Stop making ads and start making content: The power of TikTok for brands

Parker Hicks


The term guerrilla gives rise to a select series of images. Cloak and dagger tactics, improvised technologies, or a 1980s action-movie hero. When we apply this term to the marketing world, it evokes the idea that marketers constantly have to change their tactics to fit ever-shifting cultural standards.

Much like Mad Men’s Don Draper, almost everyone that holds their audience’s attention thinks outside the box. Thankfully, the modern world has provided far more than a handful of slick tricks to accomplish this goal.

Touted in mainstream media and every conceivable digital marketing blog, TikTok is the popular new kid in the video-sharing ecosystem. Brands have taken various approaches to TikTok content, and many have found success in using customer-focused methods. Language learning app Duolingo and casual clothing company Mango, for example, are finding stunning success on TikTok with hundreds of thousands of followers and over a million total views. Other brands are… well… struggling to achieve their customer engagement goals.

So, what sets these great brands apart? Isn’t TikTok a silly little app for teenagers to dance on? Why — and, more importantly, how — could any brand generate hundreds of thousands of views, likes, and followers on this platform? The answer here begins with the app’s demographic breakdown.

Although TikTok has almost a billion users over the age of 25, the app is still largely dominated by Gen-Z, who make up over 60% of TikTok users. What does this mean for a marketing team beginning to dive into the magical world of short-form videos? If you want to market to Zoomers, this means that implementing guerrilla marketing tactics on your brand’s TikTok page is vital to success.

What is guerrilla marketing?

In simple terms, guerrilla marketing is using non-traditional means to market a company or product in a way that doesn't automatically tell the audience it’s marketing. The key here is that the marketing content looks and feels similar to normal, non-marketing content — it blends in. Brands who use guerrilla marketing tactics aren’t lying or being dishonest; they’re simply using the most popular styles and trends to promote their products.

Let’s talk more about what that looks like.

Good products don’t need ads, just good creators

Product ads, product videos, product, product, product. Scattered throughout TikTok are thousands of brands selling products with product-selling ads. These ads are sometimes successful, but that’s the exception to the rule. Most TikTok users — especially the younger ones — don’t like sponsored content because it disrupts their For You Pages, and they aren’t afraid to call out the brands that create this content. The bottom line is that the younger generations, and by extension most TikTok users, have an extremely keen sense of when they’re being marketed to, and they almost never like it. An internal poll conducted among Khoros staff showed that roughly 80% of staff members that use TikTok stroll away from product ads within five seconds of realizing it’s a product ad.

The bottom line here is that young TikTok users are extremely savvy, making it difficult to reach them using traditional marketing tactics. This is why we see so many brands turning to influencers to sell products instead of producing traditional, expensive, and annoying ads. And if you already have learned how to start a blog and create one, now is the time to dive into TikTok marketing.

Influencers, along with unpaid cheerleaders who simply love a brand’s products and want to share that love with their followers, are ubiquitous throughout TikTok. Whether it’s a paid sponsorship, PR package or simply a good opportunity for a video, pages like Simplysalfinds and the hashtag #tiktokmademebuyit are excellent illustrations of how brands are using guerrilla marketing tactics to create better content instead of ads. TikTok users know when they are getting sold to, so why not get someone they are already logging on to watch sell for you?

The birth of guerrilla marketing

Why are people logging onto TikTok in the first place? Of course, the specific reason may differ from person to person, but there’s generally one overriding reason: To be entertained. To translate cellular signals of pixels and audio waves into positive feelings or empowering knowledge.

For many years — at least since the 1920s — successful marketers have played on this angle, getting potential customers to associate their products with happy, positive feelings rather than simply touting the products’ benefits. For example, Edward L. Bernays, whom History Today calls “The Original Influencer,” targeted the female demographic in his cigarette ads during the 20s and 30s:

Now, the product Bernays was promoting was morally questionable at best. They didn’t fully understand the effects of tobacco back then, but we do now, and we’re certainly not suggesting it’s a good idea to buy, sell, market, or smoke cigarettes. However, Brenays's method was revolutionary. The social stigma of the 1920s dictated that smoking was “manly,” and Bernays’s campaign set out to change that. During the 1929 Easter Day Parade, Bernays enlisted his secretary, Bertha Hunt, to pose as a women’s rights activist and recruit nine other women to march up and down Fifth Avenue in New York, chain-smoking cigarettes. 

This stunt set the press ablaze. However, neither Bernays nor American Tobacco was ever mentioned in any of the press reports — and that was by design. Bernays needed people to believe that smoking was a female liberation action, not just a marketing stunt.

Bernays’s guerrilla marketing stunt worked. According to the National Library of Medicine estimates, smoking rates among the female population rose from 5% in 1924 to 12% in 1929.

Capture purpose, not attention spans

Why did Bernays’s cigarette girl stunt work? One reasonable deduction is that it was a real attention-getter and spoke to the purpose of what kind of lifestyle women wanted at the time. We can take a lesson from this about what’s important in a TikTok campaign. Any marketer will tell you that you only have a few seconds — maybe just a single second — to get someone’s attention on TikTok before they scroll on. This idea is repeated, reworked, and regurgitated on college campuses, business seminars, and online courses.

This idea is an excellent introduction to the way marketers could be thinking about how they make content, but recent data supports a more nuanced approach. As psychologist Gemma Briggs puts it, “‘average attention span’ is pretty meaningless. It's very much task-dependent. How much attention we apply to a task will vary depending on what the task demand is.

How much time you have to capture someone’s attention is, therefore, based on context. Bernays did something so provocative that people were willing to read full newspaper articles about it. Even if people had longer attention spans back then, this is still quite the accomplishment. It speaks to the idea that if a campaign really strikes a chord, people are willing to stop scrolling, even if it’s just briefly, to take a look.

In the context of TikTok, remember why people open the app in the first place: a human desire for entertainment, knowledge, or connection. Ask yourself: how would my brand’s content fit into the TikTok tertiary of entertainment, knowledge, or connection wants? Answer these questions and you can unlock the power of the platform.

Brands that understood the assignment

One of the most common pieces of advice brands hear about TikTok marketing is “make videos, not ads.” This is dynamite advice. You will need to make content that speaks to your audience — and to do that, you’ll need to avoid being obvious about advertising.

Here are a handful of brands that provide outstanding real-world examples.

Exhibit A: Mango clothing

Mango clothing posted its first TikTok video in October of 2020 and, at the time of writing, its account has amassed over 212,000 followers and 1.8 million likes. One video they posted stands out in particular:

@madelaineturner Hello? Hi. You’re invited ☎️ @Mango @Madeline Blake ♬ original sound - Madelaine

This video was made in partnership with TikTok user Madelaineturner, and it stands above the rest as it’s not an ad — not really. Madelaine’s page is full of short-form surrealist skits that blend together unsettling themes, cinematic flare from the 40s and 70s, and specific energy that has to be viewed to be understood. The majority of Mango’s other TikTok videos feature various outfits at photoshoots, and that’s it. As the viewer, you feel like you have a backstage pass to the creation of outfits that you could wear to impress anyone at whatever social gathering you choose.

In the Madelaine video, there is zero indication that you’re watching an ad until the very end. Upon first glance, all you are watching is a traditional Madelaine video filled with drain cleaner cocktails, nervous energy, and of course, Mango’s new spring collection for costumes. The Mango logo only flashes for 1.2 seconds.

The video to date has received over 24,000 likes and 100,000 views, and the comments left on the video speak for themselves:

Exhibit B: Red Bull

Ah, the liquid energy concoction in a can that most people use to study, party, or drive for more than 12 hours. Red Bull is synonymous with extreme sports and pushing the human body past its limit.

Their TikTok page reflects that; the videos exclusively contain lifestyle and guerrilla marketing tactics. Their first ever TikTok, posted in February of 2021, was literally just one of their social media managers typing on-screen saying,

“Gonna be honest…we couldn’t decide what our first TikTok post should be so I guess this is it lol.”

@redbullusa who’s with us👀👉 @lorenmutch #givesyouwings #womeninsports #typewriter #typing ♬ original sound - Red Bull USA

This video is the distillation of what makes TikTok such a popular platform. The video is casual, unmistakably human, and uses a sense of self-aware comedy that general TikTok users know and love.

The Red Bull TikTok account contains zero Red Bull ads. Literally nothing about why you should drink Red Bull. The only videos featured on Red Bull’s account are adventure sports and heart-pounding stunts. Their page speaks to the Red Bull lifestyle, not the energy drink itself. This makes it more relatable and easier to engage with. It’s fun, relevant, and highly effective.

Exhibit C: Bed Bath & Beyond

Bed Bath & Beyond joined the TikTok ecosystem in September of 2021 with a more traditional product ad style video of a store opening in New York City. It features commonly used elements of TikTok videos: Text-to-speech voice, a trending song, the works.

That initial video received a few thousand views, which, for a brand just joining the channel, is pretty good. However, by using a virally trending sound, Bed Bath & Beyond received over eight million views on a single video. The post was simple and had nothing to do with the brand. It was simply a Bed Bath & Beyond social media manager singing The reading rainbow theme song.


shout out to all the other social media managers 🤝

♬ bed bath and butterflies - Bed Bath & Beyond

When that video was published, that song had gone viral throughout TikTok, but the Bed Bath & Beyond version had one key difference: the social media manager was plainly singing the song to avoid violating copyright permissions for brands on TikTok. It’s important for brands to be very careful about these guidelines, as borderline copyright infringement cases can too easily go awry, and can even have page-ending consequences.

Using the Khoros platform to upgrade your brand's TikTok strategy

Brands can use the Khoros Platform to bolster their TikTok strategy in several key ways, including governance and in-app video creation.

Governance on TikTok

Managing the dissemination of information is challenging for anyone working in a cross-team system, and brands looking to craft successful TikTok content face an additional layer of challenge.

Relevant content on TikTok moves and changes at a lightning pace. A viral sound or trend one day is old news the next. How is an agile, enterprising brand going to keep up? Using traditional approval ladders, creating one video could take a week or more. Using Khoros’s marketing governance tools, everyone is on the same page in minutes or hours, not days.

In-app creation

It’s no question that TikTok’s native video creation tools are impressive, but from a brand’s perspective, having six or more people all huddled around a phone screen is less than ideal. Using the Khoros platform, a social media manager can build out the video with traditional video creation tools and have it sync up on the platform before publishing. This way, brands can more easily ensure content quality, gather analytics, and reduce publishing time.

Guerrilla marketing tactics have the data to prove they work on TikTok, and its social ecosystem will punish brands harshly if they slip up. Now that you understand the power of guerrilla marketing on TikTok, it’s time to start asking yourself and your team about the next video, not the next ad.

Get started with Khoros by scheduling a demo today.

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