Businesses on TikTok: How the Food Industry Connects to Gen Z

Businesses on TikTok have figured out their target market and exactly the content they want to see. What’s the first thing a twelve-year-old girl opening TikTok sees? Maybe an ad for MAC cosmetics displaying unrelatable, unrealistic beauty standards, leaving her upset and confused. Or maybe she’ll see an ad that looks like a normal TikTok of a girl her age indulging in Arby’s new menu addition.

The girl sees herself in this advertisement — it resonates with her. Fast food is attainable to everyone, so in an attempt to harness Gen-Z’s attention and loyalty, companies are upping their TikTok game. As a result, they are meeting their consumers where they spend most of their time — on TikTok — an app designed to target users ages 18 and below. TikTok has approximately 100 million active users in the United States alone with ~33% between ages 10-19 and ~30% of users between 20-19 years old. 

TikTok has proven to be an effective marketing tool for reaching new customers and building connections with existing ones ultimately translating to higher sales growth and stronger brand identity. As Gen-Z’ers wean off of Facebook but maintain a steady presence on Instagram and Snapchat, TikTok gives creatives of all sorts a chance to showcase their work. From comedians to the girl next door, everyone has a fair chance at TikTok fame, and the app’s egalitarian nature fueled by its complex algorithm encourages constant posting, interaction, and discovery.

How the Food Industry is Dominating TikTok

Influencers: Dunkin’ Donuts

Businesses on TikTok can pop up at the top of customer’s “For You Page,” TikTok’s discovery section. As food companies aggressively try to win over Gen-Z, strategies like dance competitions and meme culture have allowed them a seat at the table with the generation of young adults. And the return on investment is already coming to fruition. Dunkin’ Donuts, which has a very strong TikTok presence, secured a deal with major influencer Charlie D’Amelio; their partnership and launch of “The Charli” drink increased Dunkin’s app downloads by 57% and had a significant increase for all cold brew sales.


Grab a Charli Cold Foam and get ready for Charli to go LIVE on our TikTok at 5:30pm EST for a special surpriseeeee🙌 @charlidamelio

♬ original sound – Dunkin’

Hashtags: Taco Bell

Influencers are massive on TikTok, but so too are hashtag campaigns. TikTok hashtag campaigns generate tons of views and engagement. Taco Bell, which has nearly 1 million followers on TikTok was the social network’s first partnership for a national advertising campaign. The ad was designed to replicate the look of viewing a vertical TikTok on a smartphone and included a hashtag challenge to spread awareness about Taco Bell’s newest menu add-on. TikTok’s vertical format encourages brands to diversify advertisements’ nature. Instead of making traditional horizontal TV ads, the content feels natural in this new format.

Duets: Nutter Butter

Participating on the platform in a similar manner, businesses on TikTok like Nutter Butter have taken advantage of video formats such as the “duet” with influencers. Thus, viewers see the brand popping up in more organic-seeming content sprinkled with catchy songs and dance moves.

User-Generated Content: Chipotle

Realizing that half of their customer base is Gen Z and is much more ad advertised than millennials, Chipotle tapped into the “advertainment” angle, knowing that those who orders 3-4 times a week would be excited to partner with stars of this generation. For Halloween 2020, they did a #boorito campaign that received more than 4 billion views on TikTok alone. Through consistent posting, Chipotle shows up on many “For You Pages,” with their bio, “Less Tok, More Guac” winning fans’ hearts, and such innovative marketing campaigns have led to jumps in their share price.


Tag a health hero so they can apply for a free 🌯 @ 10amPT on 4/29. Link in bio. Avail while supplies last. US only. Terms apply. (@devonrodriguezart)

♬ original sound – Chipotle

More from the Freshly Digital blog: Should you use Twitter for brand building in 2021?

Businesses on TikTok Tackle Societal Issues

Gushers has built a fun and quirky trend to grow their social presence. The food brand known more by millennials focuses on organic content and relationships with their socially and environmentally friendly followers. Then, they trade “likes” on their videos in exchange for donations to the NAACP. As a result, following through with pertinent societal issues has proven a strong move for brands on TikTok.


#BlackVoicesCreate the future of change! Follow @zirab, @jonathanbynoe, @jailynisfeliz & @taylorcassidyj to check it out.

♬ original sound – Gushers

The Food Industry’s Negative Impact

There is an argument that unhealthy food on a platform utilized by minors could have effects on health. TikTok currently has no restrictions on companies promoting food products to children. By comparison, YouTube Kids, prohibits advertising any consumable food or beverage product. Snapchat requires specific nutritional information requirements for advertisers to follow, such as descriptions of the characteristics of the food. Most have also banned tobacco advertising such as promotions for e-cigarettes. However, TikTok has no ban on those products, either.

As fast-food chains monetize a platform that generates views from minors, most products we see on TikTok are considered unhealthy. On the other hand, their healthy food options are rarely, if ever, promoted. The power of unhealthy food promotion is immense, as they can cause future harm to minors’ health.


Many businesses on TikTok have figured out how to connect to the platform’s young audience. This is done through authentic, stylish, and shareable content. The food industry specifically has found a formula that works and connects to the youngest generation with purchasing power. However, as food companies rake in dollars, they should consider promoting products that will enhance the health of their customers.

Lauren Genender is a content marketing intern at Digital Detroit. She is a senior at the University of Michigan majoring in International Studies.

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