TikTok for Wine Lovers: Made For Each Other, or Quite Incompatible?

The rapidly-growing short video platform has broadened its audience from dance-crazy teenagers to adults interested in wine. But the relationship between TikTok and alcohol is not straightforward, as Alice Dawkins reveals.

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TikTok for businesses (Photo: prima91/AdobeStock)
TikTok for businesses (Photo: prima91/AdobeStock)

 

  • Successful TikTok creators such as David Choi (@winewithdavid) or Amanda McCrossin (@somm_vivant) have built wine loving communities with six digit follower numbers.
  • The TikTok algorithm allows specific sub-genres. These built communities offer alluring potential for wine marketers to find an eager and committed audience of wine drinkers, accessed via credible creators and influencers.
  • However, access to these user numbers is mediated by an algorithm as well as the platform’s strict community guidelines and advertising rules. TikTok’s guidelines reserve the right to boot disobedient accounts off the coveted ‘For You’ page, with limited explanation or recourse.
  • TikTok’s strong user bases in the under-21 age cohort create extra sensitivity for pushing out alcohol-related content. 32.5% of its users are between 10 and 19 years old.
  • Community guidelines permit content about alcohol, but draw a line at portraying alcohol use in a ‘dangerous fashion’. Advertising alcohol products is banned, creating a narrow space for wine companies themselves to operate.
  • Over on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, where live e-commerce plays a more central role on the platform, there is a more permissive approach to wine content, with various integrations that facilitate large live transactions.

 

On the 14th April, TikTok wine influencer Lucia Palm posted a video directing her followers to join her on Instagram instead, noting that her page had been temporarily removed by TikTok for violating “multiple community guidelines”, suggesting it was “an AI glitch”.

Migrating from TikTok to Instagram is a major business decision. Palm is part of a group of successful creators who have built enviable followings off their TikTok content. They include David Choi (@winewithdavid) who pledges to ‘make wine easy’ for his 255,000 followers, Amanda McCrossin (@somm_vivant), ‘your BFF you call for wine advice’ - for over 100,000 people, and Palm herself (@lucialoveswine) who ‘makes it FUN to learn about wine’ for her community of 70,000.

Since its international launch on mobile in 2017, TikTok has been downloaded 3 billion times globally. Its user numbers surpass Twitter, Pinterest, and Snapchat. Its algorithms plunge users into specific sub-genres, where a community of creators and users interact. ‘BookTok’, for example, is a corner of TikTok where voracious readers review books and recommend new titles – and is being capitalised by legacy retailers like Barnes and Noble. It makes sense that TikTok has a well-populated corner for wine lovers.

Throughout the early months of the pandemic, the app surged in download rates from users of all ages looking for connection, community, and lightweight entertainment in a bewildering time.
 

In the Hands of Algorithmic Decision Making

TikTok works off recommender algorithms. It means if you spend more time viewing content about fitness, you’ll be shown more content about people, say, working out and cooking healthy meals. For this structural reason, TikTok has become a space for users to find fellow travellers across a diverse array of niches – ranging from the obvious to the eccentric.

TikTok’s algorithms, developed at Bytedance’s famously innovative R&D teams, are market leaders. They emerged from years of intense competition between China’s short-video companies. Before the days of ‘For You’ pages and ‘Discover’ modes (as on Instagram), users were only shown content they already followed, making it a slow process to discover new creators. The search function, which relied on hashtags and key words, was the primary way to connect with more accounts. Bytedance went a step further by designing a system that could pre-empt what users wanted to see before they looked for it. 

TikTok is not the only platform with content delivery controversies: Instagram shifted in 2016 from a ‘chronological’ feed – where users browsed through content from accounts they followed in the order they were posted – to an algorithmically-driven format (the app is now offering chronological versions again). However, unlike Instagram, which was traditionally anchored in the ‘social’ aspect of digital media – friends sharing content with another – TikTok users opt-in to mix with total strangers.  

Democratising Knowledge

Driven by high usage rates of Generation Z’s (late teens to early-mid twenties), popular but extremely specific aesthetics have bloomed on TikTok and given rise to viral brands. The ethical fashion retailer Djerf Avenue, for example, draws upon the platform to build a loyal following of young female fans who buy in to the brand’s overarching ethos of minimalism, classic shapes, and pastel hues and port them into other parts of their daily life.

Curatorship, community, and education clearly works well on TikTok in many domains – stylists will tell you what colour palette you should dress in, photographers teach you how to pose, and lifestyle influencers invite you into their kitchens to cook and reside with them, in an appealing aesthetic rendered more immersive and approachable than their Instagram counterparts. When done well, watching content from these accounts feels like catching up with a sparky, popular, and classy friend.
 

Enjoying Wine in an Aesthetic and Approachable Environment

Where the majority cohort of users falls between 20-49 years of age, activities like enjoying a fine wine fit into a late-millennial aspirational aesthetic where people cook restaurant-quality pasta from scratch, sip expensive drinks from vintage glassware, listen to oldies music on record players, and let luxurious candles burn for hours in their mid-century apartments.             

Astute influencers with niche skillsets have successfully leveraged the platform to share once-gatekept knowledge with their audiences. Feminist mechanics teach women how to change tyres and perform basic auto maintenance, veteran cleaners show homeowners how to supercharge their chores, and muscular chefs demystify top cooking techniques for younger men.

David Choi, an owner of multiple wine companies, draws into TikTok’s low-frills, approachable genre to make pairing recommendations for everyday foods – from a McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish, to supermarket dumplings, to Korean fried chicken. Amanda McCrossin (who, incidentally, also has a pairing suggestion for fried chicken), takes her audience through a wide-ranging learning journey that covers etiquette, accessories, terminology, and the production process itself. Lucia Palm role-plays typical wine-ordering scenarios with friends and family to show her audience how to make educated choices at wine bars and restaurants. For all of these creators, drinking itself is a supporting act rather than the centrepiece of the videos, but some have nonetheless drawn the ire of TikTok’s moderators. The platform’s guidelines reserve the right to boot disobedient accounts off the coveted ‘For You’ page, with limited explanation or recourse.

Some basic facts about TikTok
  • TikTok is a video-based platform hosting user-posted content from a few seconds to several minutes. TikTok is best known for its early popularity with teenagers and ‘Gen Z’s’, built off viral dance trends.  
  • It was developed by Chinese technology company, Bytedance, for audiences outside of mainland China.
  • Douyin, Bytedance’s mainland China version uses more advanced user features and more deeply integrated live e-commerce component. 
  • TikTok has been downloaded 3 billion times globally. Its user numbers surpass Twitter, Pinterest, and Snapchat. 
  • TikTok’s ‘For You’ page, which draws upon a range of data points (user age, location, app usage, viewing history) to present fresh content to users.

Content Moderation Challenges

TikTok relies on a mix of human moderators and AI-enabled image and voice recognition systems to supervise its millions of videos. Content is taken down automatically if prohibited keywords are used (such as incitements of violence or references to self-harm), which has led to a steady proliferation of algorithm-dodging codewords.

 

Policing the wine world is a little more complicated. In the US market, the community guidelines permit “content promoting, mentioning, or depicting alcohol products consumed by persons of legal drinking age” but draws the line at when it is “done so in a dangerous fashion”. Presumably, ‘dangerous’ means binge drinking, encouraging underage consumption, and other shows of excess. Evidently, TikTok’s content moderation teams take an extremely cautious position on this point, and merely drinking alcohol could be enough to fall foul of the guideline. 

Additionally, creators who use TikTok’s inbuilt ad service to push their content to more audiences will face automatic bans. TikTok’s advertising policies for North America place a blanket prohibition on alcohol content, expressly: the promotion of alcoholic beverages (wine, beer, spirits, etc.), alcohol clubs/subscription services, alcohol making kits, or alcohol sponsored events. 

Staying on the right side of the community guidelines and advertising policies evidently requires a dynamic strategy and plenty of creativity. A success story is @joethewinemaker, who only very occasionally is seen sipping from a wine glass on his TikTok videos. Instead, Joe takes his audience through the bright sights of the winemaking process, spotlighting the colours of the crush, the satisfaction of barrel racking, and top tricks for pruning. While not every wine creator has ready access to a trellis or a barrel room, Joe’s ability to explore wine from its adjacencies may be the trick to staying elevated on the platform.
 

Over the Edge

The Chinese version of TikTok shown to audiences in mainland China, Douyin, has a different landscape entirely. Leading wine educator and businesswoman Wang Shenghan (@zuieniang, 2.18m followers) benefits from Douyin’s advanced e-commerce integrations to run flash sales of her wines to a live audience of fans, netting thousands of Chinese yuan per sitting.

To what extent such divergent interpretations of permissible wine content exist in the same company remains a puzzle. Jurisdiction clearly plays some part and anyone wanting to post alcohol-related content on TikTok would be well advised to check the regulations affecting their country.

It may not be for the faint hearted, but TikTok does offer wine influencers and marketers reach and growth that rapidly outpaces its alternatives. 

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