Lead and They Will Follow – What Marketers Can Learn From Tik Tok

The etymology of the word “fascination” is in itself fascinating. As it turns out, the word was first used in the late 16th century. It comes from the Latin root “fascinum,” which meant “to “bewitch” or “to cast a spell over.” Those meanings may still apply to our current fascination with Tik Tok, the social media phenomenon that continues to generate spirited conversations from Congress all the way to the family dinner table.

I’m not here to talk about the issues around Tik Tok’s Chinese ownership and whether Xi Jinping is sharing our personal data. Rather, I’d like to talk about Tik Tok as an example of how some creators on this platform have found the secret to effective marketing. And here’s that secret: To get people to pay attention, make something that’s interesting to watch.

It’s easy when we create a TV campaign, for example, to get caught up in branding or the messaging or the research and end up with something that for the average view is–and I’ll use a nice word here–uninteresting. Our spot may be a faithful execution of the creative brief, but if consumers don’t find it worth watching, it ends up being a lot of work for nothing.

Several Tik Tok creators stick out in my observation as shining examples of how to make it interesting. I spoke in my previous post about budget flexing. Most Tik Tok influencers produce their work on a shoestring. There’s no Hollywood director or expensive shooting on location. But what these top creators do works because there’s always an idea and they know how to tell a story in a compelling way. And in this environment, it’s often the lack of production values that make it interesting. 

SB Mowing is one I’m absolutely hooked on. Their Tik Tok episodes chronicle the adventures of a lawn guy who is single-handedly saving the world one yard at a time. Canvassing neighborhoods in the lesser parts of suburbia, he finds overgrown lawns and engages the homeowner with an offer to clean it all up for free. Astounded by the guy’s generosity and frequently wondering if this is some kind of a scam, the homeowner consents. We then get to watch the clean-up process unfold, all the cutting and edging and power washing. The video shows these transformations in fast motion, because it’s not uncommon for a single job to take four to six hours! In one episode, the SB Mowing guy uncovers a long stretch of sidewalk on the homeowner’s property she didn’t even know existed because it was covered by several inches of packed-down dirt. He’s the Superman of lawn guys, and will even clean up the lawns of abandoned houses just to improve the appearance of the neighborhood.

We get caught up in watching the SB Mowing guy because we like stories of transformation. As viewers, it gives us a sense of satisfaction watching these shaggy lawns that haven’t seen a mower in months or even years become beautiful. And we don’t even have to break a sweat. For us, it’s passive manual labor because he’s doing all the work. The other thing that makes these segments compelling to watch is that the SB Mowing man is the sort we don’t often find in modern times: a genuinely nice guy doing a good thing. His cheerfulness and humility make us appreciate people who do sweaty manual jobs for a living. His real compensation for all this free work is nearly eight and a half million Tik Tok followers. How did he do it? He has managed to make something as ubiquitous as yard work interesting.

Another guy who is interesting to watch is the fine artist Paul Kenton. In his Tik Tok videos, he paints stunning cityscapes on towering ten-foot canvases. What’s brilliant about these episodes is that he’s figured out how to make fine art into performance art. Watching him is a bit like getting to see how the magic trick is done. He’s the antithesis of the soft-spoken Bob Ross, the much-parodied host of instructional TV’s The Joy of Painting. Kenton paints to raucous music as he energetically flicks paint onto his canvas. The viewer gets caught up in wondering how can this this possibly be anything but an abstract mess, as at first the video shows tight close-ups of sections of the canvas. Only at the end is the complete painting revealed–an impressionist rendition of New York City’s Times Square at night with towering buildings and colorful neon signs dramatically reflected on the wet pavement as bright yellow taxicabs speed by.

Controlling what we see and when we see it is a key ingredient to making these videos interesting to watch. Another prime practitioner is 24-year-old comedian Khaby Lame, who has amassed a staggering 162.8 million Tik Tok followers. His own story is pretty interesting. Born in Senegal and raised in Italy, Khaby began posting on the platform after Covid furloughed him from his factory job. His rise has been nothing less than meteoric. By 2022, he had become Tik Tok’s most followed creator, was listed in Fortune magazine’s “40 Under 40,” and had signed a multi-year deal to represent the elite men’s fashion brand Hugo Boss. 

In his post, “Here Are Your Keys, I Think I Will Look For Another Job,” we see a tight shot of a black, low-slung luxury sports car as it drives very slowly over an uneven stretch of concrete pavement. The bottom of the car is so close to the pavement that we’re wincing all the while, waiting for that ugly scraping sound which never comes. The car stops and an agitated Khaby hops out, wearing a black Hugo Boss cap and jangling a ring full of keys which he urgently offers to the viewer. This is a story that begs more questions than it answers, but that’s what makes it fascinating. Is Khaby a parking valet who can no longer handle the stress that he might put a scratch on somebody’s 300-grand Lamborghini? Or is it his Lamborghini (he can afford one) and the whole thing is a joke? The enigma, not knowing the whole story, only makes it more interesting. It’s a lot of storytelling packed into 26 seconds.

If you’re embarking on a TV campaign–or any marketing effort, start by asking, “What’s interesting about this thing I want people to notice?” Watch how users interact with your product or service. There’s a story in how people experience what you’re selling you may not even know. Find that story and make the telling of it interesting. Better yet, make it fascinating.                       



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