Is your brand ready for a TikTok ban? How to plan, prepare and pivot.

by | Aug 4, 2020 | Analysis, Public Relations

TikTok is the new social media sensation, making major outlets like Instagram and Facebook seem quaint and old-fashioned. The app has particularly experienced a surge in popularity with Generation Z users.

As such, many companies are eager to jump at the opportunity to focus their social media marketing efforts on TikTok. Attracting and retaining the loyalty of young consumers can potentially be the key to a long-lasting brand image.

Unfortunately, right now TikTok is making waves in the news for other reasons. High-profile members of the U.S. government such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are urging a ban on TikTok, due to the fact that it is a Chinese app. China is known for its censorship, surveillance and severe restrictions on freedom of speech and the press. Now, it stands accused by many of using TikTok to spy on millions of Americans.

Brands that have successful marketing campaigns on TikTok are rightfully worried about how to change strategies. Content creation and public visibility are absolutely vital to any company’s success.

In this article, we will talk about what this ban will mean to companies that have built audiences and brands using this platform, and how they can pivot and prepare if the platform does get shut down in the U.S.

What are the arguments for banning TikTok?

It should be no surprise that TikTok is viewed as a potential security threat. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has a reputation for oppressive tactics that limit public criticism of the government.

Most nation-state cyberattacks originate in China, and countries around the world have noted the proliferation of Chinese doctrine and CCP-sponsored news articles. Many fear the consequences of what would happen if the CCP were to spy on a large portion of the US population.

It’s fairly well established that China is one of the worst countries for surveillance, freedom of speech and forceful indoctrination. They have the most breathtakingly powerful digital censorship system in the world, dubbed the “Great Firewall of China.” It relies not only on artificial intelligence, but also live, human monitors that block access to certain pieces of information.

If anyone is doubtful about the Trump administration’s ability to block TikTok, consider how successfully China was able to fully block Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Google, and Whatsapp and many more, with a population over 3 times larger than the USA.

Criticism of the government is censored in China, and citizens are not permitted to see information from traditional news outlets like CNN and BBC. One of the most censored topics in China is the Tiananmen Square massacre, during which thousands of protestors were killed. Since China is so good at controlling its citizens and preventing them from accessing information, it is difficult for anyone outside China to truly know what is going on from within.

Due to their control of the media, China can easily spin news stories about events that are happening internationally to manipulate its citizens into forming certain opinions. News reporters regularly receive harassment, violence, intimidation, and are even subject to murder and exile. It’s commonly known in China that it’s easy to be jailed for up to seven years in prison for saying the wrong thing, so most Chinese practice strict self-censorship.

How can your marketing team plan for a potential TikTok ban?

First of all, there is no absolute certainty that there will be a ban at all. President Donald Trump and Secretary Pompeo are making loud threats about taking such action. However, what really unfolds depends on whether there is solid evidence that the platform is truly a national security threat.

Another factor is retaliation. In an election year, will the current administration really want to risk that? The trade war between the U.S. and China has resulted in numerous back-and-forth sanctions so far.

For example, when the president placed a tariff on Chinese steel, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) responded with a tariff on pork and soybeans, one of the largest U.S. exports to China. Experts fear that when faced with a TikTok ban, China may react by placing a similar ban on major American tech companies such as Apple.

Right now, 83 percent of businesses rely on social media to bring in customers, so it’s hard to underestimate the importance of marketing in that area. Brands have great success with TikTok because it gives them visibility to an elusive and youthful demographic.

But if TikTok is indeed banned in the United States, there will be a mass exodus towards other apps. Your company will need to be aware of these alternatives if they want to keep the conversation open in their relations with the public.

As a result of these TikTok security concerns, many years have been switching over to alternatives. is Dubsmash, a German app with over 200 million users that saw a 235 percent increase in downloads last June. A close second is Triller, which allows users to create professional-looking music videos in an easy way.

As long as your marketing team stays attuned to these kinds of TikTok alternatives, you needn’t worry about the TikTok ban. Even though TikTok has benefited numerous companies so far, if it is banned you have alternatives. Furthermore, if your company can’t have content on TikTok, neither can anyone else.

Engaging and interacting with users on your website and social media is also necessary for companies to stay close to their consumers. Find ways to improve the user experience of your site as much as possible, and remember that user generated content on social media can ultimately influence customers the most.

With that being said, it’s also very important to make sure that all your existing content on TikTok or any of the alternatives is backed up. Do you have a specific video that resonates with your customers? There’s a way to automatically back that up on your computer: the TikTok app has a built-in download button on its Android and iOS apps.

This feature saves the video you’re watching on your phone’s local storage, so you can still own your content even if the platform itself gets banned. It’s best to ensure that all your company’s original content is automatically stored in a cloud-based server.

Despite some common misconceptions, cloud-based servers are a very efficient and secure way to store important information. A cloud-based server is particularly effective for companies looking to grow or scale up their data usage.

What are the implications for the future?

We are witnessing a very real “Tech Cold War,” in which China and the U.S. battle each other for dominance in the production of technology and battle in the form of sanctions and tariffs.

Nation-state attacks, or cyberattacks led by international government entities, continue to alarm authorities worldwide. The threat of hackers has made federal cybersecurity laws an important concern of the US and Australian governments particularly.  The Australian authorities in particular warned back in 2018 that TikTok could be sharing the information of Australian citizens with Beijing.

Every citizen has seen how digital marketing is capable of presenting them with the perfect ads and products based on their past behavior and sometimes even their conversations. It is frightening to imagine what would happen if this ability was harnessed for something more sinister, such as surveilling citizens or ensuring that they form certain opinions by restricting their access to information.

Rightfully so, and especially in this environment where many citizens are becoming very concerned with their online privacy. With everyday household objects increasingly incorporating WiFi into their design—referred to as the “Internet of Things”—the fear of being surveilled is a very valid one. While estimates vary, many experts state that the number of internet-connected devices will reach 25 billion globally by 2021.

So, will TikTok actually be banned?

The Federal government was successful in banning Huawei after it was discovered that Beijing forced the company to install spyware on all its phones. This was a much more difficult issue than TikTok, as Huawei is heavily involved in building 5G networks. To this day, it remains one of a very few companies out there with the equipment needed to build 5G infrastructure.

Whatever happens, remember that it’s your company’s content and relationship with their customers that is the most important factor here. Whether it’s through Facebook, Instagram, TikTok or whatever new app will become the trend next year, it’s a given that consumer behavior will always change.

Staying on top of new developments that may affect your marketing strategy is a continuous process, but that’s also why it’s so important.

Dan Fries
Dan Fries is Founding Partner at Lakeview Capital in Hong Kong.