TikTok challenges have evolved beyond Tide Pods and into a compelling avenue for brands seeking to create meaningful interactions with social media-savvy consumers.
TikTok trickled into the mainstream in 2019 and has skyrocketed in popularity since, cultivating a short-form video content ecosystem nearly the opposite of that of its primary predecessor, Instagram.
On Instagram, which had its heyday during the late 2010s, an enticing brand presence was often one that appeared as elusive and aspirational as possible (think: the cool kids’ table that one wants to, yet despite their best efforts, can’t get a seat at). On TikTok, however, it is brands who are welcoming, witty — in some instances, self-deprecating — and in all instances, relatable, that rack up winning moments.
Simply put, Instagram coolness and TikTok coolness are two very different things.
TikTok, more than any platform before it, is tasking brands with emulating what consumers already are — rather than crafting the ideals consumers aspire toward — without seeming as though they are trying too hard to do so (because that level of perceptible exertion by a brand, especially on the consumer’s own turf, would be *Gen Z voice* ew).
Things move fast on TikTok — literally and figuratively — so this is no easy undertaking.
Take it from Evan Horowitz, who cofounded creative marketing agency Movers and Shakers in 2016 alongside Geoffrey Goldberg, and has helped brands like E.l.f. Cosmetics, Amazon, Red Bull and others spearhead successful TikTok challenges and campaigns, including launching E.l.f. onto BeReal in August, marking the first official foray by a brand onto the of-the-moment photo-sharing platform.
“At Movers and Shakers, our North Star is connecting brands and culture, so we’re always looking at how we can make brands more culturally relevant and cool,” said Horowitz, adding that helping brands forge and maintain successful TikTok presences is a process that often comes with a glaring learning curve. “Being too polished is something we coach our clients on a lot.”
One part of this strategy is the so-called TikTok challenge, which Horowitz stresses “requires a lot of choices that are the opposite of what you would often choose with successful social media marketing.”
TikTok challenges have emerged in part as brands’ responses to the phenomenon of organic TikTok virality, which is proving increasingly influential in fueling brand popularity and positive consumer sentiment these days. This is especially true in beauty, which dominates the platform. According to influencer marketing agency, Ubiquitous, 46 of the 100 most viral products on TikTok are beauty products.
Brands like Olaplex, Dyson and Glow Recipe are among those that have reaped the rewards of unsolicited, user-generated TikTok videos showing love to their products. In the case of the Dyson Airwrap, which Ubiquitous reports is the most TikTok-viral beauty product of all time, the hair tool’s meteoric rise occurred without Dyson ever creating an official TikTok page of its own, a testament to the power of the organic momentum the platform can facilitate.
Now, companies are delving into TikTok challenges as a means to raise brand awareness on their own terms — and it seems to be paying off.
Said Erynn Keefe, vice president of marketing at Derma U.S., who hosted Eucerin’s #28DaysofEucerin TikTok challenge this past February, “We’ve done challenges before on platforms like Facebook — they’ve never performed like this. There is something about TikTok, its style and tools and creativity, that just really works.”
According to data from Tribe Dynamics, Eucerin’s #28DaysofEucerin challenge, which encouraged users to share their skin and self-care routines, while emphasizing that it takes around 28 days to form a new habit, generated $21.2 million in earned media value, or EMV, during the month of February.
For reference, the brand netted a comparatively low total of $888,000 EMV on the platform for the month prior.
“TikTok has created a community that likes to — and can — participate in things,” said Horowitz. “[Brands] have moved away from just talking at the consumer, to making entertaining content, to what we now call participatory entertainment.”
The Top Five Beauty Brand TikTok Challenges, by Views to Date:
- K18’s #K18HairFlip Challenge: 11 billion hashtag views
- Wet N Wild’s #BiggerIsBetter Challenge: 10.4 billion hashtag views
- Olaplex’s #Olaflex: 10.2 billion hashtag views
- Eucerin’s #28DaysofEucerin Challenge: 9.9 billion hashtag views
- E.l.f. Cosmetics’ #EyesLipsFace: 9.7 billion hashtag views
In August 2019, Movers and Shakers launched E.l.f’s “Eyes, Lips, Face” TikTok campaign and contemporaneous hashtag challenge of the same name, marking one of the earliest — and to this day, most monumental — campaigns to hit the platform.
The main draw of the challenge, which became the most viral TikTok campaign of its time and even garnered unsolicited participation by celebrities including Reese Witherspoon, Terry Crews and Lizzo, was its corresponding, brand-generated original song, “Eyes. Lips. Face.”
Written by Grammy-winning producer iLL Wayno, and sung by Holla FyeSixWun, the song took inspiration from Kash Doll’s punchy 2019 single, “Ice Me Out,” and quickly prompted TikTok users besides those who were recruited by the brand to upload videos of their own to the sound, tagged with the #EyesLipsFace hashtag.
“We wanted to do something fun; TikTok was still in its infancy, and [the platform] was all about song and dance, so we thought, ‘Why not lean into that?'” said Patrick O’Keefe, vice president of integrated marketing communications at E.l.f.
Although “Eyes. Lips. Face.” was initially released as a 15-second TikTok sound, the brand partnered with Republic Records to release a full-length version of the song, and even a music video to match.
Today, the #EyesLipsFace TikTok hashtag has more than 9.7 billion views, 4 billion of which were generated within the first four months of the challenge’s debut, and “Eyes. Lips. Face.” peaked at number four on Spotify’s Global Top 50 Chart.
Since then, brand-composed songs have become a mainstay component of brand TikTok challenges, with Olaplex being among the most recent to release one in partnership with Felix Cartal, an electronic dance music DJ, as part of its #Olaflex challenge, which took place in August.
“Music is critical to unlocking success on TikTok. Getting the music right, making it catchy and something that can live on its own outside of the challenge is very important,” said Charlotte Watson, chief marketing officer at Olaplex.
For the #Olaflex challenge, Olaplex invited TikTok users to share their hair transformation videos, depicting their unique journeys to healthy hair in order to celebrate how far they have come.
The brand established a goal of hitting three billion total views of its #Olaflex hashtag, which it accomplished within 48 hours of launching the challenge.
“We were kind of tapping into TikTok’s overarching fondness around nostalgia, as well as the sort of appetite for transformation that is so huge on the platform — whether it’s in beauty or in another space,” continued Watson.
According to data from Tribe Dynamics, the #Olaflex challenge ushered in a record month of EMV for Olaplex, which netted $23.3 million total EMV for the month — a 191 percent month-over-month increase — $15.7 million of which was powered by the #Olaflex challenge.
Being among a niche group of beauty brands that amassed user generated content-fueled TikTok notoriety before formally establishing a presence on the platform, Olaplex has leaned into its existing community on the platform since launching on TikTok in April 2020.
“I believe one of the key successes to our organic strength on the platform is how closely our social and community team are to the audience and the community,” said Watson. “I don’t think you can replicate organic momentum. Paid, or encouraged, momentum is very different; our number-one objective with the challenge was just to drive awareness on the platform and grow our reach.”
Horowitz echoed Watson’s sentiment about organic momentum being irreplicable.
“A lot of brands come to Movers and Shakers and they say, ‘hey, we saw our product go viral on Tiktok,’ or, ‘we saw our competitor’s product go viral on Tiktok — can you recreate that for us with a viral challenge?’ And our answer is ‘no,’” he said.
That’s not to say brand-backed challenges don’t have value, though.
When done right (which usually means incorporating an existing TikTok trend, such as Olaplex adopting a transformation format, or E.l.f. bringing its own take to a hit song), TikTok challenges succeed in doing what Horowitz believes should be their primary purpose: raising brand awareness — not pushing a product.
“The best challenges are those that are about the brand itself, or some pillar the brand stands for,” he said. “There are other campaign formats that can drive product lift, but we only recommend TikTok challenges if it’s an upper-funnel campaign about brand awareness and equity, because those make for a cool story line.”
Two of MAC Cosmetics’ recent TikTok efforts offer both an example of, and an exception to, this rule.
In January, MAC tapped Cher and Saweetie for its “Challenge Accepted” campaign, which underscored a message of challenging the status quo and defying others’ limiting expectations.
As part of the campaign, the brand partnered with TikTok in February to launch its #MACChallengeAccepted hashtag challenge.
For the challenge, the brand enlisted 16 TikTok creators to duet a video of Saweetie’s in which the rapper tosses a MAC product out of the video frame for participants to “catch” in their duet, inviting them to showcase a MAC makeup look of their own creation.
“Unlike the traditional, product-based collaborations and launches that we’re known for, this was inspired by that more digital-first trend,” said André Branch, senior vice president and general manager of MAC North America. “We had creators from different TikTok communities — beauty, gaming, entertainment — jump in, and that helped us engage so many different people across the platform.”
In March, however, a product seeding of the brand’s newest MAC Stack Mascara spurred an unplanned, miniature TikTok challenge of sorts when an influencer promoted the product by uploading a video demonstrating the product’s high layerability.
As a result, a #MACStack hashtag organically took off, generating $282,500 EMV for the brand in March, and accumulating 59.4 million views to date.
“That was not a paid hashtag challenge with TikTok,” said Branch. “Every brand hopes to go viral, but you can’t really count on that happening. We know that product reviews work, and putting the mascara in the hands of people who authentically reviewed it paid off for us.”
In December 2021, K18 kicked off its first TikTok campaign, the #K18HairFlip challenge, which invited users to show off their best hair flip for a chance to win a Sephora shopping spree and K18 salon service.
The challenge, for which the brand contracted just over 200 creators and professional hairstylists with varying following sizes, generated $22.8 million of the brand’s total $28.6 million EMV that month, and garnered more than 11 billion views to date.
“With hashtags on Instagram versus hashtags on TikTok, there’s a much bigger level of discoverability on TikTok — trends are more often built there,” said Michelle Miller, K18’s senior vice president of marketing. “On Instagram, you’re following people, influencers and brands you already like and have chosen, whereas on TikTok, there’s kind of this element of the platform choosing content for you.”
K18’s strategy ultimately focuses more on cultivating sustained engagement than creating blockbuster moments.
“The big campaigns get you, maybe like, eight weeks of momentum,” said Miller, adding that one way in which the brand continuously engages consumers on the platform is being active in the comment sections of videos.
“On TikTok, commenting is such a big deal. I think like before, like on Instagram, you could kind of get away with just leaving a heart or leaving an emoji, but on TikTok it’s like, ‘OK, what’s the best comment we can leave? What’s the smartest comment?’ — people get so excited when they see K18 commenting something witty.”
Data from Tribe Dynamics backs Miller’s assessment that the momentum spurred by TikTok challenges is short-lived.
While Eucerin netted $21.2 million EMV in February from its #28DaysofEucerin challenge, the hashtag only generated $147,700 in EMV in March; Olaplex, MAC, K18 and others saw similar spikes and declines in EMV immediately following their respective challenges.
So, while TikTok challenges done right can certainly capture the attention of consumers, they often don’t hold it for long, and are thus best employed as a complement to a brand strategy that incorporates forms of steady outreach, as well.
And, as Horowitz points out, challenges that attempt to emulate organic virality or center around a specific product are less appetizing to the average TikTok savant.
“When you’re doing a viral challenge, what you’re trying to do is get the general public to make your ads for you, which they will do, but only if it’s a cool ad and it’s accessible,” said Horowitz. “If you’re just asking people to showcase your product, one: they probably don’t have it and two: it just feels too much like they’re making an ad, so it’s not an inviting challenge that people are going to want to participate in.”