For the better part of a decade, marketers, content strategists and even data analysts have been tasked with distilling down the perfect branded Instagram post. The goal was to pin down the elusive winning formula, so that successful content could be precisely executed and infinitely repeated. It should come as no surprise, then, that those of us who have lavished such attention on ‘the grid’ are hard-pressed to loosen our grip on the alchemy of elements that we have found.
By now, we know it when we see it. The hallmark of the lifestyle influencer’s Instagram content is a heavily curated perfume tray, pierced by a blinding ray of sun. Or an acai bowl flat lay, or perhaps a meticulously posed full-body street-style ‘action’ shot. More often than not, the image is paired with a long, confessional, and seemingly unrelated caption, sometimes with a brand affiliation mentioned somewhere in the middle, or at the very end. Consider that the caption limit on Instagram is 2,200 characters.
Compare this, now, to the 100 character caption limit imposed by TikTok. Such a constriction is by no means accidental.
TikTok was not designed as another new frontier where the classic Instagrammer/blogger might venture to pitch their tent; TikTok was designed for something new.
The contrasting feelings evoked by TikTok and Instagram content are brilliantly synthesized by essayist Venkatesh Rao. Rao has coined the twin terms 'domestic cozy' and ‘premium mediocre,’ providing us with a useful framework for understanding the content strategy fault line that marketers are finding themselves tripping over as they attempt to make successful branded forays into the world of TikTok.
Rao links TikTok with domestic cozy, while positing Instagram as the realm of the premium mediocre. According to Rao, premium mediocrity “looks outward with a salesman effect, edgy anxiety bubbling just below the surface,” while spending “enormous energy preserving the illusion of normalcy.” Think back again to the casual shot of an influencer crossing the street, or enjoying a stack of sixteen pancakes in bed, or shaving her legs while fully dressed, teetering dangerously on the edge of the bath -- but laughing. Many of us have seen this content and thought, well that’s nice. The lighting is damn good, I could do with a pancake, her legs look amazing. But do we really believe it? Do we buy into it? Or do we ourselves feel somewhat on edge, a little uneasy with the knowledge of just how many shots that image took?
In stark contrast, while premium mediocrity “seeks to control its narrative,” domestic cozy “looks inward with a relaxed affect.” We see this clearly on TikTok, where domestic cozy thrives, and users “[slouch] into the weirdness...preferring to construct sources of comfort rather than trying to make sense of the weirdness in the environment.” On Instagram, Rao characterizes content as “edgily neurotic,” while on TikTok, content is “blissfully psychotic.”
What are brands to make of this?
The single most important takeaway for brands is that the Instagram formula cannot be parachuted into the TikTok feed.
While authenticity is often spoken of as being the hallmark of TikTok content, authenticity represents just the tip of the iceberg. More than that, TikTok is fundamentally unscripted and imperfect, it is a show-don’t-tell environment in which there is no need for captions with long explanations, backstories, and justifications. Brands must task themselves with partnering with influencers whose authentic connection to their products is immediately evident; which can be seen, heard, and deeply felt.
At the same time, brands must also learn to loosen their grip: on not only “the” formula, but formulas in general. There is no formula for TikTok; its success and popularity is directly linked to its outright rejection of tight narrative control. Brands will be most successful when they themselves embrace the TikTok ethos, and partner with the influencers whose content is the most free, the most fluid, and yes, at times, a bit chaotic.
Here we have examples of brands Braun, Estrid, and Maybelline successfully selecting influencer partners who are happy to think outside of the box when it comes to ways of showcasing a product in action.
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