Casey Smith of Kroger Marketing: Harnessing TikTok for Influencer Marketing

Kroger #TransformUrDormIf you haven’t downloaded it yourself, you’ve probably heard by now about the latest social media platform sweeping the nation’s youth. TikTok, the short-form video-sharing social networking app akin to the retired Vine app, has captured the hearts of Gen Zers. While many brands are still struggling to figure out a marketing strategy to break into TikTok and speak to Gen Z, Casey Smith, social media and influencer manager at Kroger’s family of stores, is wayyy ahead of the game.

The Kroger marketing team was the first brand globally to run TikTok’s first-ever Hashtag Challenge Plus campaign, allowing users to shop for products they saw in the videos created by Kroger’s influencer partners.

Stay safe at home and do your grocery shopping online, and listen up! Casey Smith shares why she decided to use TikTok for Kroger Marketing and details how to execute your own viral marketing campaign. Just, please, don’t TikTok and drive.

Key Takeaways:

  • When executed well, influencer and social media campaigns can be used for brand lift, which is an increase in engagement with your brand’s ad campaigns.
  • Kroger was the first brand globally to run the first-ever Hashtag Challenge Plus campaign on TikTok.
  • The Kroger marketing team chose to target Gen Z on TikTok because there weren’t many brands on the platform yet, so it was also an opportunity for Kroger to be a trailblazer.
  • When picking influencers to work with, the Kroger marketing team casts a wide net geographically to find influencers in all of their key markets.
  • For brands interested in partnering with influencers on this platform, TikTok has a Creator Marketplace.
  • With TikTok’s algorithm, once you start engaging with content, you’ll get shown other content that’s similar — and it’s not just based on how many followers someone has.

Interview with Kroger

Perlu: Hello, and welcome to Perlu’s influencer marketing podcast: Influencer Marketing Re-imagined.

Today we have the pleasure of hearing from Casey Smith, social media and influencer manager at Kroger’s family of stores. Casey is an experienced social media and influencer marketing manager. She currently leads influencer and publisher partner strategy for the Koger company and recently took their first foray into TikTok with an influencer-led Hashtag Challenge Plus campaign.

Prior to Kroger, she worked in the nonprofit industry-leading social media and communications for a local organization. I’m your host, Alexis Trammell. If you enjoy today’s episode, we hope you sign up for Perlu to learn more about how you can grow your influence or marketing career.

Thank you so much for joining us today, Casey.

Casey Smith: Hi, thank you so much for having me.

Tell us more about yourself and your role with the Kroger marketing department.

Casey Smith: Sure, I’ve been working in social media and influencer marketing for about seven years. Previously, I worked for a nonprofit here in Cincinnati. It was a smaller organization, and while I was hired for writing support for newsletters, emails, website and event coordination — like our coat drives and special fundraising events — I was also able to show that I really had a passion for social media and put that on my plate and ran with it. While I was there I implemented an entire strategy and playbook where there really wasn’t one given that it was such a small organization and previously didn’t really have the bandwidth to support it. I left that nonprofit and moved to Kroger a little over four years ago. I was really excited to focus solely on the social media influencer marketing world and quickly realized just how much can be done there, too.

It’s exciting. There are daily changes within the industry, and it makes it a fun industry to work in. When I started out at Kroger, I was providing support overall to the team with social media content creation and influencer strategy. I had helped concept campaigns or coordinate special events with influencers. In 2018, I was promoted to lead our entire influencer marketing and publisher partnerships strategy within the marketing team here at Kroger. The social team is part of the brand-building vertical, and this is really because we see influencers and social media as a means for brand uplift for Kroger.

Perlu: That’s awesome.

TikTok Feed

As far as brand uplift goes, how do influencers fit into the Kroger marketing strategy overall?

Casey Smith: So we see influencers as a way to brand lift for Kroger. We see them as a trusted resource for their audience. So if they believe in us and want to partner with us and share with their audience, it can show their audience and followers that Kroger is a great place for fresh and high-quality products. They can shop in-store or they can use any of our online shopping capabilities — our delivery and pickup and more. We’ve been partnering with influencers for over five years now in a variety of ways. And over the years we have worked with thousands of different partners at different times. They’re definitely a meaningful part of our strategy. We strive to work with them regularly and take on long-term partnerships when it makes sense. And we’re always open to suggestions or ideas that they might have, too, to ensure the partnership is authentic for their brand as well.

Perlu: Yeah, for sure.

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How do you go about finding influencers that you know are going to be a good fit and mutually beneficial in that way?

Casey Smith: This one has gotten a little bit tough because there are so many amazing, talented creators out there that can be a great fit. First of all, Kroger has a large market across the U.S. under different store names like Ralphs, Smith’s, Fred Meyer, Fry’s and so on. So we first cast a wide net geographically to find influencers in our key markets. We aren’t in the Northeast, like the New York area, so we have to exclude people who are there just because they wouldn’t actually be able to shop at our stores or authentically experience them. We also look at who we’ve worked with in the past.

If it’s someone new, do they seem to have an affinity for Kroger? If they’re a recipe blogger, have they ever done a recipe featuring any of our products? Are they talking about us in any way?

We also strive to partner with people who seem to have a really engaged audience so we know that they’re a trusted voice. And for our ambassadors, we focus on people who are food experts, self-taught or not. Are they someone who focuses mostly on food and recipe content creation? Because we kind of want to borrow some of their food credibility for our brand. They definitely don’t need to be a chef expert. We do work with some people who are chefs, but just someone who’s really enthusiastic about food represents our brand really well.

TikTok Influencers

What kind of content do you usually get from these influencers?

Casey Smith: A variety of content. We typically partner with influencers for recipe content, and that can be on whatever channel makes sense for them. If there’s someone who has a traditional blog and website, we’ll sponsor content on there, and they can feature products that are purchased at our stores. We do like to include some of our private-label items that are part of our brands at Kroger within recipes that are sponsored. Kroger brand, Simple Truth and Private Selection are exclusive to our stores, so it’s always great if someone talks about those specifically because you can only get them at our stores. And then we’ll also sponsor someone on YouTube video content or Instagram content if that’s their platform of choice.

Perlu: Awesome. Casey, I love that you have influencers working on a lot of recipes for you — tons of bloggers and Instagram content, but specifically TikTok.

Read More About How Influencer Marketing is Broken and How to Fix It

Could you tell us more about those Kroger marketing campaigns involving TikTok influencers?

Casey Smith: Absolutely. It’s been a lot of fun. Kroger ran the first-ever Hashtag Challenge Plus campaign on TikTok globally that was different from other hashtag challenge campaigns they’ve had. The Hashtag Challenge Plus campaign was a sponsored hashtag challenge that you see on TikTok somewhat regularly. It’s a challenge within a video to do something specific. And then the “plus” part is that the page where all of the challenge entries are featured also includes a shoppable feature so people could see the products that were featured in the content that we sponsored. They could quickly shop for them. There was also a directory for our stores, so they could see the different stores they could shop at and links back to our website. For the campaign overall, we had over 400 million views and a 16% engagement rate.

We were very excited about those results. The important thing was we partnered with four creators on TikTok to kick this off with the #TransformUrDorm challenge. We partnered with some creators who were college students either going to college for the first time or going back to transform their dorm with products available at Kroger to help show that we not only have dorm room snacks they might want but also things to help keep their dorm more organized and back to school supplies. So we were able to work with them to kick off the campaign and borrow some of their clout. I think that was a crucial part of the success, because otherwise it might’ve felt weird for Kroger to jump on there and be talking about this. It really helped to partner with influencers just to feel a little bit more authentic.

@cosetteJust brought my dorm from 0-💯 in under $100 with my fav Kroger products! 😱 ##ad ##TransformUrDorm♬ original sound – cosette

Perlu: Yeah, for sure. That’s so cool. So that was your back-to-school campaign, and I understand you had a Valentine’s Day campaign very recently as well.

Can you tell us some more about your Valentine’s Day campaign?

Casey Smith: For sure. For Valentine’s Day, we were waiting for another campaign when it would make sense for us to be back on TikTok. Typically, some of our primary audiences aren’t Gen Z, which is the demographic on TikTok. But when it makes sense for us, we try to find a way to play in that space.

So for Valentine’s Day we partnered with some creators on TikTok — Trey Kennedy, and then Brittany Broski — I don’t think that’s actually her last name, but a lot of people probably know her from a video she did where she’s reacting to drinking kombucha.

Perlu: Yes, Kombucha Girl!

@brittany_broskisurprised the ##1 person in my life with a little Valentines Day meal …love u babe ##KrogerVDay ##ad♬ My Love – Mikki Aglaganov

Casey Smith: We partnered with them to sponsor a video that was kind of humorous and playful about Valentine’s Day and the fact that it’s not just about spending it with one person — it’s about people celebrating Valentine’s Day with their loved ones, their friends, family and even themselves. So for each of their videos, they went in a store and shopped for some items. The surprise at the end is that they were shopping to treat themselves. Trey was picking up ice cream and flowers and things like that. Brittany made herself a fun meal and then at the end you see it’s for herself. It was really great partnering with them. We saw tons of engagement and video views, and it was also nice to have some of the lighthearted, playful content that they’re really good at creating themselves.

@treynkennedyI love spoiling my favorite person when Valentine’s Day comes ❤️ #KrogerVDay #ad♬ original sound – treynkennedy

Perlu: Oh I love that so much. That’s so cool. How did you find these influencers to work with on TikTok?

How did you know that they were going to be the right fit?

Casey Smith: On our first campaign, TikTok provided us with a general list after we gave them some direction about the audience we were looking to reach and details about where our key markets are. They provided an Excel document that had some suggestions for creators on there and then we pulled four of them from that list across different markets who had different backgrounds and content and worked with them — with Trey and Brittany. They were people that we personally — myself and the larger influencer team — might work with and have seen on the platform.

I definitely think if anyone’s planning to activate with influencers and creators on there, get on there yourself and play around with it for a while. It’s definitely not just dance videos. There is all sorts of amazing content on there that’s humorous and playful, but I’m also seeing some quick and easy meal tips and ideas pop up, too. So those are definitely people we’re keeping an eye on for future partnerships. It’s really cool to see the new content that’s coming out of it.

TikTok also has an influencer portal where they have details on different creators and info about their audience and typical views that they get for their videos as well as their contact information so that companies can reach out to them directly to figure out a partnership.

Right-fit Kroger influencers

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Perlu: Love that. I know TikTok is such a new platform for a lot of marketers right now and everyone’s just trying to figure out how to make the best use of it. It’s really great to hear that Kroger’s already seen such success through this platform. So Casey,

Are there any cool programs you’re working on right now that you can share with our audience?

Casey Smith: We’ve been working on a variety of programs. We did have a really fun March Madness campaign that was in the works — with creators on both Instagram and their own blogs, as well as TikTok — for fun, easy recipe inspiration. With the coronavirus spreading and a lot of the basketball games and everything being canceled, we’ve paused that.

Luckily we were able to quickly adjust our game plan to pause on that. Right now we’re reaching out to some of our regular influencer partners to see what they might be planning to do to share content. I know some of them are sharing recipes using pantry staples, immune-boosting soups and stews and comfort food that people are looking for and asking how we can kind of support them during this time. We’re not concerned with pushing out there, but we want to support the people that we work with and help them help their audience.

Kroger Online Shopping

Perlu: Absolutely. That’s a very noble pivot that you guys are making right there. Unbelievable that all sports are canceled this year, but incredible that you’re still making strides in uplifting the brand even when people aren’t necessarily going out to grocery stores right now because they’re social distancing themselves with this coronavirus that’s happening right now. Well, awesome. Casey, just absolutely loved hearing from you.

Is there anything else that you want to share with our audience?

Casey Smith: I think you can definitely lean on influencers during times when you’re not really certain what direction to take and let them lead the way. And as we’ve done in the past, especially with TikTok, they’re a great resource to have to kick off your presence on platforms or to reach audiences that are new to you, which for us was Gen Z on TikTok. They’re always a well-trusted resource in my opinion.

Perlu: Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Casey. Everyone go check out Kroger’s Perlu Profile and connect with them there. Thank you so much to all of you listening. We hope you enjoyed hearing from Casey Smith at Kroger.

If you like our show and are interested in what it takes to succeed in influencer marketing, check out our blog at for more podcasts and blog posts, and sign up for Perlu at to meet, mingle, connect, collaborate and grow your career. We hope you join us for the next installation of the Perlu’s influencer marketing podcast: influencer Marketing Reimagined. is a community of brands and influencers collaborating for growth. The Perlu influencer marketing podcast takes this to the next level, helping brands achieve more with influencer marketing, and helping influencers understand how to effectively connect and engage with brands and other influencers.

We’ve interviewed the best of the best in the influencer marketing world to see how they create campaigns and experiences with a lasting impact, so you can do the same. Our influencer marketing podcast is here to help both brands and influencers grow. Happy Listening!

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