In the ‘00s, it was the celebrities with brand deals that could boost a fashion label’s sales. In 2010s, came the influencers, with highly-curated Instagram feeds that could skyrocket an emerging name to cult fame with a single #ad post. Now, it’s TikTok that has the ability to make a label go viral in an instant. But, thanks to its algorithm that prioritises discovery rather than clout, anyone — following or not — can help clear a brand's inventory.
Perhaps, the biggest proof of TikTok’s sales power came this month, when University of Alabama sorority hopefuls flooded the app with #BamaRush videos, which have since generated over 330 million views. While documenting their sorority recruitment process, and the outfits they are wearing in the process, young women became walking billboards, listing brand names like Kendra Scott, Steve Madden, Michael Kors, Princess Polly, Golden Goose, and Pandora — for free. With such fanfare, it took no time for fashion brands to notice the effect.
Overnight, jewellery brand Kendra Scott's website saw an increase in traffic, particularly from women in the 18 to 24 age range. “TikTok is an incredible platform because it's powered by what users want to see and provides a great understanding of what is resonating with consumers by being real and relatable,” says Mindy Perry, the chief marketing officer at Kendra Scott. “We jumped on the opportunity to engage with our customers, exactly where they were, on what mattered most to them — #BamaRush.” By the next day, the brand's social media team posted a "Choose Your #BamaRush Jewelry Look" video on TikTok, playing into the #ootd trend, and, later that week, Scott herself replied to sorority hopefuls in a video, saying: "I am absolutely obsessed with all your incredible looks."
While Scott is an established brand, sold at some of the biggest retailers across the US the Pants Store (which, as you may already know from the viral videos, doesn’t only sell pants) found itself at the centre of viral attention for the first time. Launched in the 1950s, the Alabama-based line of boutiques sells apparel targeted at various college and holiday activities, like sorority rush week. For years, according to owner Michael Gee, the store has supplied students at the University of Alabama with clothing and sorority-approved attire. By the time #BamaRush hit the TikTokverse, the sorority-ready clothes were already sold out. Regardless, over the past week, the brand’s sales across its five boutiques and the online store surged by 400%, according to Gee.
With an estimated 689 million users, TikTok’s power to sell products was palpable even prior to this phenomenon. The hashtag #haul has garnered over 10 billion views, while #tiktokmademebuyit has amassed more than 4.6 billion views, according to TikTok. Its algorithm is built for users to discover things they are most interested in, instead of feeding them content from people they already follow. Consequently, users can much more easily get their eyes on brands outside of their bubble, which, according to a TikTok spokesperson, is a “huge advantage in driving purchases.”
It also makes it impossible to guess which brand will go viral next, with independent brands like House of Sunny and With Jéan seeing record numbers, alongside mass companies like Zara and Aritzia.
Take, for instance, Lirika Matoshi’s strawberry dress. After model Tess Holliday wore it on the red carpet at the 2020 Grammy Awards (top photo), the flouncy style made its way onto the platform and went viral. The hashtag #strawberrydress generated over 125.4 million views; the unpacking video by TikTok creator Avery Mayeur has over 1.1 million likes. The same thing happened to With Jéan’s Alexa dress. After creators like Moe Black shared their reviews of the terry cloth frock on TikTok, the Australia-based brand, founded in 2017, saw shoppers flooding the website to get their hands on the $239 (£175) style. According to With Jéan’s co-founder Sami Lorking-Tanner, the platform helped the brand grow 68% year over year. The Alexa dress has since sold out and restocked several times. The Skims Lounge Slip Dress has similarly repeatedly sold out, growing over 110 million views on the app and a waitlist of over 40,000 people.
The app also helped throwback brands, like Gap and Abercrombie, do the impossible: reach Gen Z. Gap’s brown hoodie went viral earlier this year, after creator Barbara Kristofferson posted a video wearing the logo style, with the post reaching over 6.7 million views. Although the hoodie was not on sale, the demand inspired the brand to partner with TikTok to create the Gap Hoodie Color Comeback, in which users got to choose the colour for its upcoming release. While the style still hasn’t hit stores, Gap’s sales increased — coincidentally or not — by 29% as of May.
As for brands already popular with Gen Z, like Aerie? It only took one viral video with over 871,000 likes to overwhelm the brand’s supply of its crossover leggings. In November 2020, creator Hannah Schlenker, who now boasts over 880,000 followers, posted a video wearing the leggings. Since then, Aerie’s website reported an increase of 700,000 searches for the leggings, as well as a surge of 200,000% in Google searches, according to a report from Insider.
While the numbers provide every reason for brands to invest in TikTok, it's impossible to predict where the next viral it-piece will come from. And for small, indie brands, who may not have the dollars for advertising like bigger brands, this evens out the chances of blowing up overnight.