When I think of M&S, I think sensible shoes, sticky toffee pudding and Paxman’s tiny pants. I think comfy, cosy, middle class, middle England.
What I don’t think, is Lynchian dystopia, absurdist humour and a keen awareness of what makes TikTok, tick. This is what makes @mandsfood a masterclass in branded social.
The M&S Food TikTok channel is, quite frankly, horrifying. It takes beloved porcine icon Percy Pig, and transforms him and his piggy pals into a nightmarish C-suite, complete with unsettling triangle music. It poses troubling questions – if Percy is in the boardroom, is he knowingly sending lesser Percys to the slaughter? Are the Percys we consume disgraced executives? Is there one multiplicitous Percy, or are these his many children? Reality unravels and a video goes viral.
So, why does it work? It works because TikTok is weird. Alt-TikTok, otherwise known as ‘the good side of TikTok’ thrives on bizarre in-jokes, niche references, the strange and outlandish. It’s where the cool kids are, where Gen Z can take shelter from mainstream influencers, and where ‘Begond, Brand!’ memes abound.
Someone at M&S gets it, and doubtless had to have a nerve-wracking discussion with their boss. The secret is this. The only way to flourish on TikTok, is to leave the brand guidelines at the door. It isn’t enough to optimise your existing content, you have to fit into the platform’s reality, a reality which its users are fiercely protective of.
The team at M&S clearly did their homework – they actually really considered what works on a molecular level, and found a way to make it M&S. Yes, there’s no product (bar the now for sale plush Percys) and yes, there’s no branding, but there doesn’t need to be. We all know Percy and where he comes from, we just haven’t seen him like this.
The lesson is this. No matter who you are, you can make your brand work on TikTok. You can be a heritage brand, circa 150 years old, and be a success organically. All you need to do is play by the rules – make it surprising, unnerving, borderline artistic – most importantly of all, make it TikTok.