We at Fashionista often regard TikTok as something of a Cool Teen™-centric app, one that perhaps most explicitly caters to 17-year-old YouTubers who engage in light choreography to Megan Thee Stallion and ABBA from the nests of their childhood bedrooms. But that categorization is at best oblivious and at worst, maybe even a little reductive.
Look at it this way: The hit video-sharing platform, which is owned by Chinese technology company ByteDance, was the top-grossing app on the iOS App Store in the second quarter of 2020. With roughly one in six people in the U.S. now using TikTok weekly, it has, reportedly, 33 times more users than its closest director competitor.
CeCe Vu, TikTok’s lead of fashion and beauty partnerships, has her work cut out for her.
To put it quite esoterically, Vu is, essentially, the kind, benevolent gatekeeper for those brands, retailers and publishers that fall into the fashion and beauty buckets. Not only does she advise them on how to find success on the app, but she also works to identify key areas of growth throughout TikTok itself — neither of which are exactly clear-cut, given how dramatically the platform is growing, like the most ravenous kind of weed.
Vu joined TikTok way back in 2018, when the app was still called Musical.ly, managing creator partnerships and strategy for just over a year before jumping into the fashion and beauty side of things. On any given day, she may chat with Balmain, Vogue or maybe even JW Anderson about its latest Harry Styles-adjacent DIY challenge. “It’s a great chance to work with brands hand-in-hand to understand what they need, what problems are standing in their way and how we can solve that for them,” she says from Los Angeles, where she’s based.
As TikTok continues to dominate our screen time, and also, maybe, the world, Vu’s job is only going to be more lucrative. So we hopped on Zoom to chat about her experience, her behind-the-screen perspective and her most applicable suggestions for those brands looking to big it big on the app. (And really, that should be all brands.) Read on for the highlights.
You have such a wide range of professional experience across fields like entertainment and technology. How’d you end up working in fashion and beauty?
Surprisingly, I did not go to fashion school. I went to [the USC Marshall School of Business], to be exact, and my degree was in economics and finance. I worked in finance for a few months, just to realize it was not the path for me. And then I transitioned into entertainment, especially around social media.
My very first full-time position was with a video- and photo-sharing app that isn’t around anymore. My first big project was with New York Fashion Week in 2012. That’s where I found a wonderful intersection between tech and fashion. It’s just the future of communications, that we’re able to get content out there for people who are unable to attend these exclusive events.
I worked in social media primarily prior to joining Musical.ly, mostly on the agency side. Later, in 2018, I transitioned fully in-house to Musical.ly to lead our social media team. However, because we rebranded from Musical.ly to TikTok shortly after, in August 2018, I was asked to start my new role within creator partnerships. I was there for around a year and a half, and fully transitioned into the lead of fashion and beauty content partnerships in October 2019. So far, it’s been a very difficult, but very rewarding journey to build a combination of these two verticals on a platform.
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What have been some of the most significant changes you’ve witnessed in social media since you started?
TikTok is a breath of fresh air. The most rewarding, but I would also say the biggest change I’ve seen in my journey is when TikTok came to the table. The platform itself seems very intimidating for brands in the very beginning, just because the creative barrier is high and it’s more community- and creator-focused. So brands don’t really know how to enter, but that’s why my team and this job is very important. We help educate brands about the platform and how to enter the conversation in a seamless and authentic way.
We’ve seen that brands are now more open. They’re less aspirational. They don’t want to focus on just those picture-perfect glossy images anymore, but on how to build the conversations with the communities around them. And that’s more refreshing because that translates into brand love and brand trust, and that’s what everyone is aiming for.
That’s what JW Anderson did with that viral Harry Styles cardigan, right?
TikTok is about the story itself. That’s why brands like JW Anderson and that iconic cardigan made such a big buzz last year, because they know how to lean in. They understand that our audience is different but unduplicated compared to all other platforms. So they wanted to branch out that conversation in the most authentic way possible.
I’d always recommend participating in trends, like using a trending user-generated sound, or being educational, and that’s what JW Anderson did. They leveraged instructional content and showed the community how to knit that whole cardigan themselves. That’s very community-friendly, and the sentiment was really, really positive.
2020 was objectively the year of TikTok, yet so many fashion and beauty still appear to be hesitant to get on the platform. Why do you think that is?
It’s a learning curve, for sure. Because with TikTok, it’s all about video, and video takes a lot of effort, from ideating to storytelling — especially in 15 seconds or less, it’s even more difficult. However, it’s a place for experimentation. We’ve seen that brands that are embracing different verticals of content always succeed and find more virality.
But brands, especially in fashion, need to understand that virality is fun, but consistency is key. Brands have to take a little bit more risk. Fashion is very risk-averse, and that’s why our team is here to help. We’ve seen that brands had a chance to slow down and reflect over the past few months, especially when the first lockdowns started. The demographic has evolved a lot, and that’s actually attracted more brands to talk to the consumer of tomorrow.
How would you describe the demographic who’s using TikTok most prevalently?
Originally, I would say in the beginning of 2020 or late 2019, the majority of audiences on TikTok were either young millennials or Gen Z. It’s changed drastically over the last year. People have downtime at home on their phones, and also, they’re just curious about the app. They stay around and really, they feel like they’re addicted. They love the content, the refreshing feelings you get on there.
What does your role look like in a day-to-day sense?
We identify the brand partners and media publishers in the fashion and beauty space that would be keen to learn about TikTok, and that our audience would love to have on TikTok. We usually have onboarding sessions, providing product snapshots. And we work with C-suite and production teams to get their brands familiar with the platform and to share our creative and technical best practices: Avoid anything not full-screen vertical; keep your video quick, short, but happy; keep storytelling in mind.
We also do a deep dive into their current account, if they’ve been posting, and give a competitive analysis so brands can better understand the landscape in comparison to their other competitors on the platform. We also have a large creator partnerships team to work with brands for any elevation opportunities.
How can brands best find those out-of-the-box creators to partner with?
Well, first and foremost, we have tools for that. But my advice is always to use the app. You need to truly immerse yourself in it. And also, as I say, “train your ‘For You'” page so you can identify what you’re looking for. We also have the TikTok Creator Marketplace, which helps brands identify key creators for their campaigns with different metric offerings. That’s a great tool for them to look into for talent.
My advice for any brand is to branch out of just working with fashion creators. Even though you’re a fashion brand, it doesn’t hurt if you look outside your comfort zone to doctors, lawyers, comedians, artists, activists… There are so many different creatives from different paths of life.
Are there any brands you think are absolutely killing it right now?
Vogue is one of the key new accounts that’s making such great instructional videos. They’re also actually getting the community to participate with them, and they understand how to leverage original sound to make their content go viral on the platform.
Another brand I always go back to is Balmain because they were the first couture brand to have joined TikTok. However, they’re keeping up that momentum. They really understand the platform. They work with us very consistently to understand what’s new and up-and-coming, and who they can work with, in terms of creators. They understand that creators are different on different platforms, and they want to work with creators who are, I would say, “TikTok homegrown.”
Do you have tips for those smaller, maybe less well-resourced brands looking to best maximize the bang for their buck on the platform?
One brand in beauty that’s doing an amazing job with that is Kaja Beauty. They’re leveraging trending original user-generated sound in a lot on their content. They know how to participate in the trend, but how to make it their own. That’s the easiest way to enter the platform. Focus on content creation, and leverage tools we have in-app to help a small team make TikTok content a bigger focus for their social strategy.
What’s exciting to you about the fashion and beauty industries right now?
In both fashion and beauty, everyone thinks about the aesthetic first. Content has always been very polished. It’s carefully curated, and there’s that lack of vulnerability. So I’d say the biggest trend I’m very fascinated in is building that connection with the community — brands that care about what their audiences have to say, and that build trust and love that way. That’s why TikTok, as a platform, has a lot of features to help brands connect with their audience. You can respond to comments with videos, so that brands can develop connections with their community and reward audiences by answering their questions, or so that brands can show their personalities and let that, rather than just an aesthetic, shine through.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out in their career, looking to have the kind of job you have now?
The most important thing I always advise is to be nice, be kind. It’s important to let your voice shine through in your process. Don’t be shy about it. Really tell your story because if you don’t, you don’t let people know who you are. It’s always good to tell your story your way.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.