For the latest in consumer and industry news, top trends and market perspectives, stay tuned to Mintel News featuring commentary from Mintel's team of global category analysts.

TikTok’s mission is to be the leading destination for short-form mobile video and it’s popularity exploded in the US over the last year. It is currently the top-ranked free app in the App Store and the top-ranked ‘entertainment’ app, followed by Disney+ and Netflix. TikTok isn’t just competing with social media platforms for screen time; it’s competing with streaming platforms. Gen Z may drive TikTok usage globally but it’s not just US teens using the app.

Three demographics brands should keep in mind, per Mintel’s Social Media Tracker:

  • 1 in 3 Millennials have used the app; this skews toward younger Millennials, of whom nearly two in five have used the app.
  • 1 in 3 Hispanics has used the app as opposed to nearly one in five non-Hispanics—on par with Hispanics’ tendency to over-index in social media use.
  • 1 in 3 parents with children under 18 in the household have used the app; Dads over-index, with two in five having used the app.

In order to better understand TikTok’s role and appeal in the marketplace, we analyzed the platform through the lens of a selection of our core drivers of consumer behavior.

Experiences

TikTok functions more like a digital entertainment platform than a traditional social media network.

According to Mintel research on digital trends, adults aged 18-34 are significantly more likely to prioritize videos and social media than they are to prioritize staying informed –as reasons to use technology– and that can help inform why TikTok serves more as an entertainment platform. This is firmly based on the experience that the app provides, which is a constant stream of discrete videos, frequently with a theme of ephemerality and playfulness – where the latter is what is considered to be one of the core pillars of experiences as a consumer driver.

Technology is driving experiences and that ‘childishness’ and ‘playfulness’ have become key to relaxing and escaping, which helps to explain a wide range of ages enjoy the app. Playfulness is intertwined with elements of nostalgia, as the app frequently re-popularizes the audio of ‘old’ music and TV shows, such as “Obsessed” by Mariah Carey (2003). According to Mintel research on teen trends, more than half of US teens agree that they like the same kinds of things as their parents, which provides some insight into why we are seeing this exchange of cultural touchstones and contemporary technology play out in real time on TikTok as parents join in on the fun with their kids.

The implication for brands: In the battle for attention, time spent on TikTok means less time spent on other platforms. Having a TikTok presence doesn’t make sense for all brands but all brands can take inspiration and learn from what we’re seeing unfold and how it impacts the media landscape.

Identity

TikTok serves as a digital community comprised of subcultures.

Below the surface of how the app literally functions and what it offers, the essence of the content on TikTok is based on authenticity and that is often achieved through vulnerability, self-deprecation, and other unfiltered commentaries whether intended to be humorous or not. Two in five US teens agree that it’s more important to stand out than fit in. Gen Z’s hyper-awareness of their individuality empowers them to put their identities on full display, frequently engaging with the fluidity of gender, personality and other tenets often regarded as permanent. In particular, teens are leading the charge in changing how they see themselves, their actions, and the world, creating new vocabularies and taxonomies along the way.

Serving as the backbone to the digital communities on TikTok, the fast rise of creators on the platform can, at least partially, be attributed to the fact that amongst US consumers who follow influencers, being ‘entertaining’ and ‘honest’ are two of the most important qualities for an influencer to have in order for users to want to keep following them. While metrics of popularity and influence function much differently on TikTok than on Instagram, for example, the consumer motivations that have undermined the dominant, ultra-curated Instagram aesthetics have certainly carried over to TikTok.

The implication for brands: TikTok is a lens into how today’s youth interprets cultural trends. It offers insight into cross-generational dialogue amidst increasing economic, environmental, and social anxiety.

A TikTok presence doesn’t make sense for all brands but all brands can take inspiration and learn from what we’re seeing unfold and how it impacts the media landscape.

Rights

TikTok has become a means of crowdsourcing encouragement and emotional support.

The nature of empowerment on TikTok cannot be overstated, either, due to its core belief that insecurity can be frequently overcome through being authentic and in the moment. The state of being vulnerable on social media is intertwined with personal accountability and for many, comes from a source of wanting to publicly emphasize that they deviate from the dominant narrative. The trend of ‘auto-tuned confessionals’ on TikTok illuminates this behavior, as users relay anything from an embarrassing social interaction to a deeply personal coming out story through the medium of an autotuned sing-song cadence, which may come off as flippant to some but for the majority of the community, it characterizes the dark humor and vulnerable community aspects of the platform.

According to Mintel research on marketing to Gen Z, more than half of US Gen Zs agree that “social media shows the real me.” Whether it’s a physical or mental health journey, a personal tragedy, or even a personal achievement, people are celebrating themselves (and one another) by emphasizing things they may have initiated or accomplished despite societal norms holding them back. In times of global political unrest and universal threats like the climate crisis, individual actions will be important but people will also be seeking mutual support and inspiration. Platforms such as TikTok allow for a seamless, simultaneous existence of individual fortitude meeting solidarity.

The implication for brands: In the search for ‘authenticity,’ TikTok is a window into what vulnerability in a digital age looks like and further drives home the power of authentic storytelling.

What we think

TikTok is the embodiment of youth culture in a digital age. TikTok’s surging popularity reflects the use of social media as a coping mechanism—something that a lot of people, especially young people, seek. In a world where most of the content vying for our attention is fleeting, TikTok automatically creates a feed without users having to follow a single person. Unlike other social platforms, the “For You” page of curated content based on preferences is the first page of the app, rather than content generated by your friends. TikTok questions the primacy of friend networks and embraces engagement for engagement’s sake.

Alex Milinazzo is a Trends Analyst for Mintel.
Jeannette Ornelas is Senior Analyst for Comperemedia.