Memes: if you’ve spent more than five minutes on the internet, you’re likely to have come across one. Usually presented in the form of images with accompanying text, but also frequently GIFS, videos or text-only, these are essentially online in-jokes with infinite potential for variation.
Originating in niche online culture, they are now firmly in the mainstream, spanning the worlds of political discourse, dating etiquette and social change. In marketing, memes can present an opportunity to show your sense of humour and reveal the more human side of your brand. As they are made to be shared and can be created at little to no cost, the appeal to take advantage of this potential goldmine as part of your marketing strategy can be hard to resist. But is engaging in ‘meme culture’ right for you and your audience, and if so, how is it done correctly?
The Origins of the Meme
The word “meme” is attributed to Richard Dawkins, who coined the phrase in his 1976 book ‘The Selfish Gene’, to describe how ideas are communicated and organically evolve with time.
“Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the ‘meme pool’ by leaping from brain to brain.”
The term was then adopted by early internet users to refer to running jokes on the internet that would be shared from person to person, usually with recurring images accompanied by text that would be modified repeatedly for humorous effect. Recurring formats and characters quickly became staples on social media.
But while memes in their current form are a modern phenomenon, this is by no means a new way of communicating. It has been argued that the earliest example of the existence of a meme dates back as far as 79AD, with graffiti found in the ruins of Pompeii that can be read in any direction. Humans have always used common references and humour to signify that they are part of a certain tribe (think mantras in ancient religions or repeated catchphrases in 90s sitcoms). So more than copying an existing format, the key is to genuinely belong to the community you’re talking to.
Memes in Marketing
It’s no secret that millennials have an increasingly significant spending power. With many now in or approaching their thirties, they are entering their prime earning and spending years. And with older Gen-Zers now starting their working lives too, it’s more important than ever to engage with the generations that have grown up with the Internet. Combined, their spending power is worth nearly $3 trillion in the US alone.
Over the past few years, companies have started to see the potential of memes to help increase engagement with their brand. While they may seem like silly or superficial filler, when used correctly they can be a powerful tool. Not only are they inexpensive to create, but they can incite shares, spark conversation and help your brand stay fresh and relevant. Importantly, the aim here is not to overtly sell anything, but to increase the visibility and relevancy of your brand with on-trend content.
Are Memes Right for My Company?
The short answer here is ‘not necessarily’. It’s important that you remain true to your brand and consistent in your tone of voice. If maintaining a serious image is key to the success of your company – for instance, if you’re a major law firm or a pharmaceutical business – then memes probably aren’t right for you.
But don’t dismiss the idea out of hand just because what you’re selling isn’t trendy or ‘fun’, or you’re targeting an older demographic. As meme culture becomes more mainstream, its potential outreach in marketing expands. The key here is to get the tone right to appeal to your audience.
Dangers and Risks
As meme culture has entered the mainstream, memes within youth culture have become increasingly obscure, bizarre and self-referential in order to maintain their relevancy. Simply taking on a meme format without any originality can fall flat and look like a desperate attempt to appear ‘hip’. At worst, this can come across as phoney and condescending. There is a fine line to be aware of: too tame, and you can look out of touch; too edgy, and you risk offending or alienating your audience.
It’s important to:
- Research and keep on top of current trends;
- Bring something original and funny to the format;
- Make sure it feels right for your audience.
As with all things comedy, timing is key. Meme formats go out of fashion and re-emerge months or even years later in different forms, and new content is often created and will go viral in response to current events or trends in popular culture.
One interesting example is how brands incorporated online content relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. The world was quite suddenly living an intense shared experience – fertile territory for meme making. However, brands were faced with the challenge of appearing relevant while not being insensitive to a serious issue. The commentary focused therefore on the more absurd aspects of the pandemic (such as the toilet paper shortage in supermarkets, or everyone watching the same shows on Netflix). These things gain and lose relevance extremely quickly, which is why it is key that your content comes out in a timely manner.
Create (and Engage with) Original Content
Meme culture has gone far beyond simply adding a caption to an existing picture. What you want to do is to get people to engage by posting their own content. One effective way of doing this is by starting a ‘challenge’ – a variation on meme culture where people document themselves completing a certain task for their online followers.
This idea has been used effectively by numerous brands and charities over the years, in the form of the Ice Bucket Challenge, the ongoing success of Movember, and Virgin’s recent Run 5 – Donate 5 campaign. Another variant on this is the Pringles UK Twitter account, which picked up on an existing trend of people comparing their outfits to tubes of Pringles. Rather than continuing with their usual content they engaged with the trend, and are now getting celebrities on board to take part (though importantly, the idea came from the down up, and did not start as a celebrity marketing campaign).
Employing the right person
Even more important than research is employing the right person to generate the content. Someone with a sharp sense of humour and an innate understanding of the ebb and flow of internet commentary can be infinitely more valuable in this instance than someone with years of marketing experience. It’s about creating trust within a community, something that is notoriously hard to force. Hit the right note, and you’ll have an engaged and entertained audience waiting to see what you will come up with next.
A Human Touch
Even if you’re not rushing to incorporate memes into your online marketing strategy any time soon, there is a lesson that all brands can learn from this type of engagement. Even for more corporate brands, being approachable and relatable as a company is now more important than ever. People like to feel that there is a human being behind the screen, which is why engaging with your community on their level can truly be a game-changer.