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Caitlin Strandberg on Capturing the Elusive Gen Z Buyer on TikTok

A cartoon captures Caitlin Strandberg's expertise in understanding the Gen Z buyer on TikTok.

There is something magical that happens when talking about TikTok. With Caitlin Strandberg, a principle at the venture capitalist firm Lerer Hippeau, a kind of joy and lightheartedness emanates from her as she lists her favorite TikToks. The social media platform is so fundamentally important to teens today and Gen Z overall, but has also created a space for the general population to become creators and lurkers for good content. 

For a generation that is so self-expressive, TikTok proves to be a turning point medium that, unlike its proto-predecessor Vine, has legs in a few different ways: It upended the music industry, mobilized young, first-time American voters, and is an endless wellspring of creative content that people simply love to put out into the world. Brands are already working to create awareness in the app, and can even sell their products directly on the platform through Shopify

Strandberg’s firm works with, and invested in, some of the top direct-to-consumer brands like Allbirds, Warby Parker, and Casper, and continues to do so with Gen Z focused brands like Parade, a sort of Victoria’s Secret for a new generation. Strandberg quickly says no brand has been able to effectively use TikTok, but that’s not for a lack of trying: it’s simply that it is early days and Gen Z is a fickle consumer to lure. 

Here, in my conversation with Strandberg about brands using TikTok, we talk about brand virality and the importance of a continued relationship to keep momentum, which industries Gen Z have responded to on the platform, and why values—not necessarily a specific medium—may be what brands need to reinvest in trying capture the elusive Gen Z buyer.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

For the purposes of this conversation, do you use TikTok, and are you part of a certain community on TikTok? 

Strandberg: [laughs] I do use TikTok. I use it in kind of a funny way. I’m an observer. I’ve created one TikTok that I put on Instagram Reels, but I mostly just watch and observe instead of creating. I tend to watch comedy, entertainment, people doing skits, and a good amount of music.

What do you think is most compelling about TikTok for consumers and brands?

On the consumer side, TikTok is really interesting. It’s an interesting new platform. I personally don’t consider it to be a social network. I consider it to be a bit of a next-generation media company that relies on user-generated content. If you’re a creator, it’s a way to quickly and easily express yourself and put your ideas out in the world. If you’re a consumer of that, it’s a very entertaining app where you can spend just a short amount of time going through a lot of content, eventually finding something you like or that you’re interested in. It’s very engaging and I think it’s pretty authentic to the users.

I think for brands, it’s a really interesting business, largely because of the data that TikTok collects. As I said, I think it’s a media company. The amount of time and attention TikTok holds in the consumer’s day and mindshare is usually a couple hours at a time. It’s unparalleled. More people are spending time on it than Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, [or] even Snapchat. You will get access to an unbelievable amount of data that you really just can’t get anywhere else. You can see how long someone stays on a video. You can see who else they’re connected to. 

TikTok is like an enormous explore page, and it seems endless. What opportunities or challenges does that present for brands who are going into that space? 

You have to be compelling. You’ve got to be interesting. You need to capture users’ attention or a community or group of people that are easily distracted. You have to stand out among all the other distractions. It challenges brands to be creative, which they should be. 

Everything moves so quickly and the trends that happen on TikTok can happen within the span of days and then be over. How do you think a brand should keep up with that?

I think it’s all about harnessing opportunities. When I think of the goal of branding is brand awareness and getting in front of people, I don’t think it really matters that it happens in the span of four days or 40 days. If you’re successful here, you can have a massive amount of impressions very, very quickly.

And what that means is if you are successful, you should be prepared to take advantage of it and monetize it. It doesn’t just stop with having a viral moment. You can build a continued relationship with [the person who went viral.] And then that creates more contact moments with consumers, with your brand. You can kind of turn a moment into a story, into a relationship, into something else. 

How do you think different industries approach TikTok? Because when you look at some of the brands who have the most virality—Nike and Crocs— they make sense, but they also don’t make sense. It feels very much a product of the Internet. How do you think different industries should approach the use of TikTok. Is there one that has more success over another?

You want to think they are really interesting, cool and unique for Gen Z but it’s like any other type of consumer demographic: it’s the brands that they grew up with, the ones that they have lived with for a long time. It’s not necessarily the ones that are just emerging. It’s Doritos, Target, PlayStation and Oreo, Skittles, and Sprite. These are brands and products that have been around for 50 years in some instances. 

Gen Z has been influenced by what’s in their household. I expect that the reason these brands are so good and have so much staying power is that they’re smart about engaging with the audiences. The other thing is: you have to think of industries like categories and what medium is best for a category. TikTok is an amazing place for beauty and wellness. It’s visual, it’s video. Gaming is also very popular. That’s a great industry where you can kind of show where there’s a show and tell component. Apparel is obviously a big one, right? If apparel is self-expression, you’ve got Gen Z, which is arguably the most self-expressive demographic of all time. That naturally lends itself to TikTok. You have styling videos!

But I think the most impressive use of TikTok has been the music industry, which is funny because the music industry is pretty bad at adopting new platforms, new technology. 

I’m also a music journalist, so I’m familiar with how TikTok has upended the industry, but I want to hear it in your words.

What is the music industry? Content creation and discovery. Suddenly, you have so many young, talented people that want to put up their songs, their writing online. It’s a way for people like new, emerging artists or young people that are considering being artists to get exposure in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise. There’s “Heartbreak Hotel” by Abigail Barlow. She had said how she had all of these songs and no one would listen to them and no one would come to her shows. Then she started playing it on TikTok and people really liked it. It’s turned into a whole career for her. [author’s note: The independent 19-year-old pop singer has an EP and numerous singles but is still known for her breakout hit “Heartbreak Hotel” with the track garnering over 5 million streams on Spotify.]

That happens over and over and over again. On a younger side, Willow Smith has a very popular song called “Wait a Minute,” released in 2015, and it has become one of the bangers of 2020 with something like 300 million streams on Spotify. [author’s note: The track is off of Smith’s sophomore record, Ardipithecus. The resurgence of a track born in the Internet era is real proof of TikTok’s power of dissemination of songs and how integrating them into lip-syncing videos gains traction with an audience.] And then on the other hand, you have Ocean Spray, for example, which I just love. Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” suddenly being introduced to an entirely new demographic like Gen Z. Fleetwood Mac is interesting and compelling for them. There’s that discovery piece.

I think maybe the last thing is—and you’re also seeing this with brands—the more you can connect with your fans directly, authentically, and have almost a one-on-one relationship with them, the better. Musicians can’t tour right now. Maybe they can’t get to their studios but what they’re doing is using their home studios. Charlie Puth is a great example where he’s coming up with beats, has a little bit of a voice over, and he’s asking people to duet with them.

I’m really looking forward to Gen Z making my work obsolete as a music critic. It warms my heart that they get to find out about Stevie Nicks. If this is their entry point, keep going, they’re going to love it!

It’s fabulous! Stevie Nicks, she’s doing the Ocean Spray meme: she’s on roller skates, doing a circle, drinking Ocean Spray. No one’s asked her to do this but, just like everyone else, is having fun with it. And I think that means it can be a really fun, warm place. That it’s a good distraction from the backdrop of a global pandemic and what was a very divisive election. It’s a place where there’s joy and fun. Brands always want to be inserted into those moments, in those environments. But it’s still very early days.

With the Ocean Spray moment, why do you think it stuck and went viral?

This guy on this skateboard—it has all the undertones I think people are craving right now. It was fun. It was unexpected. It was delightful. It had a song people were familiar with, but it’s a woman singing. And then you have the contrast of this seemingly tough guy with tattoos on a skateboard but he’s doing something bizarre, which is drinking a whole jug of juice and continuing to look at the camera. It’s just fun. I think that was the reason that people liked it and shared it

Ocean Spray, when they knew it was going viral, they took it to the natural next step, which was to engage with him. They bought him a car full of Ocean Spray. They had their own digital moment with him, which I love. This guy, Nathan Apodaca, if you read about him, he’s usually working at a potato processing plant. He has a couple of young kids and he was making videos just to make his daughter smile. And so it’s a very heartwarming moment, too. Consumers love that. I don’t think anyone expected it to go viral, but most people can’t plan that reality. But it did for many of those reasons and then Ocean Spray took advantage of it and continued a relationship. 

Now they’ve got much more brand awareness just from how they’ve handled the relationship from start to finish. And on top of that, it took on a life of its own. TikTok is a place where you can take something that someone else has done, remix it a little bit and promote it yourself. You had teachers assigning extra credit to kids to go make their version of the Ocean Spray song!

What do you think both direct-to-consumer and legacy brands need to understand about using TikTok for brand awareness or part of the brand strategy?

I don’t think that there is a definitive answer here. I think we really are in the very early days of figuring out how to use TikTok effectively. Many of our companies—and we invest in companies that are literally at the forefront of the next generation of consumer trends and behaviors—even they’re experimenting on the platform. Some of these are Gen Z founders, too. 

How should you think about TikTok? I think you could say it is very aligned with the values of Gen Z. So, that would be things like what Gen Z rejects, like inauthenticity. They’re spontaneous. They’re very connected to themselves emotionally. They’re aware of the world and what’s going on. The most important threat to their life is climate change. They’re incredibly diverse. This is the most diverse generation there’s ever been: race, sexuality, socioeconomic; a very wide range of different types of people. There isn’t going to be a [one-size-fits-all] brand for people anymore. And you have to think about all those different customers. The days of the white skinny model are over.

Gen Z grew up in the Great Recession. Their parents were unemployed, their parents lost jobs. They were the first generation to live entirely online. Cyberbullying has happened to them and their friends. The Parkland shooting is something that happened. Up until COVID, there were more school shootings in America than ever before. They had the first Black president. That had an impact. It’s a really amazing new generation. 

Brands have to honor that and cater to that and figure out how to do it in an authentic way. TikTok is just one medium to do it in. I don’t even know if it’s about TikTok. I think it’s about how you get this new consumer excited. 

Special thanks to our friends at Shopify Plus for their insights on this topic.
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