Feb. 22, 2021

by Liz Leyden

When Kory Marchisotto told e.l.f. Beauty colleagues late in the summer of 2019 that her marketing team was about to launch a TikTok challenge aiming for a billion views, they had a couple questions. 

The first: What’s TikTok?

The second: Did she know how many zeros were in a billion?

 “TikTok was still new to everybody,” she says. “It was so preposterous that I was talking in billions.”

Marchisotto, Cosmetics and Fragrance Marketing and Management MPS ’09, had been hired as e.l.f.’s chief marketing officer earlier that year with a mandate to reinvigorate the 15-year-old brand. After plotting a new campaign, she thought that TikTok—brimming with wildly creative short-form videos uploaded by young users around the world—could be the perfect bridge for connecting with Gen Z. And the data matched her instincts; videos made by fans and tagged #elfcosmetics had racked up 3.5 million views even before e.l.f. joined the platform. 

And so, when faced with skepticism from her colleagues, Marchisotto cheerfully doubled down. 

The #eyeslipsface challenge debuted October 4, 2019 with videos from seven influencers scored to an original song commissioned by e.l.f., the first brand ever to do so for a TikTok campaign. With an irresistible hook—“Do that thing with your eyes. Let me see them lips. Attitude and gimme bass. Eyes, lips, face, wait”—the array of videos celebrating the three features making up e.l.f.’s acronym caught fire. “We were at a billion before the close of the first week,” Marchisotto says.

e.l.f. Beauty promotions for the #eyeslipsface challenge on TikTok helped generate billions of views. Photo courtesy of e.l.f. Cosmetics

But that was just the beginning. Thousands of TikTok users began creating their own videos, including celebrities like Reese Witherspoon, Lizzo, and Chicago Bulls Mascot mascot Benny the Bull. The song “Eyes.Lips.Face.,” by iLL Wayno and Holla FyeSixWun, surged onto playlists across the country, eventually climbing to No. #4 on Spotify’s Global Viral Chart. To date, #eyeslipsface has collected 6.7 billion views and inspired 5 million user-generated videos.

“It’s truly extraordinary,” Marchisotto says.

The campaign not only launched e.l.f. into the cultural lexicon, it also made clear the marketing potential of TikTok.

How the World Participates

Since absorbing teen karaoke app and emerging in its current form in 2018, TikTok has remained one of the fastest-growing apps ever and brought global success to its owner, Chinese tech giant ByteDance. But in 2020, the app found itself in the crosshairs of U.S. lawmakers and then-President Donald Trump, who raised concerns that the company might give user data to the Chinese government. Under pressure, ByteDance agreed sell TikTok’s U.S. assets to Walmart and the computer software company Oracle, but when President Joseph Biden took office, he halted the sale pending further investigation. 

Stars of TikTok (clockwise from top left): Charli D’Amelio, Aisha Mian, a celebrity dog, and Lizzo.

Despite this turbulence, 2020 was an astounding year for TikTok, which surpassed 2 billion downloads in the midst of the pandemic. Its 800 million active users range from teenagers dancing in their bedrooms to comedians spoofing politicians to the Tower of London’s ravenmaster. With a somewhat mysterious algorithm curating feeds for each user, anyone and everyone, —from cute puppies to a young woman sipping kombucha for the first time—can go viral. 

The communal aspect of TikTok, and all social media platforms, creates a unique opportunity within the marketing landscape, according to Leyda Hernandez, founder of the luxury-focused marketing firm C’est du Luxe and adjunct instructor of Advertising and Marketing Communications at FIT. 

“Social media is where the world participates,” Hernandez says. “It is a whole different way to market to a person, because you are kind of just walking into their conversation.” 

Whether tapping influencers to promote a product or embedding captions with questions that encourage participation, Hernandez says, brands are discovering myriad ways to engage users on TikTok—and bring potential customers into the fold.

“It’s a super exciting space to play in because it’s very young, it’s extremely creative, and it takes out a lot of the stodgy business, the normal marketing sales stuff, and really humanizes the brand,” she says. “But to be on TikTok, you really have to participate. There’s no way to be on the sidelines of the game.”

The Fleek Shall Inherit the Earth

Erica Francisco. Photo courtesy of nate

If Instagram is airbrushed, TikTok is exuberant. With content created around sound—whether lip-syncing, dancing to music, or speaking straight to the camera—its videos feel intimate and unfiltered. And here, the youngest voices have the power: 16-year-old Charli D’Amelio, the app’s most popular user, counts more than 100 million followers. 

Alexis Ardolino.Photo courtesy of nate

Last year, Erica Francisco, Advertising and Marketing Communications ’21, and Alexis Ardolino, Fashion Business Management ’22, worked as FIT interns at nate, a new app offering one-click checkout for all online retailers. The students gained marketing experience, but also shared their perspective as members of a generation that grew up online. 

Ardolino helped find influencers for nate’s #SendSmiles campaign, which spotlighted how the shopping app worked. Knowing that young users, including herself, value TikTok’s authenticity compared to other platforms, she sought participants whose accounts conveyed a sense of passion, for style or life or both. Then, rather than dictating the promotion’s content, the marketing team let the influencers determine their own approach. 

The nate app makes it easy to buy products online.

“We left the creative freedom up to them,” Ardolino says. “They were able to edit and produce the videos they wanted. We let them be whoever they wanted to be.”

Two Stars Are Born

Another part of TikTok’s appeal is that anyone has the potential to break out. 

One viral video can change a TikTok user’s life, dramatically increasing followers and creating the opportunity to become an influencer, a critical part of the social media marketing ecosystem.

Azra and Aisha Mian, both Advertising and Marketing Communications majors, began documenting their lives as twins on YouTube in 2014, chronicling their Albanian and Pakistani heritage, the challenges of high school, and favorite skincare brands. By the time they got to FIT, they’d built a community of 20,000 followers, a number that climbed to 300,000 after they created a joint TikTok account.  

Aisha and Azra Mian. Photo by Brian Doherty

Last summer, Azra filmed Aisha scrolling through her phone in an unguarded moment, laughing when she noticed her sister. The video blew up, receiving 80 million views and 14 million likes. Their followers increased to 1.1 million overnight.

“You can’t describe it,” Azra says. “It’s like your dream happening in front of your eyes.”

Since that day, the growth hasn’t stopped. At press time—but likely not much longer—they had 4.3 million followers. The Mians took the year off from FIT to build their  platform, getting an unexpected boost when they were invited by TikTok creator Tayler Holder (17.4 million followers) to move into his collaborator house in Calabasas, California. The venture, one of many content communities found across social media platforms, brings influencers together to work on joint videos and projects as a way of expanding and merging audiences.

 “There’s so much that goes into it,” Aisha says. “It seems like fun and games on camera, but we’re up from early morning until really late at night doing tons of work trying to grow the platform.”

Azra tackles the business side—overseeing emails and networking with potential sponsors—while Aisha focuses on the creative end, brainstorming video ideas and making sure they’re on top of the trends.

As they work to establish marketing partnerships—so far, they’ve done a couple dozen sound promotions, including for the Katy Perry song “Cry About It Later,” and campaigns for the 2020 movie Freaky, Motorola, and Garage clothing—they’re assessing each offer carefully.

“Just doing it for the money is where I feel like people go wrong because then their page turns into an advertisement, which definitely isn’t good,” Aisha says. “Eventually, the page will die out and people won’t like them anymore because it’s not as genuine or heartfelt.”

Studying the analytics, they’ve noted when the ads are more overt, views drop dramatically. In recent work with Garage, they’ve posted their typical content, including lip syncing and twin-related quips, while wearing the brand’s clothes and leaving a simple hashtag in the caption.

“Super subtle is the best way to grab their attention, especially for our followers,” Azra says. “They really love to know what we’re wearing and so in that way, the campaign is meant for us. We can promote it without it taking away from what we normally do while still giving Garage the attention.”

A Spirit of Creation

The pandemic has moved much of life online, fueling growth for influencers and platforms alike, and increasing motivation for brands to build digital communities. Since #eyeslipsface went viral, TikTok has “one thousand percent” driven demand for e.l.f., according to Marchisotto, with fan videos causing products, old and new, to sell out. To further expand outreach, e.l.f. created @elfyeah, a TikTok channel dedicated to content for Gen Z, featuring personalities, products, and entertainment like the recent reality show, Eyes.Lips.Famous.

The magic of TikTok, Marchisotto says, stems from its “spirit of creation.” 

“If you think about some of the other platforms that tried to do short-form video entertainment, they cannot match TikTok’s algorithm or the participatory nature of it,” she says. “And that, for me, is such a critical part of what continues to keep TikTok ahead of the curve.”