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Phoebe Daltrey wanted multicolored LED lights for her bedroom mostly because her friend had them, and because she thought they looked cool. This was in January 2017; Daltrey had a modest following on YouTube at the time (about 500 subscribers), and the video app Musical.ly wouldn’t merge with what is now TikTok for another 18 months.
Once Daltrey procured an LED light strip off Amazon, she posted a YouTube video of herself hanging the lights up to her channel with the caption “INSANE CEILING LED SETUP.” “I remember a few months after [the video was posted], it started to get more views,” Daltrey, 17, told me. “It got into the thousands and from then on it was probably getting closer to 1,000 views a day. Everyone was messaging me asking where I got them from.”
Today, the video has garnered over 600,000 views and Daltrey’s following has jumped to over 18,500 subscribers. Daltry claims the video was one of the first posts that “helped her go viral” — her friends now call her “the LED queen.”
Daltrey was ahead of her peers in adopting LED lights as a bedroom accessory to give online videos a color-changing effect, but LED light strips, which serve up a rainbow palette of neon colors, now run rampant among the set of Gen Zers who want to become “TikTok famous.” The lights are often used to create optical illusions, like say, an evil clown alter-ego or a simple skittle challenge. As a result, searches, sales and discussions for ‘TikTok lights’ have surged over the past six months, a trend driven by TikTok users who want better lighting in their videos.
Behind the scenes, these LED strips are controlled by a remote control that comes with the lights. They let users change the background colors in videos while they’re shooting, and have triggered a subset of TikTok accounts that give instructions on how to install and use the lights. TikTok advertising is currently in its “Wild West” days, but already users are crediting Amazon with their purchases as if they were sponsored. “I use the Suyoo Led Lights from Amazon,” one user wrote in their bio. “Oh yeah, Amazon Prime members get 10 percent off,” another mentioned in a video.
The rise of searches and sales for “TikTok lights” is indicative of a trend happening on TikTok, sure, but it also reflects a broader pattern happening in e-commerce. The smartest online sellers are taking old products and simply describing them differently in order to get ahead of a new wave of customers, and they’re doing it with everything from home appliances to bread.
“Consumer preferences and the products that people want are changing all the time, but the products themselves actually don’t have to change much,” said Noah Fram-Schwartz, CEO of Glimpse, a software startup that analyzes millions of consumer behavior signals to identify fast-growing trends. “For e-commerce brands, they can do less doing by doing more thinking. They don’t have to go and spend a bunch of money on buying new lights or doing R&D. They’re just LED lights. But the better position the company is in to spot the wave early and ride the wave as it makes its way through time — they’re just going to ride all of that volume.”
This proverbial “wave” came up a lot as I talked to different folks for this story. Fram-Schwartz mentioned “the wave” more than 10 times in our conversation, and even compared finding consumer trends to surfing at one point.
But the phenomenon around riding the wave of a product has been around for decades; Play-Doh was a wallpaper cleaner before it was putty for preschoolers, today’s outdoorsy Nalgene bottles used to function as lab equipment and bubble wrap was first invented as three-dimensional wallpaper. The Magic Wand, one of the most iconic vibrators, was initially marketed as a general “body massager” for sore muscles before it became a talisman for the sex-positive feminist movement of the 1970s. And Pedialyte, a flu remedy for toddlers, is now a targeted, widespread hangover fix.
More recently, mini fridges have been rebranded to “beauty fridges” and “makeup fridges” in response to the rise of preservative-free beauty products. The little refrigerators are cute but mostly unnecessary — at best they keep your face creams cool, at worst they run up your electric bill.
For small e-commerce brands, a rise in search interest like this presents a golden opportunity as Amazon continues to change the way we shop. As Nick Statt wrote in his Verge piece on the subject, Amazon is the most-liked and trusted technology brand by most. Two-thirds of US shoppers typically start their product search on Amazon, and to sell well on Amazon, e-commerce brands don’t need to have name brand recognition. Why? Because brand has little to no value on the platform.
“Smaller companies are able to move faster,” Fram-Schwartz said. “If you were a small company and you saw this trend, you could adapt your product to fit the trend in minutes. If you’re a bigger company, you would need to get it approved and go through a process of reviews.”
Amazon was the ideal online distributor for Cooluli, a mini refrigerator company that launched its first product in 2016. By 2018, the company got a few pieces of feedback from customers who wanted mini refrigerators to store their natural beauty products, so Cooluli decided it would create a trend. The company didn’t change their products at all, and now comes up as Amazon’s Choice when you search “makeup fridge” or “beauty fridge.”
“We realized there was a big potential in a market that people weren’t tapping into, but we didn’t realize how far it would go,” said Avi Kraminer, the CEO of Cooluli. “We always offered designs [of fridges] that work for everyone. It happens that it works very well for beauty.”
Cooluli started by tapping beauty influencers like Allure editor-in-chief Michelle Lee; Vogue later speculated that beauty fridges as a trend started when Lee shared hers on Instagram. The company also partnered with skincare brands like Dr. Jart and Avon, which would promote their new product collections in tandem with Cooluli’s mini fridges. To show up first in search results on Amazon, the company’s approach included a mix of adjusted keywords and sponsored ads.
“We run some sponsored campaigns to be able to show more of our products when people are looking for certain keywords,” said Kraminer. “As an online seller, if you want to keep your position [in search results], you always need to use sponsored keywords.”
Today, mini fridges intended for makeup are blatantly rebranded for beauty aficionados, but many have the same specs as regular old mini fridges. Hundreds of fridges can also be found on Alibaba under the terms “makeup fridge” and “cosmetics fridge,” waiting for dropshippers to swoop in.
The rise of beauty fridges is a decent-sized trend that has primarily taken off on Instagram, with the hashtags #makeupfridge, #beautyfridge, #skincarefridge and #minifridgeshelfie used nearly 15,000 times collectively. According to Fram-Schwartz, “TikTok lights” currently has “thousands” of monthly searches across Google, a trend in relative infancy compared to, say, “keto bread,” which has monthly searches in the “tens of thousands.”
Sanda Pulida, a marketing manager at low-carb bread brand SOLA, says that the company’s decision to lean in to “keto-friendly” branding was originally driven by offline distributors. SOLA was started by a chef who specializes in low-carb diets, but when the company started selling its products in grocery stores about a year ago, it was continuously placed in sections reserved for keto-friendly foods.
“It was one of those things where we struggled a little bit to come to terms with whether or not we wanted to brand ourselves as keto,” Pulida said. “Obviously it’s a diet that took off, but we were worried that it would put us in this niche area of the market that’s not going to be sustainable long-term.”
Today, SOLA’s low-carb bread loaf is an Amazon best-seller in “frozen bread & dough” and is one of the first items shown when you search “keto bread.” When I asked Pulida if she thought SOLA’s foray into keto branding boosted sales, she postulated that it had — because people on the keto diet love to broadcast exactly what they eat. Pulida also mentioned that SOLA resonates particularly well among “dirty keto” dieters, which are people on the keto diet who let themselves eat processed and fast foods.
“Obviously the search term aspect of it became a big priority in terms of social media and digital advertising,” Pulida said. “We did incorporate that into our Amazon listings and from there it just kind of blew up. It really turned into one of those things where we wanted to make sure that we were catching that wave.”
In Rebecca Jennings’s piece about how trends get huge fast, Temple University advertising professor Devon Powers says that technology has caused an influx of new product launches, which in turn expedites the process of a trend taking off.
But do new products need to be invented to make rising trends become huge trends? In the age of Amazon, an old product from a little-known brand will do just fine. Some of the most interesting product opportunities come from watching how consumers use existing products in unintended ways, and the savviest retailers are building exactly what consumers are reaching for.
While lights to make selfie-style videos brighter are not new, the color-changing effects of the LED lights strips give TikTok users a leg up in the quest to go viral; the lights might make teen bedrooms look like strip clubs, but they also create the illusion of having a personal lighting crew. As of the time of writing, the hashtags #LEDlights and #LEDlightstrip have over 138 million views combined, or enough traction to make a wave.
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