Strategy

Fame or Flop? How Brands Can Ride the Wave of TikTok Virality

by Courtney Chauvenne

By now, we all know that TikTok has overshadowed all other platforms as the place for products and services to go viral. How companies respond to this surge of attention and sales can make or break their opportunity to supercharge revenue and the public’s opinion of them.

TikTok stars’ and everyday users’ recommendations take off on the platform. The more authentic, the better; it is magic. As a result, trends often take on a new life. But such a huge flood of attention can be overwhelming to small and large businesses alike. And because social media moves lightning-fast, brands can easily miss opportunities for authentic connections with their audience. 

What We're Seeing

When it comes to capitalizing on virality, it seems big brands can learn a lot from smaller businesses. Take recent news stories featuring former MMA fighter and current viral food reviewer Keith Lee as a great example. In the Las Vegas area, Lee started reviewing struggling Mom and Pop restaurants, spending his money and asking for nothing in return. But with his unflinching honesty and delivery coming from a toddler’s plastic camping chair, Lee has gained 8.8M followers on TikTok and inspired the kind of loyalty that brings those followers from all over the country to try the restaurants he recommends.

Firing Up Frankenson's

One of these lucky restaurants is a pizzeria called Frankenson’s. After Lee visited the restaurant and reviewed their food, orders started flooding. The owner, Frank Steele, said that he went from scraping by on $400 or less a month to selling out of chicken wings and garlic knots almost non-stop. A single review made Steele’s dream come true and changed his life. 

The orders didn’t stop coming, so Frank and his staff got to work. Not only did the brand lean heavily into messages of gratitude, but when the line became hours long, they posted a TikTok apologizing for the inconvenience and asking for patience. People in the comments showed nothing but support.

@keith_lee125 Frankensons Pizzeria Taste test 💕 would you try it ? 💕 #foodcritic ♬ original sound - Keith Lee
@frankensons Please be understanding and patient. Thank you 💚 ♬ Aesthetic - Devonte Mayo
C'mon Chipotle

Some restaurants, however, aren’t handling the free press with as much savvy. Lee reviewed a custom Philly cheesesteak-style quesadilla from Chipotle based on the recommendation of another TikTok user, Alexis Frost. Since these two videos went viral, many Chipotle employees have posted response videos expressing their frustration with the number of orders they receive based on the viral hack. Some locations even posted signs that read “PROTEIN AND CHEESE ONLY ON QUESADILLA! No TikTok trends allowed.” 

Rather than rising to the challenge, as other restaurants have, Chipotle actively refused to make the customized meal for customers, effectively crushing the wave of excitement around their product. In addition, it was impossible to build the custom item in the app, where the quesadilla is exclusively offered as an online-only order.

With these roadblocks, Chipotle really opened the door for competitors. On January 7th, Chipotle announced through a video featuring Frost and Lee on their Instagram that the quesadilla hack would be available for purchase, but only in March 2023. Qdoba took advantage of the delay. They created a copycat quesadilla and posted a TikTok with the caption, “Don’t wait until March for your Philly-style quesadilla.”

@keith_lee125 #stitch with @alexis.frost “Philly cheesesteak” from Chipotle taste test 💕 Chipotle Sauce hack 👉🏾 @hasaneats 💕 would you try it ? #foodcritic ♬ original sound - Keith Lee
@qdobamexicaneats Don’t wait until March for your Philly-style quesadilla. #quesadilla #quesadillahack #quesadillas #steakquesadilla #qdoba #qdobamexicaneats #foodhacks ♬ original sound - QDOBA

It seems Chipotle’s only hope for capitalizing on this trend is because of fans’ loyalty to Lee. Here’s a look at some comments on Qdoba’s quesadilla announcement.

And for those looking for more of the feel-good gratitude such as Frankenson’s, Lee is already off and onto a new series with Mr. Beast, where they will be collaborating to publicly uplift local restaurants in Las Vegas.

What We’re Thinking

With these two examples in mind, here are a few key things for brands to keep in mind when navigating newfound virality:

  1. Pivot as quickly as possible, and lean into the free publicity.

When customers become interested in a single product or service, shifting resources toward that area in a timely manner is essential to catching the wave of potential profits. This doesn’t only mean ramping up production of a product or making a service more available, but also making sure your CX experience allows for the easy purchase of that product or service. 

Allow creators to do what it is they do and consider rewarding customers who purchase the product/service. In order to make the most out of the attention a trend brings, brands must understand what’s motivating the craze. Creating a new promotion strategy with the creator could help maintain that authenticity while giving due credit to the person behind it. 

  1. Keep communication open with customers.

Being honest with customers about things such as longer wait and shipping times will show a measure of attentiveness. As mentioned, transparency and authenticity are what TikTok’s audiences look for, and keeping an open line of communication meshes with this value. Your most valued customers will be willing to wait and take the journey with you.

  1. Show gratitude.

The companies that fare better in a storm of popularity are those who are vocal with their gratitude toward customers and the creator who brought them attention. This can be as simple as a social media post saying thank you or a gift without any expectation of promotion on their end.

Social media is an open door for brands to contribute to and strengthen their communities. And the attention gained can be life-changing, for better or worse. And we prefer better.

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