How brands can authentically join in with subcultures on TikTok
Despite having a user base of over 100 million monthly users in Europe alone, TikTok is one of the most intimate spaces, where thousands of subcultures and communities are springing up to cater for the world’s most niche interests.
Love creating tiny hats for your pet frogs? Follow #FrogTikTok. Still obsessed with Malfoy after all this time? See him be redeemed at #DracoTok. Dreaming of leafing through ancient books in a wood-panelled library? Delve into #DarkAcademia. Whatever you’re into, there’s a space for it on TikTok.
Subcultures are thriving on TikTok. With a community that embraces self-expression, it’s the perfect place for people to find their voice, and to connect with others who share their passion. According to a recent Nielsen study, three out of four users saw TikTok as a place where they can express themselves openly, and 60% said they felt a sense of community while on the platform. These communities are united by interests and mindsets, not age or gender, showing the truly inclusive nature of the platform.
Unlike trends, which can be fleeting, subcultures are long-lasting communities where people share an interest which deviates from the mainstream. This includes anything from anime to the zombie apocalypse, and can sow the seeds for wider trends of their own – see the prevalence of floaty, white dresses since #CottageCore went viral in 2020. Each subculture has its own codes, jokes and styles, such as e-girls miming along to music as they do their makeup, or paper-makers running their hands through pulp on #CraftTok.
As well as being a source of entertainment and creativity, subcultures can be a lifeline for people struggling with their identity, providing representation of and interaction with people just like them. TikTok’s subcultures are places for self-expression, where people can voice the thoughts and feelings that they may not be able to share offline – and know that someone out there feels the same way.
Subcultures have been a part of the internet since the very first online blog, but on TikTok, they’re something special. TikTok’s inclusive environment makes them accessible to everyone, so it’s easy to get involved and join in the conversation. The For You page prioritises content a user is likely to enjoy, meaning a beloved new community is always only a swipe away. A report by Clear M&C Saatchi shows that to ‘Participate’ is one of the core reasons for using TikTok, so these users aren’t just there to watch – they want to get stuck in and become a part of the community.
How brands can find success in subcultures
There’s nothing the TikTok community values more than authenticity, so if a brand is able to establish a genuine connection with its community, it can enjoy enormous reach and engagement on the platform.
Aligning with a subculture or hashtag provides cultural currency, which can turn an unknown brand or product into a viral sensation overnight. It also enables you to tailor your approach and effectively target your audience with content you know they’ll love, allowing your brand to seamlessly become a part of that subculture’s identity. If your brand stocks cards and crystals, you’ll want to check out #WitchTok, while if you’re selling to parents make sure to use the hashtag #MomsOfTikTok.
61% of users feel that TikTok’s advertising differs from other social platforms, being more authentic, fun, real and trustworthy than other channels. 63% of TikTokers are likely to watch ads, making it the platform whose users are the most appreciative of branded content, which provides a huge opportunity to advertisers.
At TikTok Download, I spoke about authentic ads on TikTok, “Authenticity is becoming increasingly important for consumers. So brands really don’t need to overthink it… A huge 83% of TikTokers respond to branded content, compared to a 59% platform average”.
To harness this opportunity, brands need to switch their thinking from demographics (‘who is the buyer?’) to psychographics (‘why are they buying?’). Affiliations with a community or aesthetic can be a much stronger indicator of purchase behaviour than traditional categories like age, gender and location. This will give you the information you need to understand who loves your brand and why, so you can create content that becomes an authentic part of their TikTok experience.
Brands like RyanAir have been doing this particularly well. Unlike their hard-selling TV ads, their TikTok content is purposely surreal, with a human face superimposed onto a RyanAir plane, mouthing along to music. This fits perfectly with other popular TikTok content, helping users to see RyanAir as a fun, relevant brand which they want to interact with.
Another airline, Virgin Atlantic, tapped into the ASMR trend (a hashtag which currently has 121.1 billion views) with a video showcasing the sights and sounds of air travel. These #OddlySatisfying sounds created a soothing ad which seems perfectly at home among other ASMR videos of hair cutting and paper rustling.
Virgin Media’s ‘Stay in love, stay connected’ campaign used clips of popular TikTok styles, such as dancing and face filters, to showcase an array of romantic stories. TikTok’s own #MyRoots campaign used a similar strategy to shine a light on different experiences throughout the Black community. Both campaigns used codes that their audiences could relate to in order to grab their attention.
Using Creators who play major roles in a certain subculture is another great way to integrate with a community. The cosmetics brand, TooFaced, partnered with Creator Kristen Hancher, to promote their new ‘Better Than Sex’ mascara. Using Kristen’s signature ‘before and after’ format proved to TooFaced’s audience that the brand was familiar with both the Creator and the platform, and the campaign generated a huge 1.8 million views.
43% of TikTokers feel that the advertising on TikTok blends in with the content, showing how well brands are managing to find their audience. By harnessing the power of hashtags, brands can serve users the content they want, to create an experience which benefits both brands and their audience.
The small business opportunity
This is all great news for small businesses. The user-generated content feed makes it easy for users to discover new brands, and for brands to target and connect with a whole new audience.
The Nielsen study found that the TikTok community is 15% more likely to buy from a small, independent business compared to other social media channels, and the hashtags #SmallBusinessLove and #ShopSmallBusiness have over 295 million views altogether. TikTokers love the intimacy of shopping through small businesses, where they can find truly one-of-a-kind pieces, and interact much more easily with the seller.
To seize this opportunity, small businesses should remember our ground-breaking proposition: don’t make ads, make TikToks. Rather than pushing products out, you should be drawing users in, creating fun and engaging content to engage your audience and keep them coming back for more.
All small businesses are unique, so use that individuality as your gateway to certain communities and show off what makes your brand special – whether that’s amazing products, how they’re made, or just the friendly face behind the brand.
How to show up authentically on TikTok
The best way to become a valued part of a community is to immerse yourself in it, so you can fully understand what your audience is looking for. When creating your own content, make sure to use the relevant codes, jokes, music and editing styles for the hashtags and subcultures most relevant to your brand, to help you blend in naturally and become an authentic part of that community. Interact with similar users, join the conversation and jump on viral moments and Hashtag Challenges. You can also collaborate with Creators who are a good fit for your brand to widen your reach and establish yourself more firmly within that subculture.
Once you know who your audience is, use TikTok Ads Manager to target them through paid content. Our self-service ad platform allows you to reach more users than organic content alone, and allows you to set up campaigns and start selling in seconds. As well as choosing your audience and objectives, you can access a range of in-app tools to take your TikToks to the next level, making them more engaging than ever before.
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to getting noticed on TikTok – but showing up with incredible content and interacting with your community is the perfect first step. By creating TikToks, not ads, you can act like a user and show up authentically in the For You feeds of the communities who are ready to embrace you and your brand.
 Nielsen customer Authenticity Study commissioned by TikTok, Persons 18+, 5/1/2020 - 6/19/2020
[2-3] The TikTok Audience Understanding Research conducted by Clear M&C Saatchi
[4-5] Nielsen customer Authenticity Study commissioned by TikTok, Persons 18+, 5/1/2020 - 6/19/2020