FeaturedPredictionsSocial MediaTiktok

The year ahead for User-centricity, by TikTok’s Elias Bassil

When looking for guidance on how to relate to customers, marketers can start by looking at a wall-cleaner-turned-plaything, writes TikTok META’s head of brand strategy, Elias Bassil.

Who doesn’t love Play–Doh? For everybody, Play-Doh is this colourful, joyful, playful toy that kids and adults alike enjoy. It develops artistry and nurtures imagination. It is a three-dimensional canvas for creativity and pure fun.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

Instead, I’d like to focus on the role Play–Doh was initially intended to play in our life.

It all started in 1933. During the bitter winters of the Great Depression, people needed to burn charcoal to keep their houses warm, as wood was too expensive at the time.

This resulted in a problem no one expected: dirty walls. And people needed a solution. That’s where the inventors of Play-Doh stepped in (at the time, it was called Kutol).

They introduced a cleaner solution in the shape of a doughy and malleable ball. Kutol could be spread out on the wallpaper and was so sticky that it would collect all the dirt caused by coal furnaces, instantly cleaning surfaces when peeled off. Not only was the product good, it was also simple, made of only water, flour and salt.

And that was that.

But, as with all products, Kutol was good until it wasn’t. Gas became a thing, and eventually, electric heating became the standard – and so, who would ever need the product when homes were warm and walls were perfectly clean?

As a result, the creators were left with stocks and stocks of it lying around with no purpose whatsoever. Indeed, that became a tough reality – from being the biggest manufacturer of wall cleaners in the world (that was a real thing) to servicing a need that no longer existed.

Until one random morning, when a close relative of the company founders, who happened to be a kindergarten teacher, was hosting an arts and crafts classroom and was in need of Christmas decoration.

And as she was looking for some, she stumbled across the outdated wall cleaner, thinking that maybe, just maybe, it could be used in a certain way to create unique designs for Christmas ornaments. And the kids in her classroom went crazy over it.

Flash-forward to today, when Play-Doh comes with a kaleidoscope of colour options, and nearly infinite creative and inspirational expressions, not to mention being part of a global company worth billions of dollars.

So what does Play-Doh have to do with marketing communication?

We can learn a lot from the founders and creators of Play-Doh.

How they didn’t allow a moment of major change to set them back, but rather leaned into the evolution of what the customers wanted from the product (less function, more fun).

Today, the more I hear us talk about the importance of user-centricity in those meeting rooms, the more I remember how Play-Doh took a 180-degree turn, falling into the hands of the most unexpected community and allowing them to take the wheel.

But the truth is, user-centricity has found what I believe is its near-final evolution. An evolution into what I’d like to call ‘community ownership’.

In other words, from brands crafting their stories around their users (Kutol previously building a successful solution around an inevitable need) to like-minded communities crafting their own stories around the brand (Kutol changing its name and industry into becoming a toy-store staple because that’s what the community decided).

And so we must ask ourselves: are we comfortable in putting the power in the hands of those who love, use and advocate for our brand’s products? I think to a certain extent, yes. At least the brands that are making strides in this new era of authentic communication are comfortable.

Working at TikTok, surrounded by smart and innovative people, and working with visionary clients, I’ve come up with a solid approach for 2022 to help brands that want to embrace the power of community ownership (I hope).

Be open to different opinions.

This is where we remind ourselves that people are not marketers, and can have their own interpretations of our work and campaigns. This acceptance simply adds to the richness of people and their creativity.

Far too often we hear about brand managers losing it because of the way their brand was represented or because people found a new use for their product.

If you haven’t seen what Emily Zugay has been doing with the most iconic logos in the world on TikTok and how (the smart) brands have leaned into it, you have missed out on a lot. Go and check it out. I’ll wait here.

Don’t make content for people to share; Make content for people to emulate.

This is the part where the best kind of engagement is seeing your audience excited to take part in your brand anthem, and adding their own flavour to it. And so brands must make sure that their work is invitational with limited barriers to participation.

One of the most recent examples of such thinking is the work we did for the UAE’s World’s Coolest Winter campaign. Instead of simply promoting the campaign, we integrated the act of participation, leveraging one of TikTok’s most wide-reaching branded solutions, to invite TikTokers in UAE to showcase their best-hidden gems around the seven emirates. As a result, people engaged, visited and recreated their own videos – ensuring 89 per cent of people felt involved and entertained by the brand.

Finally, allow room for the unplanned.

Yes, content calendars are great. Fixed ones, not so much.

Culture and creativity are moving at an incredible rate, the speed of the internet, and brands must leave room to be part of the ‘meme economy’. From an additional perspective, while we wait to uncover what people genuinely want and care about – sometimes, reading the comments they leave for brands is all the answers that brands need. And so, in a way, comments are becoming the new creative brief.

So that’s my single prediction: let’s welcome the new era of community ownership.