From Zero to Hero – Understanding How Users Made TikTok, TikTok

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From Zero to Hero – Understanding How Users Made TikTok, TikTok

TikTok is one of the fastest growing applications in the world, with around 800 million active users daily and has been downloaded over 1.5 billion times. It has experienced increasing popularity around the world, with content creators all migrating to the platform to palpable success.

Indonesia is no exception to the spread of TikTok, with a temporary ban in 2018 doing nothing to slow the sudden explosion the application experienced in the country around 2019. The emergence of TikTok has bled over into other social media applications that are popular with Indonesians, such as Instagram and Facebook, with videos going viral and encouraging people to create similar videos. 

It has been published that Indonesians spend about 29 minutes a day experiencing the app, impressive for an app that hosts and lets people create 15 to 60 second videos. So, what makes it so successful now?

Now, Everyone Can Have Fun

TikTok was not always so popular in Indonesia. In 2017, when the application first entered the country, it was viewed as a very low brow form of entertainment, an inferior product compared to the much more curated Instagram and Facebook. As a brand, at the time it was strongly associated with "alay" culture, an Indonesian term for a culture that celebrates cringiness and tackiness, often viewed with disdain by the mainstream and upper-class citizens.

Over time, however, TikTok evolved from a guilty pleasure into a fun way of making a fool of yourself, without pretensions. It wasn't until 2019 that TikTok experienced a boom and entered the Indonesian mainstream, celebrating honesty and creativity in a way that more curated platforms couldn't. Even the elite class, such as private school students, became avid users of the application, opening a whole new market.

So how did a brand that was so "alay'' before, rewrite its image of negative associations to becoming the giant of positivity and pure fun it is now? A closer examination of the platform provides some clues. In the world of an image conscious society driven by perfection, TikTok gives people the license to be themselves, comfortable in their faults and imperfections. This is evident from its accessibility and plethora of features, which enabled people to create the content they truly wanted, with the short video durations allowing people to consume so much in so little time, exposing more and more of these new creators to wider audiences.

Same Brand, Different Stories

The initial perception of TikTok as being "alay" and unfavourable in Indonesia is interesting when considering how TikTok became popular in the United States. In the United States, TikTok experienced a boom by offering a "greatest hits" of previous social media platforms such as Snapchat and Vine, with former Vine users flocking to the application, bringing along with them their absurd and meta sense of humour. Much like Vine, the application's users have developed their own brand of humour, an absurdist and "cringe" strain which is helped along by TikTok's accessibility and liberalization of content creation.

TikTok becomes an example of a brand that started out being perceived negatively by the mainstream, but which surprisingly turned into something larger than what it was intended for. Perhaps what marketers could learn from TikTok is that in the absence of a strong brand essence, consumers can take control and give the brand a new meaning that they can relate to. This could turn out good or bad for the brand. In the case of TikTok, it is a success story. Its user base redefined its purpose and is an excellent example of how new users, over time can rework what a brand means to them. Negative brand perception is not a permanent thing, and with the right strategy and some recontextualization, any brand can push upwards past the murk.