Why TikTok Subcultures Matter for Your Brand

TikTok trends may often seem like a flash in the pan given the quick turnaround of the medium, but they do offer an untapped lens into the inner workings of Gen Z aesthetics.”Gen Z treats aesthetics as more than fleeting fashion trends. They are opportunities to role play and escape into different lifestyles that offer a sense of comfort. Gen Z have spent time, energy and money embodying aesthetics that connect them to others and forging digital kinships based on shared interests and goals,” explains WGSN strategist, Cassandra Napoli. And with the beauty content category garnering over 21.8 billion views, it is also a massive platform for brands that are able to speak to this audience correctly.

“Beauty is a cultural force. It’s hugely impacted by the communities and sub-cultures that surround it. As we see consumers continue to engage religiously in digital entertainment, beauty has followed suit and embedded itself into these platforms, apps and digital spaces,” explains senior creative researcher at strategic foresight consultancy, The Future Laboratory, Livvy Houghton.

As highlighted in Kristin Bateman’s article “The 10 TikTok Subcultures Shaping Fashion Right Now,” pandemic isolation fueled self-expression on the medium, leading to the rise of subcultures such as Dark Academia (Ivy League and Harry Potter-inspired proponents of literary classics and preppy fashions of the 1930s and 1950s who romanticize learning and secret societies), Witchtok (an incredibly diverse and modernized take on witchcraft and magick, blending it with wellness and self-care practices), and Goblincore (described as the “feral side of fairtyales”, it’s a celebration of nature, mushrooms, and individualism regardless of gender ). Akin to a globe in constant rotation, many subcultures birth other sub-categories, which in-turn fuse with a different genre to create a new, hybrid aesthetic. For the C-Suite, it may be a dizzyingly fast turnaround; for savvy trend analysts, it’s an exciting frontier of unknown futures and proportions, one in which the TikTok algorithm is the ultimate decider, hence the importance of hashtagging accordingly and choosing your collaborators wisely.

There is no singular dominating trend, but rather an ebb and flow of flourishing movements depending on the audience’s personal tastes. By giving everyone the same level of access to these subcultures via hashtags and the digital sphere, these movements have become even more inclusive than in decades past. Some are more aesthetically-driven, while others are grounded in musical (goth, punk) or activity-focused subcultures (gaming). For example, the resurgence of 2000’s emo reignited by Gen Z (#emophase has more than 766.8MM views) occurred in tandem with a rise in discussions around mental health and emotional vulnerability, and the release of new music material by original proponents like Hayley Williams, Fall Out Boy, and My Chemical Romance. The reflective and retrospective nature of a society forced into lockdown proved the breeding ground for emo to gain a new audience and traction. And while the term was used in a derogatory sense in recent years, the openness of younger generations in talking about their inner worlds meant that the expression of melancholy & co. needn’t be a sign of weakness, but rather authenticity. Visually speaking, emo expressed itself in a fusing of punk and gothic elements: black hoodies, neon pops of color, striped prints, choppy layered haircuts with dramatic side bangs, and studded accessories.

On the far more lighthearted end of the spectrum, the most recent hyped subculture are VSCO girls: athleisure-wearing, ’90s-fashion-adoring, eco-friendly young women that emerged in 2019, exploring the world with Fujifilm camera and Hydroflask in hand. Named after the photo editing app, their online lives are a perfectly curated selection of images. They dress in tube tops, puka shell necklaces, Vans or Birkenstocks, scrunchies, plus don dewy skin and beachy waves to emulate their ocean-side living. The coconut girl aesthetic has been coined the new VSCO girl of the summer—a medley of tanned skin, blonde hair, glitter tattoos, hibiscus prints, and froyo, underpinned by Y2K nostalgia. #coconutgirlaesthetic has 5.9 million TikTok views. Its lighthearted, easygoing approach is the perfect companion to summer dreaming and exotic getaways, even for those only able to reenact the fantasy from the comfort of their own home with store-bought items.

E-girls (the e is short for electronic) fuse goth, punk, and cyberculture with a kawaii twist. Avid members of gaming culture, e-girls date back to 2013 and the Tumblr era, but have re-emerged on TikTok with a sexy-meets-dark-meets-nerdy sentiment — think Harley Quinn-style pigtails, black bold eyeliner, fishnets, and dark lipstick. They will be avid consumers of anime, Japanese fashion, and cosplay.

Cottagecore, a celebration of rural, minimalist, and sustainable living, provided an antidote for a society ruled by digital screens and metropolitan living. In certain digital spheres, cottagecore has garnered criticism for celebrating colonialism and Eurocentricity, although it is not the only genre to have received backlash Followers enjoy television shows such as Little House on the Prairie or the writings of Beatrix Potter. The simple pleasures in life such as baking, gardening, tea time, and picnics are celebrated, as is a Laura Ashley style, meaning demure gingham and paisley printed dresses.

It’s not only teenagers being drawn in. Another recent viral trend is the cheugy aesthetic, described as someone who is out-of-touch with current trends, especially those of the millennial demographic, although the term also has caught some controversy for being largely aimed at middle-class white women. Others describe the term as a “millennial girlboss aesthetic”, conjuring up UGG slippers, cake pops, fruit-flavored vodka, and chevron prints. Despite the app being seen as a young kid’s proverbial playground, 66% of TikTok users are actually over the age of 25, so the millennial demographic shouldn’t be discounted.

In “The Rise of the Social Media Fembot,” Amanda Hess notes that “female bodies are mapped onto the social platforms they inhabit—constantly resized, customized and upgraded to please their followers.” Indeed, a majority of social media-driven trends are often played out on the female-identifying body, although some such as E-girl also have a male counterpart, while others with a more expandable aesthetic such as goth enable a cross-gender (or in some cases, completely genderless) adoption. Furthermore, as women comprise 61% of TikTok users, it is understandable why the trends emerging from it are largely female driven, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t potential for the more male-representing side of the equation.

For brands hoping to capitalize on these markets, and understandably so given the hundredfold increases in product retail that have arisen from promotion on the app, it is important to note that not all brands have an equal playing field. Those whose imagery and marketing more naturally align with the visual (think color palette and product design) and ideological cues of a certain subculture will have increased credibility and ultimately attraction power. Furthermore, given the quick turnover of emerging viral trends, a shorter product development timeline and smaller releases are wise. “The key is to know the exact sub-culture or community that you’re targeting and to be niche with your approach,” Houghton comments.

Whether a subculture remains niche or has a longer-lasting cultural legacy is, of course, highly unpredictable, but each nonetheless presents an untapped, and probably highly lucrative, audience.

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