Four seasoning blends by Dan-O's Seasoning in a row on the side table of a barbecue.
Prior to the pandemic, Dan Oliver sold his Dan-O’s Seasoning blends primarily at flea markets and festivals, and in 2021, the company reported $5 million in sales. — Dan-O's Seasoning

Why it matters:

  • Video-sharing app TikTok connects businesses to a wider audience to improve sales reach.
  • Younger consumers flock to the social media site; so, for continued business growth, brands cannot afford to ignore the platform.
  • Gen Z is using TikTok as a search engine, so brand discoverability depends on having a robust presence on the platform.

Up until the COVID-19 pandemic, Dan Oliver sold his Dan-O’s Seasoning blends primarily at flea markets and festivals he traveled to from his home base of Lexington, Kentucky. Launched in 2017, the company was just finding its footing when a national quarantine forced Oliver to pivot.

He chose TikTok.

Inspired by entrepreneur influencer Gary Vaynerchuk’s advice to adopt TikTok as a brand marketing strategy, Oliver decided to give the platform a try. “My livelihood was in question. It was time [for] plan B, which was making videos,” Oliver told CO—.

Tapping into TikTok’s appeal

The timing was just right. The captive TikTok audience — during the early months of the pandemic in 2020, TikTok was predicted to have 45.4 million users a month in the United States alone — appreciated Oliver’s casual style. His videos went viral. The easy-to-follow recipes incorporating Dan O’s Seasoning blends were a hit. The “Parmesan Crusted Potatoes” TikTok alone has garnered more than 3 million views.

Dan-O’s generated $5 million in sales in 2021, according to the most recent numbers shared. The one-man company has now grown to a staff of 50. No longer does the business depend on travel to local markets alone. TikTok has improved its reach dramatically: Dan-O’s seasonings, from the original rosemary, garlic, and onion mix to its hot chipotle blend, are now sold in all 50 states, including at Wegmans and Krogers supermarkets. The company recently celebrated its 13,000th retail door.

Businesses like Dan-O’s like TikTok because the barriers of entry are relatively low. The platform’s skyrocketing growth is also appealing. In September 2021, TikTok reported it had 1 billion active monthly users worldwide. In the United States, Gen Z (those born between 1997-2012) prefer the app to Instagram, according to Insider Intelligence. Lured by the potential of hooking consumers when they’re young, brands are borrowing a page from Oliver’s playbook and flocking to today’s digital watering hole.

[Read: Inside How 3 Startups Generated Exponential Sales Growth on TikTok]

Nearly half (47%) of TikTok users have bought something they saw on the platform, according to TikTok Marketing Science U.S. Also worth noting: Nearly half of young people start their online search on TikTok or Instagram.

Testing the TikTok recipe

However, TikTok is not just another platform to shake and bake into social media strategies, said Neil Saunders, Managing Director of the retail division of research and consulting firm, GlobalData.

He cautions against a blind cut-and-paste strategy for all social videos: What works on Instagram might not translate well to TikTok. Instagram is a little more forgiving of curated look books, but

“most people who are on TikTok are there to be entertained. They want to see content that’s interesting and relevant,” Saunders says. “What they absolutely do not want is for that experience to be interrupted by spammy advertising.”

The younger media-savvy consumers who populate TikTok can sniff out inauthenticity in a hot minute, he said. At the same time, “TikTok users love to discover things as long as they’re relevant,” Saunders added, evidenced by the popularity of the hashtag #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt.

Oliver believes his recipes’ simplicity — like pan-seared scallops and bourbon peppercorn steak — and his bootstrapping story fuel Dan-O’s strong following (3.3 million) on the platform.

[Read: Forecasters on 5 Key Consumer Trends That Will Drive All Businesses in 2023]

The ingredients for success on TikTok

Riches might await those who can successfully crack the TikTok code.

Nearly half (47%) of TikTok users have bought something they saw on the platform, according to TikTok Marketing Science U.S. Also worth noting: Nearly half of young people start their online search on TikTok or Instagram. Given that TikTok is fast becoming the new search engine for Gen Z, brand presence on the platform is increasingly imperative.

As with any social media platform, millions of followers need not translate to millions of dollars in revenue — but in the early stages of growth, they help. Oliver saw sales “going like a rocket ship” during the first few months of his TikTok strategy and they have leveled off to a steadier pace. Dan-O’s Seasoning has converted a percentage of its followers to become mailing list subscribers. Over 200,000 have opted in.

 Headshot of Dan Oliver, Founder of Dan-O's Seasoning.
Dan Oliver, Founder of Dan-O's Seasoning. — Dan-O's Seasoning

While Oliver and other brands might have had a captive audience during the pandemic shutdown, it is unrealistic to expect the same years on. Influencer marketing helps spread the word — Dan-O’s has a Rolodex of about 500 influencers, Oliver reports.

Using influencers is a good strategy for brands who are trying to find their way around TikTok, Saunders said. “You want to stand out on TikTok and that’s quite difficult so sometimes you find a lot of brands partnering with influencers who are well-established on TikTok because they’re almost like a sort of sherpa that guides them on this path.”

Influencers can also decrease some of the relentless pressure involved in churning out content: With the help of a production crew, Oliver generates 12 videos a week. That load can get crushing but “it’s what keeps our needle moving, it’s what keeps sales going,” Oliver says.

Growth using TikTok: Compelling content that caters to the discovery element of the site

Brands that want to reach more audiences should also consider advertising and placement on TikTok, Saunders said. “TikTok’s algorithm is really powerful. Showcase ads have gotten much better at putting that in front of people that might like it.”

Ads don’t necessarily mean overt advertisements but compelling content that caters to the discovery component of TikTok. “The platform’s main discovery content tool, For You, is a personalized scrollable page feed of content,” says Jeanel Alvarado, Founder and CEO of media industry publication RetailBoss.

The challenge for retailers is holding on to traditional media channels while making room for the new. “It used to be quite easy to reach customers through traditional media spots and those still exist. But you have so many channels now,” Saunders said. “TikTok is just one channel within social so it’s a complex environment to navigate.”

“But the important thing about TikTok is that the consumers of the future are on it,” he added. “That’s why it’s so key.”

As for Oliver’s plans for Dan-O’s, “In the future, [we] may turn to bigger things than social media,” he said. He plans on keeping up his TikTok presence at least through 2023 with the aim of increasing his followers — and revenues.

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