Kyra Gallego never intended to be an influencer. It all started this summer, on her last day working at Sephora, when she created a TikTok video that would instantly go viral: “A Sephora Girl Takes Off Her Makeup.” Building on the immediate success, she posted a follow-up video titled “Sephora Worker Pet Peeves,” followed by “Sephora Hacks.”
The views and “Likes” started racking up; 10,000, 30,000, 100,000. “If you want to learn how to cheat the system at Sephora, then keep on watching,” Gallego says while filming from her iPhone in the bathroom mirror. “You can get your birthday gift any time, even if it’s not your birthday month, just ask.” She continues, “You can get a sample of as much as you want, don’t listen to them, there is no limit.”
While Kyra was sleeping, the video hit the “For You” page, the app’s equivalent to a website homepage, and went viral. The video currently has 9.6 million views, more than all of the verified Sephora TikTok videos combined.
“I saw the opportunity to speak about a popular brand and help people. I saw the ease and quickness that comes with TikTok. ... It was more accessible for people who would want to watch and learn from me. Then I posted that video and it went off,” said Gallego. “I’m basically doing anything I would have done at work, but on my own platform now.”
Kyra is not the only inspired employee creator on the app, which boasts 1.5 billion users around the world. In the pursuit of sharing real-life content to gain and entertain followers, cashiers, baristas, and floor employees are introducing the TikTok community to their day-to-day lives working for the world’s most popular brands. The formal influencer programs brands like Sephora dream up in the boardroom can be easily surpassed by those they hired to work the counter — and their worker’s videos can be seen by millions around the world.
TikTok has been fueled by Generation Z, digital natives that value transparency, authenticity, and online influence. According to a survey conducted by Morning Consult, 86 percent of Americans aged 13 to 38 would like to become a social media influencer, and TikTok, the newest platform in the game, is a channel primed for the taking. It is less saturated than Instagram and YouTube for those who aim to become influencers and more welcoming to quick, replicable content that is easy to produce and make viral.
For a TikTok to go viral, sophisticated agency work or corporate savvy is not required or rewarded, even from global brands. One dance video from the “Queen of TikTok,” Charli D’Amelio, a 15-year-old from Connecticut, may easily garner 24 million views, while a TikTok on the NBA’s official account, a celebrated brand with one of the largest followings on TikTok, may obtain hundreds of thousands. Charli’s bedroom is her set, sweatpants are her wardrobe, and production is courtesy of her iPhone. This evens the playing field for regular teens and big advertisers alike (for now), creating an open space for new, uninhibited voices to rise to the top of the influence chain — and many of them are just starting their careers behind the counters of our favorite retailers and restaurants.
In June, Starbucks baristas were dumbfounded when young customers began to order the “TikTok” drink, an off-menu item that was never promoted or officially recognized by the brand. Seemingly overnight, there were two camps: baristas who knew what was going on and those who didn’t. Employees active on TikTok knew what to do: start with a Strawberry Açaí Refresher, three scoops of strawberries, three scoops of blackberries, blended with ice or lemonade. After all, #TikTokDrink has 52.6 million views and counting around the world.
Starbucks is a lifestyle on TikTok, but with no officially endorsed account, passionate employees have stepped in to promote their favorite drinks and provide barista commentary on their personal accounts, unsponsored and uninfluenced by their managers. Videos of brightly colored, creative drink recipes are described from behind the counter to the tune of 4.5 million views, as in this TikTok about the “IT” frappuccino by user @StarbucksRecipesWithM. This is the kind of exposure marketers dream of.
By searching the hashtag #starbucksbarista, you’ll find videos of employees providing insight into not only their favorite drinks, but also why they love to work at Starbucks, and yes, making fun of customer interactions or exposing the mundanity of their jobs. You can’t help but smile when you’re introduced to the local baristas in Port Richey, Florida, or see customers sing their orders to the baristas, just to make them smile (and for the “Likes,” of course). (Starbucks did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Of their own volition and without any special compensation, employees representing all sectors are lifting the corporate curtain that once hid the backstage workings of major brands. The viewers of their viral videos receive raw exposure to brand values right from their device, from people they can relate to (and order from).
And it works.
The potential for employees to influence brand perception on TikTok is limitless; this opportunity can be a risk when less-favorable videos are distributed straight to the masses, unfiltered by corporate finesse. Take the power of the unofficial employee influencer @Brinaraelanee, who made national news when her video went viral for “exposing” the preparation of Panera Bread’s mac & cheese (spoiler: It’s frozen, a standard industry process to ensure quality control) and was subsequently fired. It’s safe to assume most customers had never demanded, or had access to, information about how their favorite dish was made. But thanks to Bri, we know. All 7.3 million of us that viewed it.
“Employees can be your best advocates because they know and love the brand, they know all the ‘hacks’ and insider info,” said Mae Karwowski, CEO of influencer marketing agency Obviously. “The first step is to give guidelines to employees,” she continues. “Show that corporate actually knows that this is an app that exists, then monitor and reward positive behavior.”
And brands have done just that, which is why it’s no coincidence that Kyra Gallego started posting TikToks on her last day working for Sephora. Corporate social media guidelines are standard practice and may indirectly or explicitly discourage employees from posting content related to their work or the brands they represent. For creators who depend on social media to promote their personal brand or portfolio, these agreements may restrict professional growth, especially as an influencer.
Sources report that Sephora has a policy discouraging the discussion of makeup brands on personal social media channels unless you are within the approved “Sephora Squad,” a group of influencers that apply and are selected by Sephora to collaborate on content and campaigns. Sephora denies this practice but confirms there is a social media policy in place. Former employees no longer restricted by company policy are free to publish videos (like @MakeupbyMaritza’s “Sephora Worker Tea”), which makes possible the skyrocketing fame of free agents like Kyra Gallego.
Karwowski points out that these employees are “essentially providing authentic, free advertising” but admits that you also run the risk of someone having a bad day and going on a rant.
“I would argue that the person is already on TikTok and is going to rant anyway,” Karwowski says. “Why don’t you capture the good and create parameters for the rest?”
Some brands have been early movers to capitalize on positive employee content and harness it to create a successful TikTok strategy. Chipotle utilized the passion of employees to dream up sponsored challenges like the “#FlipYourLid” challenge, born directly from an employee on the line that did the fun trick when creating bowls. With the success of the challenge, Chipotle went on to formally partner with TikTok to promote the “#GuacDance” around National Avocado Day and “#BooritoChallenge” for Halloween.
In addition to promoting user-generated content, Chipotle tapped already popular TikTok creators to promote the hashtag. For the #GuacDance campaign, popular creator Loren Gray, who boasts 37.2 million followers, feeds a friend guacamole while she bops along to the “guacamole song,” a sound inspired by a viral internet video. At its core, it is a zero-budget, eight-second video promotion for free guacamole if you visit a Chipotle on the holiday; but what it lacks in production value it makes up for in relatability and nearly 700,000 “Likes.” The TikTok community embraces the brief, authentic, and often ordinary in contrast to the aestheticized expectations of other platforms, and some brands have taken note.
“Young people have grown up with branded content, so they are its biggest fans and harshest critics. They can sense when something is inauthentic or forced,” said Karwowski. “Brands have to understand this content is not going to be like a TV commercial,” she advises.
So Chipotle kept it true to the platform. They tapped current employees and customers to shoot videos in-store; used trending “sounds,” dances, and memes to increase the chances of going viral; and uploaded content that looks like it was shot from a cellphone. Because it was.
“We want to be where our customers are,” said Tressie Lieberman, VP of digital marketing and off-premise at Chipotle, when asked about joining TikTok. “We are creating content at the restaurants and we bring in team members to create content with us. A lot of our employees are following TikTok, so it’s a special moment for them, too.”
In her video titled “I <3 Chipotle,” popular creator and former Chipotle employee Zahra, username @Muslimthicc, gushes about how to make the perfect burrito bowl.
“Anyone that knows me relatively well knows that I love Chipotle, like I could absolutely live off of it, it is my favorite thing to eat when I go out. And I also used to work at Chipotle for two-and-a-half years,” she tells her 1.7 million followers. “You gotta ask for honey, I swear its life-changing … it’s so worth the mild embarrassment and social anxiety.” (Honey is available; it’s an ingredient used in their homemade vinaigrette.)
The video has nearly 775,000 views and is not sponsored or tagged for Chipotle to see and potentially sponsor. You can’t help but believe that Zahra genuinely wants you to have a good experience at her favorite restaurant — that’s it, plain and simple. Her channel is not loaded with paid posts and we often see her studying or driving around with her little brother. She is the exact brand of influence that users on TikTok can trust.
Lieberman, speaking to me from corporate headquarters in Newport Beach, California, knew exactly what video I was referring to made by Zahra, a college student in Albany, NY. “There are all these creators that love the brand and are creating really cool content that people enjoy watching, because we are a place where people have so much passion,” Lieberman said.
Thanks to her inside knowledge of Sephora and internet savvy, Kyra Gallego has hit a sweet spot of influence serving the burgeoning Gen Z beauty community on TikTok (Kyra is not currently sponsored by Sephora and she has not heard from corporate regarding her videos). She wants to stay focused on helping others learn beauty tricks and guide her now-320,000 followers through the often overwhelming world of skin care and beauty.
“I want people to know that Sephora is not a scary, mean place; they value customer service and experience. I just want people to know Sephora wants to make you more beautiful than you already are,” said Gallego.
As for the future, Kyra is about to begin her last semester of college, then she’s off to pursue her master’s degree in education.
“If I can have this much success within one month of being on TikTok, who knows what will happen by the time I’m ready to teach,” said Gallego.
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