From T-shirts to snack foods: Small businesses get real on TikTok

Small businesses are leveraging popular trends on TikTok to build their brands and gain global followings.

Unlike its older social media peers, popular content on TikTok tends to be more stripped down which can give small businesses a leg up, said Eric Dahan, co-founder and CEO of influencer marketing agency Open Influence.

“People crave that raw, behind-the-scenes experience, they crave authenticity. So businesses are able to build a much more human connection,” Dahan said.

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“That's an advantage [small businesses] have, where they get rewarded for having a more human voice. For the big companies it’s much more of a challenge for them to do that,” he said.

The video sharing platform has allowed some niche business ideas to flourish. But with the marketing opportunities available on TikTok also comes additional time and responsibilities for small-business owners to manage as they look to create and sell products while branding themselves in a way to stand out in the virtual — and ever growing — crowd.

“TikTok is really that pure discovery platform. A lot of people, sure they’ll follow their friends maybe, but their friends aren’t producing a lot of content. It's really the place to go in and just discover content from all over the world,” Dahan said.

Under the hashtag #smallbusinesscheck, there’s seemingly endless videos of businesses showcasing products and sharing the stories behind them. In a corresponding “Small Business Check” audio users use the background track as they highlight the name of their business, their products and the website consumers can check to make purchases.

Other videos feature a more blunt audio, uploaded by Laura Barnes, the Scotland-based owner of Woah Dude Designs. In the videos, creators show off intricate goods as a cheerful audio plays, “It costs that much because it takes me f---ing hours.” That down-to-earth voice has helped videos for some businesses go viral.

“It just helps provide a platform for businesses to be more authentic and really be able to share their story in a natural and fun way. You can market yourself, rather than a product,” said Meghan Cruz, the National Retail Federation's director of grassroots.

Small-business owners said TikTok gives them the opportunity to illustrate a narrative about their company, building a more intimate relationship with consumers than they may be able to on platforms such as Instagram, where the products are the focus.

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“With TikTok, I want to come out of my comfort zone a little bit and get people to know me a little bit better, too, as a founder,” said Jina Chang, the 27-year-old founder of the jewelry company Girls Crew. “I wasn't really comfortable in the beginning — I feel like more of a reserved person so it was hard for me to break free — but TikTok was just such a fun platform to be able to do that.”

Chang launched her Los Angeles-based business in 2017, starting out by attending local markets. She turned to TikTok in 2020 with videos showing everything from how she designed the products to how they were packaged, and the ShopGirlsCrew TikTok account now has nearly 108,000 followers and 1.8 million combined “likes.”

The company has also grown more than just its follower count. Chang said the Girls Crew team has doubled in size since 2020, and sales are expected to be five times higher this year than last.

Barnes, 33, who creates and sells her illustrations and crocheted designs, said TikTok has “massively increased” her social media engagement and sales. Just since launching her TikTok account at the end of May, she’s amassed more than 14,000 followers and more than 203,000 likes — which she’s largely credited to the widespread use of her catchy audio.

“I think the thing with video content, and the reason that it's becoming so important for small businesses now, is because it’s giving a face and a personality to your brand,” she said.

“With video content you've got a face, you've got a personal brand happening. And people, when they buy from you, feel a lot more like they're contributing to your dream and contributing to your brand, and they are a part of it. I think there's a great sense of community when you start to put your face to your brand,” she added.

As small business content floods TikTok, though, business owners say there is more pressure for companies to be creative to gain a following.

In order to be successful, small businesses should strive to create content rather than ads, said Mason Manning, a 19-year-old co-founder of the company Nice Shirt Thanks that has become a TikTok trend.

“If you're authentic with them, and you're providing real content to something that they can actually take away from, the turnout is going to be much better,” Manning said.

Manning and his business partner Hayden Rankin, 21, said TikTok was a crucial aspect of their business strategy.

“TikTok is such a powerful tool just for marketing itself,” Manning said.

“That's been our only marketing strategy so far, and it has worked very well for us. So if you're planning on starting a small business, TikTok is your best friend,” he added.

The custom T-shirt company launched in November, after Rankin decided to challenge himself to monetize two of what he considers the toughest fields: art and comedy.

“With Nice Shirt Thanks we had the ability to do that,” Rankin said.

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Their customers are asked to send over a blurb explaining what they want on a t-shirt. The company is then tasked with putting together a graphic image of the description and sending it back.

“For the first couple of shirts that we've sold on TikTok, we did ask for the customers to make a video with it. And then those videos have kind of taken off and then it became like a trend for people excited to get their shirts so they could make a video with it, and maybe get the chance of us duetting it,” Manning said.

The requests range from the more mundane, fan-based interests to truly unique requests. In one case, the founders were asked to put a picture of one of them eating ravioli on a shirt.

“That's probably my favorite,” Manning said.

“Now someone has a shirt of me eating ravioli on it, personalized for them,” he said.

They credit their success in branding through TikTok in large part due to the company’s young base. Just like the founders, most of the roughly 300 designers at the company are college aged.

“That's a really nice thing too, that our demographic is super young, we can relate to them, and we just work well with them,” Rankin said.

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Even older generations are looking to younger staff to guide them as they venture into TikTok to build their brands.

Margaret Barrow, the founder of the plant-based snack company It’s Nola, said a new 18-year-old coming onboard the company will help guide the business’s TikTok content.

The younger generation’s understanding of, and interest in, emerging platforms is helpful for small and new businesses, she said.

“I’ll be 56 years old this year, and I just don't have the same passion,” Barrow said.

The Brooklyn-based snack company launched in 2018 is not Barrow’s first professional endeavor. The business idea was actually born from her time as a college professor, when her students encouraged her to sell the snacks she was sharing with them around campus.

As she continues to grow her company, she said that It’s Nola will be more active on its TikTok account.

“What really lit a fire and resonated with me was the fact that TikTok is a place where we really do get to be creative. And it's free marketing,” she said.

Unlike on other platforms where users may be more apt to swipe quickly through photos or ads, on TikTok users may take more time to stop as they scroll to watch the videos, she said.

“There is a level of pleasure in it, where you're actually watching human beings do something,” Barrow said.