Updated: Jul 11, 2021
When will consumers call time on Gen Z's biggest internet celebs?
Last week, Hollister Co. announced the impending launch of its new label with TikTok stars Charli and Dixie D’Amelio, aptly named Social Tourist. The announcement, while not surprising given that the social media starlets have been Hollister Jean Lab ambassadors for over a year, showcases the rising popularity of TikTok stars among retail companies desperate to attract Gen Z consumers. However, in the age of social media, fame is fleeting, faddish, and commanded by early teens—a risky combination for retailers. So, the question becomes: Will TikTok stars prove to be valuable investments before their 15 minutes of fame are up?
Since the birth of Facebook in 2004, brands have faced the challenge of social media marketing; specifically, the art of attracting over-stimulated consumers. The creation of Twitter in 2006 and Instagram in 2010 only made this challenge more difficult, as brands were forced to expand their marketing across multiple platforms, partnering with bloggers and influencers in order to reach consumers.
Unfortunately, just as companies were getting comfortable with the power of Instagram and Facebook, a new kind of social media platform shot to the top of the App Store charts: Vine. The original video-clip app, Vine quickly became one of the most popular social media platforms on the planet, primarily among Millennials and Gen Z, reaching over 200 million users at its peak. Unlike Facebook and Instagram, Vine allowed users to post seven-second clips of just about anything, from dance moves to memes, and everything in between. Amazingly, people became famous, or “went viral,” as it’s now known, from these short videos, garnering millions of followers, and hundreds of millions of views. Suddenly, brands were fighting each other for partnerships with once-anonymous, now-viral stars like Lele Pons, Curtis Lepore, Nash Grier, and KingBach, seeing them as the gateway to Vine-obsessed Gen Z consumers.
However, after only four years of existence, Vine announced it would be shuttering in 2016. And, while many “Viners” moved over to YouTube in order to continue their content, their fame died with the app, leaving brands high and dry, partnered with now-obsolete celebrities. Gen Z then moved on to the next app, Musical.ly, where the same thing happened all over again: A boom and bust in fame among the platform’s viral stars, followed by the demise of the app itself.
Enter: TikTok. Launched in late 2017, TikTok has become one of the most popular apps on earth, with more than 700 million users worldwide. Of the hundreds of millions of users on the platform, a few became “TikTok famous,” and have since become some of the most recognizable celebrities for Gen Z: Charli D’Amelio, sister Dixie D’Amelio, Loren Gray, Josh Richards, and Addison Rae. Within the last year and a half, these five users have shot to fame, thanks in part to TikTok’s surge in popularity during lockdowns. With 115 million followers and 9.3 billion likes, Charli D’Amelio tops the list, followed by Addison Rae with 80 million followers, Loren Gray with 52.2 million, Dixie D’Amelio with 34.6 million, and Josh Richards with 25 million fans.
Now, thanks to their cult followings, brands are clambering to partner with these teens in order to capitalize on the enigmatic Gen Z consumer. Loren Gray has partnered with everyone from Burger King to Revlon; Josh Richards has deals with Reebok, House Party, and Ani Energy; and Addison Rae has partnerships with Fashion Nova, Reebok, Daniel Wellington, and American Eagle. Unsurprisingly, Charli D’Amelio has the most extensive brand portfolio of all, boasting deals with Dunkin Donuts, Pura Vida Bracelets, Orosa Beauty, EOS Beauty, Sabra Hummus, Morphe, Hulu, and has even published her own book, titled Essentially Charli: The Ultimate Guide to Keeping it Real, according to The Richest. Now, she and sister Dixie can add their own brand with Hollister to the list.
However, given the historical boom and bust cycle of trendy apps as well as Gen Z’s constantly shifting celebrity loyalties, investing heavily in TikTok stars is risky. The threat of TikTok becoming passé or another app replacing it is all too high—Keep in mind, Vine lasted four years and 2021 will be TikTok’s fourth year running. Not only that, but given Gen Z’s faddish nature and the overstimulation caused by social media, internet celebs may get 15 minutes of fame—tops—before their time is up and Gen Z moves on to someone new.
This is a lethal combination for companies. Brand partnerships are a delicate balance between capitalizing on trends and making sustainable profits. Social media stardom has made this balance increasingly difficult to strike. Now, with TikTok, brands seem to be blinded by their desire to reach Gen Z consumers, concentrating more on exploiting trends than on securing long-term profits.
Ultimately, Gen Z is destined to call time on the likes of Addison Rae and Charli D’Amelio, shifting its celebrity loyalties once again, regardless of TikTok’s future. Brands need to wake up to this harsh reality, focusing on the risks of taking on TikTok ambassadors instead of being blinded by their desire to capitalize on superficial celebrity. If they don’t, their collaborations with these social media stars could be dead in the water.