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Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Anti-China narrative is not likely to stop TikTok’s rise

Earlier this week, a couple of young girls posted a video on Twitter claiming that they had deleted the Chinese apps on their mobile phones. Then they went on to destroy their Chinese handsets on camera. Their rant against Chinese goods was in line with the anti-China sentiment prevalent in India following a border skirmish between the two countries.

Last week, the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) also gave a call to boycott Chinese goods as tensions between India and China escalated. The traders’ body also urged Indian celebrities to stop endorsing Chinese brands.

In this melee, the one Chinese company that has been lying low is ByteDance, which owns the popular video-sharing platform TikTok. To be sure, the company has already had its fair share of controversies since its launch here in 2017. It was briefly banned by the Madras High Court on allegations of promoting pornography and inappropriate content on its platform, and exposing children to cybercrime.

A few months ago, there was a spat between a YouTube star and a TikToker, which saw the app’s ratings decline on Google Play and a dip in downloads, which recovered subsequently.

More recently, a report in Hindustan Times said Indian intelligence agencies have asked the government to block or advise people to stop the use of 52 mobile apps linked to China over data safety concerns. The list includes TikTok.

ByteDance did not respond to Mint’s queries on the impact of the anti-China rhetoric on its operations in India.

But, as per digital marketing experts who work with the social media platform, TikTok’s popularity rests on its enormous user-generated content, which it churns out in the form of short-form mobile videos, challenges and DIY (do-it-yourself) content. And, its business is booming. It also boasts of brands such as Pepsi, Puma, Dettol, Clean and Clear, Flipkart and Myntra advertising on the app.

Mass-market brands are attracted to the platform for its sheer reach. The app has exceeded its March lifetime downloads of 600 million during the two-month lockdown. Marketers said the platform delivers reach in tier-2 and tier-3 markets.

Shrenik Gandhi, chief executive officer and co-founder of digital marketing agency White Rivers Media, said TikTok has a loyal base of Indian users who are addicted to the app. “TikTok is a habit which is difficult to break. Besides, it is private viewing of content," he said.

In his view, the anti-China sentiment hasn’t come to the platform so far. “So, while the headline brands may stay mum on it for a while, it is the fastest-growing platform and cannot be ignored. Brands follow people and, as long as Indians are on it, brands will be there," he said.

Ashish Bhasin, chief executive officer, APAC, and chairman India, Dentsu Aegis Network, said advertising follows eyeballs. If people start uninstalling Chinese apps in large numbers, then eyeballs will reduce and, subsequently, advertising will go down.

“Public reaction on social media may not always translate into action on the ground and that too in a significant quantum to create a real impact," Bhasin had said previously.

White Rivers Media and data analytics and influencer marketing firm Qoruz said brand interest in TikTok hasn’t abated and they were in talks with large fast-moving consumer goods and pharmaceutical companies for advertising on the app.

“TikTok has forged very strong partnerships with advertising agencies. Even if a few brands take a step back, there will be new ones ready to get on board," said Praanesh Bhuvaneswar, co-founder, Qoruz.

Meanwhile, ByteDance, on its part, is keen on being perceived as a multinational technology company instead of just a Chinese firm. Towards this end, in May, it appointed Walt Disney Co.’s former top executiveKevin Mayer as its CEO. Mayer will also be the chief operating officer of ByteDance.

In India, too, the company is on an expansion spree. In May, it appointed former Applause Entertainment executive Ashok A. Cherian as the marketing head for India.

“Even at the middle executive level, it has been hiring people in ad sales and strategy," said Bhuvaneswar. “It is unlikely that the government will ask brands to stop working with TikTok. Unless it bans the app, TikTok will continue to do well here."

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pre-ssing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.

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