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India does business on TikTok

TikTok is enabling entrepreneurs and workers in small-town India to showcase their skills and become influencers—and companies are now wooing them for marketing campaigns

Shaikh Azhar (@ajjusk) at the TikTok Creator’s Lab held in Mumbai in June.
Shaikh Azhar (@ajjusk) at the TikTok Creator’s Lab held in Mumbai in June. (Photo courtesy: TikTok)

When Shaikh Azhar was 9, he started working as a helper at a bakery in Aurangabad. His father, a construction worker, had fallen ill, and his mother, who had a few odd jobs cleaning houses, was finding it difficult to run a household of four. Azhar was employed at the bakery at a salary of 11 a day. Even in 2009, this was paltry—he barely took home 120 a week, says Azhar—but it was something. Over the years, as he developed an interest in baking and icing cakes, he started earning more, and a few years later he was making 5,000 a month. Life was better, and Azhar was dreaming of going to college to study hotel management after his class XII board exams. But it didn’t happen, again because there wasn’t enough money to pay for college.

Today, 21-year-old Azhar doesn’t sound disappointed or angry; he’s absolutely matter-of-fact: “Bas, nahi ho paya." In 2018, his friends introduced him to a new app called TikTok, where people were uploading funny videos and getting thousands of views. Azhar, who had a smartphone, was fascinated and started uploading the usual lip-syncing videos popular on the short video-streaming app. Then, around 15 August 2018, he uploaded a video of himself making a “Tiranga cake" to celebrate Independence Day. The video got 4.5 million views, and Azhar realized he was on to something.

A performer at the Creator’s Lab event.
A performer at the Creator’s Lab event. (Photo courtesy: TikTok)

He started uploading more and more cake-decorating videos on TikTok, and soon he had over 500,000 followers on the app within a year (he has over 700,000 today). His hashtags were doing well, and he started getting invited by bakeries and stores in Aurangabad to shoot his videos there, because it was good publicity. The bakery he worked in at the time started getting more orders because of his semi-celebrityhood on Tiktok. In June, he was invited to be part of the TikTok Creator’s Lab event in Mumbai, and his life changed when he was discovered by Rich’s India, the Indian arm of global baking products company Rich’s (famous for their non-dairy whipped cream). Today, Azhar is a chef with Rich’s, working in their Mumbai office. “My colleagues are hotel management graduates from well-off families, and it feels strange to me that I am here. Life hi change ho gaya," says Azhar, who earns around 70,000 a month now.

It is well-known that TikTok and other short-video-streaming/social media apps like it—Vigo Video, Likee, Kwai—are sweeping India into a frenzy of creator madness and self-expression. But even though English-language media tends to dismiss these apps as frivolous and even dangerous—a December Bloomberg story said the “TikTok craze is minting celebrities and ruining lives in India"—the fact is that for anyone who bothers to look beyond the surface of viral TikTok videos showing young people in Indian small towns performing lip-syncs and funny skits and pranks, there is a glimpse of how India does business.

The platform (and, to a lesser extent, the other, similar apps) is giving people with zero exposure and even little money the confidence to share their work, showcase their skills—which could be anything from washing cars to making furniture to putting a tempered glass cover on a smartphone—and extend their networks, helping them attract business and earn more than just a living. In some cases, fame and financial perks, such as becoming an influencer in one’s circle, follow. There is pride in one’s work, and the desire to show it off to the world.

Surinder Singh (@gaspuriofficial) became popular when his customers started uploading his videos with the hashtag #gaspuri.
Surinder Singh (@gaspuriofficial) became popular when his customers started uploading his videos with the hashtag #gaspuri. (Photo courtesy: TikTok)

For Surinder Singh, a “goli soda" seller in the town of Kiratpur Sahib in Punjab’s Rupnagar (formerly Ropar) district, fame came second-hand. The 27-year-old father of one started selling bottled lemon-soda outside the town’s several gurdwaras around 14 years ago, as a way to look after his family when his father, a mechanic at a local two-wheeler factory, got injured in an accident. Business was all right, but he soon realized that he needed something special to set him apart from the other “goli soda" sellers. Singh invented the term “gaspuri" for his lemon soda, and started hawking it in a special sing-song voice. A few years ago, he noticed that people were clicking videos of him doing his “gaspuri" performance and some were even asking him for photographs and selfies. Finally, a friend told him that he was “trending on TikTok"—there was a popular hashtag called #gaspuri, and his customers had been uploading these videos on the platform. He had become famous without knowing it.

Haan, TikTok se dekh ke aate hain, mujhe dhundte hain. Canada, US se bhi log gurdware mein aate hain aur mere saath photo khinchwate hain (Yes, they come to meet me after seeing me on TikTok, even people from the US and Canada come to the gurdwara and click photographs with me)," Singh says over the phone. He has a strong Punjabi accent, and has asked his brother to accompany him on the call because he isn’t sure his Hindi will be good enough. He tells me how he recently went to a hospital in the nearby town of Rampur Sahib with his father, and on the way people recognized him from TikTok videos. Singh finally got a smartphone a year ago and created his own handle, though even today more videos are uploaded by his adoring customers.

The first beatboxer from Gujarat

Jesus Mehta, 24, started learning beatboxing because his mother told him there was not enough space for a drum set in their Surat home. On his way to college—a long bike ride—Mehta would put on his helmet and practise beatboxing, secure that no one could hear him. Today, while he has an engineering degree, Mehta wants to pursue a career in music, his first love, and the No.1 reason for this are his fans on TikTok. “Just yesterday I was at a burger joint and a young guy came up to me and said ‘you are that guy who does beatboxing on TikTok?’ and then he introduced me to his dad. That was awesome," Mehta says, breaking into a spontaneous rendition of Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh as it would sound if it was played on the saxophone—except the sound is produced by him using his mouth, lips and tongue. “I am the first beatboxer from Gujarat," says Mehta.

When I express a tentative interest in becoming a “TikToker", Mehta starts questioning me seriously: “Of course, you can. What are your interests? What are you good at?" “Err, books?" I say diffidently. “Arre, that’s a great idea," he says. “You can tell people who are not much into reading what kind of books they can start with or like five books that can change their life. Not many people are doing this right now. Okay, when you start your channel, just tag me and I will also tell my followers to follow you."

Mehta is proud of his unusual first name—his mother wanted to name him “after a god" but felt that most Hindu gods’ names had become common as first names for boys, so chose Jesus instead (as resounding a win for secularism in India as any). Mehta says he is set on a career in music and while he doesn’t regret his engineering degree, that is clearly his Plan B. He is starting to get calls from nearby cities to perform, and his mother has given her blessings for him to put everything into becoming a musician.

Tariq Khan (@ur_smartmaker), a creative photographer
Tariq Khan (@ur_smartmaker), a creative photographer (Photo Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint)

Using the short-video platform to turn a hobby or interest into a legitimate career turns out to be a recurring theme. Take Mumbai-based Tariq Khan, for instance. The 21-year-old from Govandi calls himself a “creative photographer"—and while he is currently appearing for his third-year bachelor’s in management studies exams from a private college in Mumbai, Khan is already setting up his own studio. He employs four people who help him conceptualize, shoot and edit his videos and he is planning to launch an app to help people take better photographs.

Khan started experimenting with his phone camera in 2016, clicking creative images and videos of people and objects using techniques from trick photography—such as making a person look like he’s swimming inside a large bowl, using unusual framing devices, and slow-motion reverse videos. They became popular on Facebook and someone alerted him that others were copying his tricks to shoot their own images and videos without crediting him, which is when he decided to jump into TikTok himself. Even though he joined the platform only in 2019, he has over 6.4 million followers today, with each of his videos getting over a million views on average.

Tariq Khan (@ur_smartmaker), a creative photographer, recently shot videos with Deepika Padukone during the promotions for ‘Chhapaak’
Tariq Khan (@ur_smartmaker), a creative photographer, recently shot videos with Deepika Padukone during the promotions for ‘Chhapaak’ (Photo courtesy: TikTok)

This year has been good for Khan—he got into the really big league when actor Deepika Padukone collaborated with him on videos in which he demonstrates his creative video skills, during promotions for her film Chhapaak. Padukone joined TikTok in January, and Khan was among a handful of creators with whom she collaborated to create videos that went viral on the platform. Videos tagged with Khan’s popular hashtag #ursmartmaker (which is also his username) have over 330 million views. Today, Khan, the son of a furniture-maker, says he earns over 1 lakh a month from brand promotions and associations on his page, and apart from celebrities such as Padukone and Shilpa Shetty Kundra (with whom he shot a few videos this month), he has worked with brands like Ola and Oyo Rooms on their promotional campaigns.

Brands have discovered TikTok, with its large user base—most of them young people with disposable incomes—and have been running targeted campaigns on the platform. Parent company ByteDance has created several formats for brands to advertise: short videos, brand takeovers, in-feed native videos, branded lenses and hashtag challenges, which are the most popular (essentially, contests where users shoot brand-specific videos with a product to get the maximum number of views and win prizes). One of the early ones, launched in February 2019, was the #UnBottleApnaSwag challenge by skincare brand Clean & Clear—it had 15 billion views by October of the same year.

During its Big Billion Days mega-sale in October, e-commerce firm Flipkart ran a campaign called #BigBillionStar that has got 16 billion views so far. Using pre-recorded short videos by brand ambassadors Amitabh Bachchan, M.S. Dhoni and Alia Bhatt, users had to record creative “duets" on the app, with a chance to win RealMe smartphones. “We are constantly exploring new mediums to reach out to India’s diverse consumer base. With the objective to create new touchpoints with our consumers, we recently leveraged TikTok for our The Big Billion Days campaign. We firmly believe in being where our consumers are, and we are exploring channels beyond mainstream media," says Vikas Gupta, vice-president and head of marketing at Flipkart.

And it’s not just consumer brands looking to leverage the user base—in July, the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) partnered with TikTok. As part of the collaboration, NSDC joined TikTok to leverage the platform to educate TikTok’s over 200 million users about government-driven skill development programmes and vocational training opportunities through an exclusive campaign called #Skills4All.

Subrat Kar, co-founder and CEO of Vidooly, a digital video analytics company which tracks video-viewing behaviour across multiple platforms, calls TikTok users “among the most sought-after for influencer marketing campaigns today". “Brands are now looking to cater to a new target audience that is mostly based out of tier 1 and 2 cities, and considering the fact that the majority of popular creators on TikTok are also from the same geographic locations, the demand for collaboration with them has seen a sudden rise. In fact, I would say that the competition is now between several short-format video platforms," says Kar, who points to Pepsi’s TikTok-specific campaign called #SwagStepChallenge, which had 50 billion-plus views, as one of the most successful campaigns on any digital platform in recent times.

However, Kar points out that there are challenges for brands and advertisers who want to engage with this audience, technical as well as those relating to the quality of content. The latteris something TikTok has always come under fire for, such as the time when the Madras high court temporarily banned new downloads of the app, acting on the suspicion that it was “promoting suicides". Kar says the brand is also low on data transparency. “TikTok doesn’t allow tracking any data related to performance (viewership, engagement, watch time, etc.), so our data tracking is only limited to the leader board of content creators based on lifetime followers…. Also, when it comes to content quality, the maturity still needs to come in comparison to creators on other platforms (like Instagram, YouTube and Facebook)," says Kar.

Views from the top
Views from the top

While social media advertising is on the radar of most big and small brands today, the platforms they choose vary according to the positioning and target audience of the brand. While niche, boutique brands prefer Instagram and Snapchat, it makes sense for mass market brands to target TikTok users (see box). However, the bad press the company has got due to early, questionable content lingers. It is also not exactly on everyone’s radar. “Probably the most significant impediment to TikTok marketing success has been that most marketers (and business managers) older than 30 have never heard of the platform," says a December article in Influencer Marketing Hub, one of the top global marketing resources.

“TikTok has a 200 million strong user community in India that spans across tier 1, 2 and 3 cities. India is a mobile-first country, which means that most Indians connect to the digital world through mobile technologies like smartphones. By 2021, there will be over 600 million internet users, nearly 470 million of them connecting via mobile phone. A huge percentage of people consuming content using smartphones has led to an explosion in vertical format video consumption," Nikhil Gandhi, head of TikTok India, tells Lounge.

The user uptick

In terms of numbers, TikTok is huge in India, with 200 million active users (fewer than WhatsApp, which reached 400 million in July, but more than Instagram’s 80 million). A November report by digital and app analytics company Sensor Tower says TikTok had crossed 1.5 billion downloads globally—and most of this was driven by downloads in India. “India has been a fast riser in 2019, driving up 277.6 million downloads so far this year, or roughly 45% of all global installs (of TikTok)," says the report. According to another report by app data analytics company App Annie, during the same period, the time spent by Indians on the app skyrocketed: Indians are second only to Chinese users in the number of hours they spend on TikTok—over 1.5 billion hours between December 2017 and December 2019.

There are several reasons why the app is so popular in India. First, looking at the short-video-format apps alone, TikTok, which started gaining popularity outside China only after the parent company bought over in 2017, had the first-mover advantage in countries like India where already had a user base. With its deep pockets and embedded video-editing technologies, it was able to quickly take over an audience that was largely not exposed to more popular global apps like Instagram, which were also moving quickly into the short-video territory with features like Insta Stories at the time. And, possibly, something about TikTok’s no-frills-Hinglish-medium approach clicked with users from tier 2 and 3 cities. TikTok's technology is not complicated, nor is it a heavy app, making it the ideal download for first-time smartphone users.

The popularity of any social media platform is dependent largely on the “network effect"—a well-documented effect in economics which predicts an increase in the value of a good or service to a typical customer with an increase in the number of other customers using it—and new Indian smartphone users joined TikTok because their friends were on it.

A majority of TikTok’s users in India are 18-35 years old and come from tier 2 and 3 cities, Aman Kumar, chief business officer at KalaGato, an Indian data intelligence platform, told in November. Other international tech platforms such as Instagram and Amazon have a clear bias for major urban centres, unlike TikTok, Kumar adds (this also explains why it isn’t so popular among social media users who are over 30 and live in metros—they never had reason to get on to the platform because their friends are elsewhere, on Instagram and Facebook and Twitter).

Chandigarh-based TikTok creator Abheshek Garg says the platform provides all the tools needed by a creator to make “kick-ass videos"—from music to editing tools. “The fact that the average video is 15 seconds long and the longest are 1 minute is what makes it really great because if you watch the app for 10 minutes, you have learnt 10 new things," says 28-year-old Garg, a fashion and lifestyle influencer with almost 500,000 followers and over six million likes for his channel @dapperlytamed.

An engineer with an MBA from Middlesex University, UK, Garg runs a plywood business in Chandigarh while devoting his weekends to making videos. He uploads at least two videos every day, and says consistency and a high frequency of uploads are key to gaining popularity on short-video platforms. “Because there are an infinite number of videos and users can keep scrolling, your video needs to come up frequently to get more followers and likes," says Garg.

“Another thing is this: The algorithm is such that even if you are a new user with less than 10 followers, if you use the correct hashtags, your content will reach viewers. In that sense it is totally neutral," he adds, explaining how relatively fresh accounts on TikTok seem to rack up the views and follower counts within no time. This is how it works: TikTok’s Artificial Intelligence-based algorithm analyses user interests and preferences through their interactions with the content, and displays a personalized content feed for each—and this is much more dynamic than, say, Instagram or Facebook feeds because of the very nature of the content: short videos that do not require deep engagement or attention.

Manpreet Kaur (@manpreetmannii), a beauty influencer on TikTok, has over one million followers.
Manpreet Kaur (@manpreetmannii), a beauty influencer on TikTok, has over one million followers. (Photo courtesy: Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

For Delhi-based beauty blogger Manpreet Kaur “Mannii", her TikTok career has saved her from a lifetime of drudgery. After completing her BA, Kaur started teaching at a school but found it boring after a while. She discovered TikTok and, using her mother’s “gharelu nuskhe", or home remedies, for various skin issues, she started posting videos on skincare and make-up. Today, for the 27-year-old with over one million followers and a blue-ticked “Popular Creator" tag, there’s no looking back. Brands like Sugar Cosmetics, online make-up retailers like Purplle and even financial services companies like Bajaj Finserv are reaching out to her for promotional campaigns. Kaur, who earns around 40,000 a month from promotions and lives with her parents in west Delhi, plans to start her own beauty business. “Now other platforms like Likee are paying me to be on their platform because I have so many followers. Accha lagta hai (it feels good)."

It’s overwhelmingly clear today that apps like TikTok are tapping into a section of the population that has historically been excluded from social discourse because of language, financial, caste and class barriers—and yes, some amount of snobbery too; the kind of snobbery that is still very much on display when the average Indian PLU (Person Like Us) talks about TikTok and its users. They tend to think of the app’s content as cringeworthy nonsense, but this couldn’t be further from the truth—from owning their skills to their sexuality, short-video apps have given Indians an unprecedented level of self-expression. This, really, is democracy at work.

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