be successful no matter what happens with TikTok in the US, as we have invested in building global TikTok accounts and expanding our presence on other platforms,” Chan said in an email to Digiday.

Meanwhile, startup snack and wellness brand BelliWelli began investing more in outdoor advertising after its own viral TikTok moment a few years ago. “TikTok by BelliWelli has seen tremendous audience growth and creativity around brand engagement,” BelliWelli co-founder Katie Wilson said in an email to Digiday, without providing specific numbers, “but it was more icing on the cake than that Sole.” Driver of our success in building communities.”

It's unclear if and when a TikTok ban would go into effect, as the Senate has not yet passed it or sent the bill to President Biden. From then on, the app would have six months to find new owners. Even then, there could be legal backlash against free speech that would derail the government's efforts.

This is not the first time that the US government has proposed a ban on the social media app. As much as the brands themselves are not entirely convinced that it will come to this, the agencies are equally unconvinced. TikTok has proven to be an effective brand awareness tool and captured the coveted Generation Z audience. It also sees more and more money. According to eMarketer, TikTok is expected to rake in $8.66 billion in advertising revenue this year, up 31% year-over-year. According to the forecast, the short-form video platform is expected to account for 10.5% of US social ad spending and 2.8% of US digital ad spending this year.

“There's so much money here that it seems crazy not to just spin it off or sell it to any consortium of U.S. companies, be it Microsoft, Oracle or whoever the buyer is,” said Erik Hamilton, vice president of search and Social at the media agency Good Apple. “Whoever has a quarter of a trillion dollars. Someone will do it and someone will want to pay for it.”

Still, agency managers continue to advise their clients to take a wait-and-see approach and maintain contingency plans. Most of these contingency plans involve brand building on TikTok's competitors like Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts, none of which have managed to capture the cultural cache or level of engagement that TikTok has, agency executives said . Notably, last week Meta announced the launch of another Reels-like feature in the coming months on Facebook, where “even more Reels will be displayed to meet the growing demand for this format”. Realistically, agency executives say, there is no platform that can fill TikTok's void.

“I'm not sure Facebook can replace what TikTok is or was. It just doesn’t have enough social meaning anymore,” said Victor Drabicky, CEO and founder of January Digital and January Consulting. “But without a doubt they have a huge user base, so I’m sure it will add value.”

This means that the success brands see on TikTok may not be easily replicated on alternative platforms. However, that doesn't mean it's not worth a try. Agency executives say they're telling clients to keep a close eye on where the bill goes next and that it wouldn't hurt to boost brand presence on alternative social media platforms.

Marketing experts have said in the past that going viral isn't a sustainable strategy, and the potential TikTok ban brings that discussion back to the forefront.

“That’s not to say that brands that go viral on TikTok themselves don’t have value,” Drabicky said. “There is value in that. This is an art. It’s just a high-risk situation when that’s your only way to grow your business.”