Meme Marketing: How Brands Are Speaking A New Consumer Language

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Believe it or not, memes have been around much longer than Instagram.

An anthropological concept coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, memes originally represented the idea of “going viral” within a biological system or society. The imitation of a survival-enhancing gene could be considered a primitive biological meme. So could the popularization of a catchy melody or a political movement such as democracy. According to Dawkins, memes are “an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” Memes are ideas that are imitated because they strike a common chord and increase the likelihood of evolutionary survival.

Before it became the world’s biggest religion, Christianity was a meme. Today, so is Grumpy Cat.

With the rise of the internet and social media, the idea of memes themselves has become a meme, and new viral content appears in our news feeds every morning. The internet meme is defined as any fad, joke or memorable piece of content that spreads virally across the web, usually in the form of short videos or photography accompanied by a clever caption. In our age of fragmented media and personalized algorithms, internet memes (from “Dancing Baby” to “Hide Yo’ Kids, Hide Yo’ Wife” to the “Harlem Shake“) are redefining the communal experience, especially among millennials.

Naturally, when this many people are paying attention, brands want in on the action.

Why Marketers Are Jumping On The Meme Bandwagon

The average person spends over 100 minutes per day on social media. Our worlds are largely informed by the jokes, references and commentary made by the friends and influencers we follow. Memes are native to the language of social media. And when we spend hours consuming absurdist humor and ridiculous YouTube videos, let’s be honest, it’s a total buzzkill to see brand-sponsored advertisements crashing the party.

That’s why brands are getting smarter about the content they publish on social media. They know that the only way to elicit a better reaction than an eye roll is to give their audiences an experience tailored for social media. That means less overt promotions and more of the humorous “internet conversations” that millennials are already having.

When diving into the world of meme marketing, brands have two options: piggyback on an existing meme or attempt to create a new meme from scratch.

Piggybacking On Existing Memes

New memes appear on social media every day. Some are only a flash in the pan and die out before bedtime. Others stick around for several months or even years. Taking a trending meme and applying it to a brand or product can be a fast way to resonate with your audience. On the downside, copying existing memes can appear lazy and unoriginal. And when a brand gets behind the wrong meme, their message could be outdated by the time an ad reaches their customers.

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Gucci recently launched a series of Instagram ads that reimagined popular memes featuring its watch collection. The campaign included high-end photography and custom illustrations, but was met with a lukewarm reception. Another example is from the group chat application HipChat, which launched a meme-inspired billboard in San Francisco. According to the brand’s blog, “The response far exceeded our expectations and continues to pay off today.” Unlike Gucci, which is an established luxury brand flirting with memes in between luxury campaigns, the HipChat billboard was well received because the brand was an upstart trying to disrupt an established market. Edgy humor is more authentic when brands can claim a truly disruptive message.

Creating New Memes

Starting a meme from scratch is more difficult but has a bigger upside. This is the modern equivalent to creating a viral catchphrase that seeps into the cultural vocabulary (remember “Where’s the Beef?”). This approach requires creativity and outside-the-box thinking, but when it clicks, the meme can become adopted by the public and take on a life of its own.

The genius of Dos Equis’ popular campaign around “The Most Interesting Man in the World” was the tagline formula. “I don’t always x, but when I do, I y” could be applied to an infinite number of scenarios. This helped the campaign gain traction outside of the advertising world. When rapper Drake released his 2016 hit “Hotline Bling,” he filmed himself doing awkward dance moves in front of colored backgrounds, enabling fans to superimpose his silly dancing onto an endless array of environments. The song was already a viral hit, but the “memeification” of the music video took it to another level.

Five Guidelines For Meme Marketing

Rules of thumb to make your brand go from Crying Jordan to Success Kid in no time:

    1. Speak the language. Hire people who are native speakers of memes and social media. Your audience can spot inauthenticity a mile away, and there’s nothing more uncool than a brand that tries too hard to be cool.
    2. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Memes work because they are silly and ridiculous. Show your brand’s human side by proving you aren’t afraid to have fun.
    3. Be comfortable knowing that not everybody will understand. It’s about targeting the niche group who gets it.
    4. Increase shareability. Don’t forget to use relevant hashtags, engage your audience with questions and prompt them to tag friends.
    5. Be timely. Meme culture changes fast, and is influenced by everything from current events, sports, politics, celebrity gossip and the latest viral YouTube video. Pay attention to the cultural temperature and strike while the iron is hot.

Whether you want to get in on the action of an already popular meme or create your own viral sensation, meme marketing is a fun, topical way to harness the power of social media.

This article first appeared in www.forbes.com

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About Author

James McCrae

Strategy Director at Blue Fountain Media and author of Sh#t Your Ego Says.

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