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TikTok creators are increasingly tapping into food-centric content — and brands are following

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Since cupcake company Baked by Melissa’s early days, co-founder and CEO Melissa Ben-Ishay has been the muscle behind its social media presence, posting regularly to Instagram and Facebook.

Like many others, Ben-Ishay set her sights on TikTok in 2020 during pandemic lockdown, posting cupcake decoration videos, behind-the-scenes clips from the bakery where her brand’s signature bite-sized cupcakes are produced and other product videos. The videos did well enough, pulling in anywhere from a few thousand to a few hundred thousand views.

Then she posted a salad. And 9.8 million views later, it’s caused a pivot in what Baked by Melissa regularly posts, ranging in everything from spooky tie-dye cupcakes and garlic chopping videos to how to make oat flour and, of course, salad.

Ben-Ishay said that pivot broke the dam and opened the cupcake brand up to new audiences, a new cookbook and partnerships with the likes of OXO, Weight Watchers, Wölffer Estate Vineyard and baked goods company Entenmann’s.

“What I’ve really learned in the past couple of years is we have a new product that we sell at Baked by Melissa for the first time in 15 years, and it’s content,” Ben-Ishay said.

She’s not alone. Other content creators seemingly have made similar pivots into the food space, eager to diversify their content and open themselves up to more brand opportunities. For example, influencer Aaron Maternowski, who goes by curlyfuq on TikTok, racked up millions of views with comedic skits in 2021. By the start of 2023, Maternowski was regularly posting food and cooking content. Meanwhile, Desmond Scott is one half of the couple comedic duo The Scotts, along with Kristy Sarah, to more than 19 million social media followers. He launched an official food TikTok in November under the name desmondthechef.

Celebs too have made similar transitions, like actress and singer Selena Gomez, whose cooking show on Max came out in 2020. Or even Brooklyn Beckham, model and son of former soccer player David Beckham and singer Victoria Beckham, who launched a social-media series, “Cookin’ With Brooklyn,” in 2021.

Growth in food’s influence

Agency execs say there’s been an upswing in food influencers, although no one seems to have put numbers to it for the industry at large. The Influencer Marketing Factory co-founder and CEO Alessandro Bogliari said his team has noticed a 30% increase in client demand for food content creators since last year. At the same time, food-focused talent management agency CookIt has seen 25% company growth year over year. (Neither party disclosed further details.)

While influencer marketing agency Billion Dollar Boy hasn’t necessarily seen measurable growth in food content requests, it points to a boom in food creators during Covid lockdown as more people cooked and ate at home. Food is also an easy pivot from other types of content, because cooking videos are a low-barrier entry point for creators looking to diversify their content and, ultimately, remain relevant within the social media algorithms.

“Food is seen as a quick and easy way to diversify that content outside of your niche,” said Christopher Douglas, senior manager of strategy at Billion Dollar Boy. “Think of it like an investment portfolio. If you have more content that appeals to more people, that’s obviously going to be beneficial to you.”

Food and food content, whether it’s BuzzFeed’s Tasty-style cooking tutorials, a viral TikTok recipe (Remember baked feta pasta?) or a menagerie of snacks in the name of girl dinner, are universal, and the genre opens influencers up to working with more brands who sell everything from snacks to appliances, per agency execs.

“Every day more and more creators see food as a door into the burgeoning business of influencer marketing,” Molly Benton, evp of influencer marketing agency CookIt Media, said in an email. “Brands are seeing the quality of the content these food creators are able to produce and shoot at home in a far more cost-effective way than traditional advertising budgets.”

Alternative streams of revenue

TikTok has experienced significant growth since the onset of the pandemic, evolving into a fertile ground for influencers seeking to capitalize on their social media influence. However, with TikTok recently retracting its creator program, the pursuit of fresh avenues for monetization has become crucial.

This shift underscores the need for influencers to explore alternative methods to generate income as well as the dynamic nature of the platform’s monetization landscape. As TikTok adapts to changing trends and strategies, influencers must navigate this evolving terrain to identify and leverage new opportunities for financial success.

Paige MacDonald, who has over 530,000 followers on TikTok, initially downloaded TikTok with the intention of creating videos to share with her friends during a period when in-person interactions were limited. Her early content focused on being trendy, incorporating dances and details of her life to capture the essence of lockdown. However, this approach didn’t gain much traction. One day, Paige decided to shift her content focus on and explore her passion for cooking.

“I’ve cooked since I was young. So I’ll just share the breakfast burrito that I’m making. It went viral, which was amazing and caught me completely off guard,” she said. “I try to post other content here and there and it would just plummet. When I post a cooking video, everybody would say, ‘Yes, this is what we want to see.’”

MacDonald noted that her style has undergone significant changes. In her earlier stages of content creation, her focus was primarily on quickly presenting recipes and providing a concise list of ingredients. During that time, TikTok’s features were limited and mainly centered around brief content. Now, with the availability of extended time options including three- and 10-minute features, MacDonald has the flexibility to explore and present content in a more detailed and comprehensive manner. This eventually caught the attention of some brands that then reached out to MacDonald to work with her, and she was financially compensated for the work.

For instance, MacDonald worked with Weight Watchers to create healthy recipes for its users. She’s also worked on sponsored posts from Taco Bell, Blue Chair Bay and Thrive Market. The financial agreements between her and the brands she has worked with were not disclosed. However, MacDonald said that she charges brands based on the scale of a campaign or project, how the brands want to use the videos, and whether the brands want to push content as an ad or product placement in her TikTok videos.

No fear of saturation

At present, food content over indexes other verticals by two times in terms of average views and engagement, according to Ryan Detert, CEO of influencer marketing agency Influential. And every vertical, from banking to appliance manufacturers, are looking to partner with food content creators. It’s no wonder there seems to be an increase in the space. But as the food genre becomes more democratized, more players come into it.

Everyone thinks they can cook, leading some to come into food content creation as a money grab, the Influencer Marketing Factory’s Bogliari said. In other words, influencer agencies and their client partners need to be intentional about brand partnerships to ensure there’s alignment between the two groups.

Case in point: When Brooklyn Beckham launched his social media series, it kicked up a lot of criticism and headlines like the New York Post’s “Brooklyn Beckham’s cooking show has a problem: He doesn’t know how.”

But as food content creation takes off, agency execs say they’re less concerned about saturation and an issue of too many influencers with cooking channels. Again, it means influencer agencies and their client partners need to be more critical of their brand partnerships to avoid a misaligned partnership or influencer mishap, like Bud Light’s backlash for its partnership with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney, execs say. Ultimately though, food is universal with many verticals, said Detert.

“We are hungry every few hours, it’s literally an insatiable vertical,” Detert said in an email. “It ties into every other category and a brilliant artist may also be a sandwich artist and we’re here for it.”

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