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TikTok and Gen Z: A Look at How Brands are Successfully Reaching Young People

Updated: Apr 1, 2023

Every brand and agency is looking at TikTok wondering what it is, if it will last and whether they should be on it.

TikTok, formerly known as, is a social media platform for creating, sharing and discovering short videos, primarily centered around music. Since re-launching in 2017, TikTok has become the fastest-growing social media platform with unprecedented access to Gen-Z.

In Q1 of 2019 only, TikTok obtained nearly 200 million downloads, making it the third most downloaded app of that quarter. By Q2, TikTok had dropped to fourth place, with just under 160 million downloads.

The Users

Brands have started to take notice of this platform and begun using it for marketing purposes. With two-thirds of its users under the age of 30, companies have a unique opportunity to reach a new target audience of growing consumers.

Additional demographic information shows the audience of TikTok differs greatly from more traditional social networking sites. India holds majority share of users with approximately 120 million - the U.S. trails far behind with 40 million. Consequently, Android users are the majority on TikTok, with only 12% of users on iOS devices.

Average engagement rate among users is significantly lower than other social media sites, but retention rate of users is above average for social platforms.

The Initial Thoughts

Most of us aren’t daily users of TikTok. And by us, we mean older Gen Z-ers. Is this how elder millennials felt when younger millennials adopted Vine? Are we just behind the trend?

TikTok may be an app that works hard to make it seem like everyone is downloading, but our guess is that this app hits a very specific audience – much of which lives outside of the United States.

It's young and fresh, but also very different from the types of content we have seen on social media thus far. Only vertical video? Lip syncing?!

In our eyes, TikTok could be on the forefront of changing social trends and what it means to be authentic in reaching Gen Z. It could also just be a trend that we all look back on and cringe.

While a presence on TikTok may not align with every brand’s values, some organizations are embracing all of the fun and the weird of TikTok to take their brand awareness new heights in ways that are attracting attention.

The Makers



While many brands have been hesitant to establish a presence on TikTok, Chipotle’s CMO Chris Brandt acknowledged that almost half of the restaurant’s customer base consists of millennials and Gen Z, so expanding its social media presence was not viewed as a major risk – especially with TikTok’s rapid growth to over 500 million users by 2018. This meant that TikTok campaigns served as a significant opportunity for Chipotle to potentially build brand loyalty and engage with its young adult customers.


The #GuacDance challenge was started to raise awareness of Chipotle’s National Avocado Day promotion, in which it offered a free side of guacamole to customers who participated in the challenge on TikTok. Within just six days of the challenge, there were 250,000 video submissions and 430 million video views, which was the best-performing U.S. TikTok brand challenge to date. This campaign also led to Chipotle’s most successful National Avocado Day promotion. The restaurant served over 800,000 sides of guacamole, and its avocado usage jumped to 80% higher than average day consumption.

Chipotle’s TikTok challenges have all been paired with holiday promotions. The #ChipotleLidFlip challenge coincided with the restaurant’s Cinco de Mayo free delivery offer. Meanwhile, their #Boorito challenge is promoting the chain’s $4 burrito deal and a contest, in which the five users who upload the most viewed Halloween TikTok videos received free burritos for a year.


Chipotle is one of the best brands to exist on TikTok. It’s spunky and willing to break the traditional advertising mold. Realistically, how many other brands can get away with using an Adele song to promote chips and guac?

Ultimately, Chipotle’s use of TikTok thus far has been extremely effective in engaging its customers and promoting its holiday deals. Each campaign has resulted in more views and user engagement than the last, and the #GuacDance challenge specifically resulted in the Chipotle’s highest one-day digital sales and most successful National Avocado Day yet.

However, because these campaigns are relatively new, we can only really understand their short-term effects. In our eyes, these types of campaigns are great for bringing a new edge to Chipotle’s marketing strategy, and the value it brings to Gen Z audiences is worth much more than the day-to-day sales they’re able to make on these campaigns.

The Washington Post


The Washington Post’s venture into TikTok all began when Washington Post video editor, Dave Jorgenson, made an observation about the content on TikTok. Jorgenson saw no one was utilizing the platform to talk about the news. The Post decided to adapt to the culture of TikTok, and began curating original content for its channel. The content “memeifys” the news and showcase the office shenanigans behind the scenes of the newsroom. According to Insider, the Post wants to be the “dorky dad” of TikTok and depict its news content in a fun way that can appeal to the users of TikTok.


The Washington Post TikTok account has 210.5k followers and a total of 6.9 million hearts across all videos. Producing 124 videos so far, the engagement ranges from hearts in the low thousands to six figures.

The graph shows the growth of The Washington Post’s TikTok account in relationship to hearts. Hearts are the way people show they’ve liked a video. Both “mean” and “mean without outliers” were kept to show any discrepancies in the months that had viral videos. The graph also shows that the gap between “mean” and “mean without outliers” closes as it hits September. This means that the Post’s TikTok account gained a greater number of likes across many videos instead of just one. From September onward, The Washington Post’s viewership on TikTok grew significantly.


There’s something about the fun, somewhat cringe-worthy dad-like character that attracts audiences across platforms. There's also something unique about being able to see the people and the processes behind the content we consume on a daily basis. The Post will occasionally show news, but it also shows the staff's daily office lives in their own rendition of “The Office.” They have started to create inside jokes to attract larger views. Their main inside joke started in September about a funny relationship with “SPAM”.

They are creating an experience with news for members of Gen Z and this is gaining traction throughout the news community - painting a clearer picture of what these audiences look for in entertainment and content.



This all-star of TikTok account has made a deep impact of sports marketing and communications in their expansive reach on the platform. The successful transition of the NBA from to TikTok was aided by the fact this brand was already the most popular brand on It seems to embrace the fun-spirited nature of apps like TikTok to share highlights.

The NBA has an established partnership with Bytedance, the company that owns TikTok, to take advantage of in-app promotional software and to bring custom highlights in local languages for countries like Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Japan and Korea. So while this partnership may give the NBA a leg up on the platform, the organization has been dedicated to the short-video game since 2014, and currently produces 5-6 videos each day.


The NBA has taken TikTok by storm with numerous campaigns that generate high user engagement. Most notably, it has obtained 44 million views during All-Star Weekend and over 3,000 TikTok users submitted videos to their hashtag challenge.

Another successful TikTok campaign was the #nbahandshakechallenge. In this challenge, viewers submitted their coolest handshakes they have with friends with top responses were shared by the league account. In total, entries from this challenge were viewed 11 million times.

Finally, the NBA also has daily posts that include Mascot Monday, Talent Tuesday, Workout Wednesday and so on. The league also generated some buzz online on National Cake Day when they posted videos of mascots throwing cake into people’s faces. All of these daily posts in conjunction with larger campaigns have generated ample growth for the NBA’s online presence.


The NBA is all about hype. For a sports enthusiast and basketball fanatic, TikTok gives the perfect look behind the scenes of the NBA, while also showing highlight reels of sports content. They latched onto the idea of drawing in younger audiences and dedicated ample resources to creating regular content, campaigns and audience engagement on their channel that makes them one of the leading accounts on the platform. TikTok has allowed the NBA to show their personality in a more relaxed and informal manner, which Gen Z consumers value.

The Final Thoughts

When considering whether to jump into the TikTok game, or stay on the sidelines, there are important takeaways from the path forged by leading TikTok brands.

The purpose of TikTok seems to be primarily for brand awareness. While in Chipotle’s case they were able to generate immediate sales, there are also tangible long-term benefits of reaching a younger Gen Z audience with humor and authenticity. Social media advertising is becoming trickier as younger generations avoid online advertisements. By integrating their brand into content for entertainment purposes, the most successful companies on TikTok are able to hold consumer attention longer and get their brand at the forefront of people’s minds.

As Ad Age put it, Gen Z isn’t in the market to simply buy a product. They want to join a movement – even if it’s a quirky one. Successful brands on TikTok, and any platform, bring Gen Z into the marketing of their brand and make the advertising experience just that - an experience.

If you are an existing brand and like what you see, Contagious shared a few different ways to advertise on TikTok including some of the methods used by Chipotle, The Washington Post and the NBA. Hashtag challenges and brand takeovers are just some of the ways in which brands can reach audiences in funky ways on TikTok.

TikTok is not for everyone. Local brands, startups and domestic-exclusive brands will likely not get their big break on TikTok. However, the brands mentioned in this article have three key items in common: large existing audiences, a desire to make their brand more informal and authentic and a willingness to take risks.

In fact, there are many more brands and influences that are only minutely successful on TikTok, or not successful at all. In our eyes, success on this platform merely adds to the brand experience in a new way, especially among more international audiences.

Don’t force TikTok on your brand. Instead, make it something fun. Gen Z isn’t as interested in that picture perfect feed like their Millennial predecessors. They're looking for something more #relatable.


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