What Ban? Brands Double Down on TikTok Shop


LOS ANGELES — As President Joe Biden signed legislation that labelled TikTok a “foreign adversary controlled application” into law and set the clock ticking on a potential ban this week, Selena Gomez’s Rare Beauty was putting the final touches on a different kind of project for the app.

On Friday, inside a prime Melrose Avenue storefront, the brand unveiled a bright pink, weekend-long pop-up in collaboration with TikTok Shop. At an opening party, influencers tested blushes and filmed short video content, with colourful gumball machines, a photo booth and a wall-sized video screen serving as backdrops. The pop-up opened to the public the next day, with young fans lining up outside the door for the chance to receive a free Soft Pinch Luminous Powder Blush. National security policy was not on the agenda.

Just two days before, President Joe Biden signed legislation requiring TikTok owner ByteDance to either sell the platform or shut it down by Jan. 19; the company has vowed to challenge the legislation in court but has reportedly said if it fails, it would prefer to pull the plug.

But brands like Rare Beauty aren’t slowing down when it comes to investment in marketing and e-commerce on the app. That’s partly down to complacency: US politicians have been threatening to shut down TikTok since the tail end of the Trump administration. Nine months is a long time, and legal challenges could delay a reckoning further.

But the surge in activity even as a ban inches towards reality is also a sign of how important TikTok has become for brands’ social marketing strategies – and since the launch of TikTok Shop in September, their e-commerce plans too. As brands like E.l.f. Beauty and Abercrombie & Fitch have proven, nine months is a long time when one product’s viral moment on TikTok can bring about a surge in sales.

“Brands are still pumping money into it,” said Jess Hunichen, the co-founder of influencer talent management agency Shine Talent Group. “We’ve not seen a shift in strategy yet from brands. [The ban] feels far off.”

Full Speed Ahead

The swift passage of the TikTok bill coincided with a surge in marketing and commerce on the app around Coachella and this past weekend’s Stagecoach country music festival.

Hair styling brand Beachwaver held shoppable TikTok livestreams eight hours per day from the influencer house it hosted during Stagecoach weekend. Its Western cow print curling iron was the latest of several TikTok-exclusive drops it has released since becoming an early beta tester of TikTok Shop in 2022.

Beachweaver hosts regular shoppable livestreams at least twice a week, racking up tens of millions of views. TikTok virality was a major contributor to its 30 percent growth in 2023, which brought the brand to over $100 million in annual revenue. The brand has also put substantial effort into giving TikTok feedback on TikTok Shop.

“We’re so closely tied to one another,” said Beachwaver co-founder and COO Erin Potempa-Wall. “They’re the first people I chat with in the morning and the last people I chat with at night.”

The company said it has no plans to change its content strategy or its investment in TikTok marketing and e-commerce.

TikTok Shop is rapidly becoming a key part of the equation for a growing number of brands, especially in health and beauty, which is by far the top category on TikTok Shop in the US. The category saw $396 million in sales over the six months ending on Jan. 31, and TikTok Shop ranked ninth among online beauty and wellness retailers in February, according to Nielsen IQ and Rakuten Intelligence. Apparel and accessories was the second-largest category for the time period with $376 million in sales.

“This is ramping up and has the potential to be one of our biggest sales channels alongside Amazon and Sephora,” said Leslie Hall, the CEO of beauty paid social agency Iced Media, which is an official partner for both TikTok Shop and Meta.

Adopters of TikTok Shop include a mix of major established brands and start-ups, including Benefit Cosmetics, Dieux, Glow Recipe, Tower 28, Estée Lauder and Anastasia Beverly Hills. Tarte Cosmetics, which topped TikTok Shop’s health and beauty category between September and January, generated an estimated 8.4 percent of its online sales through the app, according to Nielsen IQ and Spate.

Tower 28, which has seen a halo effect on sales of its TikTok-viral products like its SOS Daily Rescue Facial Spray, launched its TikTok Shop in the fourth quarter of 2023 after a Shopify integration made it easier to do so.

TikTok Shop is “still a very, very small portion of total revenue, but I think it’s promising,” said Tower 28 e-commerce manager Jessica Hou, who said “TikTok is probably the most successful so far,” in terms of social commerce. The brand also operates an Instagram shop.

Hall said that brands are still going ahead with and inquiring about the onboarding process on TikTok Shop.

“Right now, we are planning to move forward at full speed or even more than full speed,” she said. “This is kind of a path to the American Dream.”

A Post-TikTok World

Since the initial talk of a potential TikTok ban four years ago, talent agents have been aggressively encouraging their influencer clients to build up audiences on other platforms, including Instagram and YouTube, as well as newer mediums, such as Substack newsletters and podcasts.

But many have not had the same luck they’ve seen with TikTok. Switching platforms is notoriously difficult. Plenty of Instagram stars ported their content over to TikTok, but the app’s breakout stars were mostly new to users, and native to the short-video format.

The reverse is also true. Addison Rae has 88.8 million TikTok followers and 35 million on Instagram. Mikayla Nogueira has 15.6 million followers on TikTok, and only 2.9 million on Instagram, while Alix Earle has 6.6 million TikTok followers and 3.6 million on Instagram.

The real wild card is what happens to the short-form video format. Experts question whether viewers will simply shift their attention over to YouTube Shorts or Instagram Reels. Brands that have gone all-in on the concept may need to brush up on other forms of social marketing – or prepare for something entirely new to come along.

“I think half of the spend that they had set aside for TikTok would go to Instagram. Some of it would go to YouTube. And some of it would go elsewhere,” said Hunichen. “I don’t think it would be a straight replacement or TikTok 2.0.”

For many brands, the art of the pivot is nothing new. Beachwaver’s pre-TikTok claim to fame was its association in the mid-2010s with backstage styling to create the signature wavy hair look at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, which no longer exists in its traditional format.

The brand is ready to change course again if it has to.

“We’re going to go full-force until they shut the doors, and then if they shut the doors, then we’re just going to pivot back to the other side,” said Potempa-Wall.

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