Let’s Talk About Brands on TikTok
Featuring interviews with Omsom and Planet Money.
A few weeks ago I asked my Instagram followers for their favorite brands to follow on TikTok. Not only did I not get a lot of answers but they were alarmingly repetitive. Almost everyone suggested the same 10-15 brands. If I had asked this same question but swapped in Instagram for TikTok I am almost certain I would get a huuuuge range of brands across various industries. I think this makes sense for the most part. TikTok is a fairly new platform and not as many brands are on it, especially brands my millennial-leaning audience is likely aware of. And it’s a platform that’s almost impossible to repurpose existing social content on, making it harder to just jump in. Despite all of those factors, I felt there was a larger reason people all suggested the same few brands.
We’re at a point where a lot of social media managers are asking themselves (and getting asked by their bosses) about what their brand’s TikTok strategy should be. But the thing is, no one wants to watch brands be brands on TikTok. The biggest theme of all the accounts I was sent was that they felt like creator accounts more than they felt like brand accounts. Ryanair anthropomorphizes planes into thirst traps. The Washington Post’s “host” is basically a celebrity at this point (his Twitter name is quite literally Washington Post TikTok Guy). When I shared a Glossier TikTok on my story, Bianca, the woman who runs their account, responded “filmed this one on a whim in my bathroom and have yet to live up to it LOLLLLLL”. I think the reason we’re only seeing a few brands pop up in terms of exemplary TikTok accounts is because most other brands are, well, being brands.
For this week’s newsletter, I decided to reach out to two of the accounts that came up when I posed that initial question to my audience. First is Omsom, a company that makes delicious pantry shortcuts for a specific Asian dish, combining all the sauces, aromatics, and seasonings you need. They are a smaller brand that has invested in TikTok in a really smart and scrappy way. There’s no dedicated team necessarily, but they are making it work. Second is Planet Money, the NPR podcast and blog that covers the economy. They are a wonderful example of a bigger brand speaking to the TikTok audience in a really unique, weird, and wonderful way. They are also proof you don’t need to use trending sounds or songs to succeed on that platform. Okay, let’s jump in.
Rachel Karten: Why did Omsom join TikTok? Why was it a platform that felt important for your brand to be on?
Kim Pham: We’re a brand that thrives in casual, yet authentic storytelling—we saw that resonate with our community on IG and email, so wanted to find a platform where we could continue that. Because TikTok values uniqueness and creativity, we thought it would be a new way to showcase more dimensions of our brand personality!
RK: Who runs Omsom's TikTok?
KP: I run the TikTok alongside Sofia, our Content + Community Associate!
RK: When you think about the goal of TikTok, what comes to mind? Awareness? Conversions?
KP: TikTok is super, super top-of-funnel for us. You should view it as a great space for experimentation and long-term brand building. The algorithm provides the opportunity for *any* piece of content to go viral (as opposed to optimizing for the social graph), so it’s a chance for us to flex our storytelling in short, casual snippets.
RK: What's your process like for brainstorming and creating content? I think a lot of small brands are intimidated by this aspect.
KP: Don’t overthink it—we’ve learned that we don’t need to be as precious as we are on IG or email. We broadly have “buckets” of types of content that we share and try to create a healthy distribution of videos across (like founder story, educational content, recipe videos, etc.). We meet on a weekly basis, decide on fun trends/topics, and film. We really don’t plan more than a couple days ahead, given the ephemeral and fast-moving nature of the platform.
RK: Are there any posts on your account that either took off and surprised you? Or totally tanked even though it felt like a home run?
KP: This is why I tell brands to not “over engineer” TikTok—the platform feels somewhat random, which can be both frustrating and liberating! Our first ever TikTok was a planned and edited founder story which collectively took my team 2+ hours to film and edit. We posted it, thinking it might get a couple hundred views, but it ended up getting 300k+! Our other “viral” video amassed 900k+ views but took me literally a minute to film on a complete whim—I was just at a Korean restaurant and found their menu hilarious. Your best bet is to take a fun, experimental approach to TikTok—you never know what will resonate and when, so don’t waste time perfectly planning!
RK: Any tips for other brands thinking about joining TikTok?
KP: There’s all sorts of best practices with TikTok (that we are guilty of not necessarily following!). The best brands are posting at least once a day, even if completely random or trend-based. Post using trending sounds. Keep videos quick and concise. Use your account like you would a personal account—follow, like, and comment on other videos. Follow along with trends and try to hop on them ASAP, even if “low production value.” Just have fun with it!
Q&A with Jack Corbett, associate producer, and Nick Michael, senior editor, visuals, at NPR
RK: First, I’d love to hear about each of your backgrounds.
Jack Corbett: I have a video background. I majored in film theory and avant-garde cinema. Not exactly economics or journalism.
Nick Michael: I have a background in video journalism and have worked at NPR for about seven years now.
RK: Why did Planet Money decide to join TikTok?
NM: We had an existing series called Planet Money Shorts that were more geared towards YouTube, and Jack, when he was an intern, basically created a shorter, more Dada version of a Planet Money Short about the stock market. This eventually became our inaugural TikTok.
And around that same time, in a separate part of the company, there were conversations happening about a contractual relationship with getting NPR and Planet Money on TikTok. Jack had a great style and approach that we thought would be great for the platform.
JC: For that first video, I basically had this crazy idea that there's a stock market circuit breaker. And I asked my manager, can I just make the video? I can't really explain it. It was initially a three-minute long, horizontal video. But because there were these TikTok conversations happening, we tried it out as 59 seconds and vertical.
RK: What does your TikTok team look like?
NM: Jack is the only person whose full time job is to identify scripts and write stories for our TikTok. Then we have a handful of video producers who will contribute, a visual editor, a Planet Money editor, digital team members to bounce ideas off of and give feedback in terms of growth, goals, etc.
RK: There are a lot of faces on Planet Money’s TikTok—almost like a cast. Can you talk about that decision?
NM: We've, since the beginning, had a rotation of faces and voices, with Jack being the earliest and most consistent producer for our channel. And for a while we felt like, is that tension between these different styles and different voices something that we should reconcile because it needs to be consistent? For a variety of reasons, we felt that we needed to have a bigger set of people working on TikTok than just Jack.
At this point, it’s mainly Jack and Courtney, working on our TikTok as hosts. And rather than trying to have the channel have a singular authentic point of view, we’re trying to be sure that each of them feels like they're able to bring their authentic voice to the channel.
RK: I think a lot of brands feel like they need to follow trends and specific formats to be successful on TikTok. What’s been cool about Planet Money is that you sort of do your own thing on the platform. Was that intentional?
JC: As far as trends go, we're certainly not doing the dance, joke, or gag of the week. I’d like to try and do whatever the trend is and I’ll try, but sometimes it’s hard to shoehorn economics into whatever it may be. But we’ll take a trending topic, GameStop for example, and create a TikTok in our style around that and those will do really well. I also don’t think I even get the trends on my For You Page. So it’s like, I wouldn’t even know what’s going on.
NM: So much of the aesthetic from the channel comes from Jack. He’s been the earliest, most consistent, and most prolific creator on our team contributing to the channel. So a lot of success comes down to the fact that he really understands the platform. And he can bring a unique blend of information, humor, and weirdness that obviously keeps people coming back.
We’ve heard time and time again that it’s so important to have an authentic voice on TikTok. So a big part of our strategy is just trusting what’s interesting to Jack. Because if he’s interested in it, it’ll probably do better.
RK: A lot of brands haven’t figured out who they are on TikTok. Do you have any advice for them?
JC: Well, I mean, millions of kids are on TikTok and totally get TikTok. So like maybe just hire one of them? And definitely browse TikTok and create a TikTok not because you think the kids are on it, but because you think it’s a good medium.
NM: It’s really clear that when one of our creators, including Jack, has a great idea and can realize it in a way that leaves the audience coming back for more—that’s when the channel grows. I feel like if we had a secret sauce beyond that, I don’t know...
JC: I think there is a secret sauce and it's just that Planet Money and NPR in general have been so cool. They’ve been so cool about letting us kind of go crazy on the platform. We can try weird things, and some of them don’t work (and that’s fine!), but it’s not like we’re trying to design it all by committee. I think that’s the secret sauce.
First listing is a secret one. If you’re interested in doing freelance social media for a recipe developer/cookbook author/cool person please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Really looking for someone who can set a strategy for their personal social media presence and help execute, primarily, Reels and TikToks. Ideally based in LA. Bonus points if you work in the food world.