The word “meme” was coined by British biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. It originally referred to an idea that spreads throughout a culture. The use of the term in popular culture usually refers to an internet meme, which is a particular type of trend or in-joke that may evolve over time. In this article, we will be focusing on this latter definition!
Dawkins himself has mixed views on the internet’s use of the word, but as members would say, “deal with it”.
Popular examples of internet memes over the years include LolCats (image macros of cats with humorous captions), Rage Comics, Socially Awkward Penguin, Harambe the gorilla, Evil Kermit, Grumpy Cat, Baby Yoda, and How it Started. Memes often use irony, surreal humor, satire, or any combination of these. Some memes are highly specific and targeted towards a specific demographic and other memes are more universal and have broader appeal.
Memes are usually used simply for humor, but they can actually be an effective tool for digital marketing!
How Brands Use Memes for Marketing
Ever since brands have used social media platforms for marketing purposes, there have been examples of them using memes on these platforms. Memes are usually used by brands in an attempt to make them seem more relatable and “human”, as this appeals to many demographics. Getting involved with a meme trend can also be an effective way of gaining exposure to a wider audience, as internet users who are unaware of a brand can be exposed to them through following examples of that meme. If the meme has a corresponding hashtag, it can be even easier for brands to get in on the action.
The Benefits of Using Memes for Marketing
There are plenty of benefits to using memes for digital marketing purposes. For one thing, they are usually pretty easy to make once a meme template (whether image-based or purely text) has been established online. If you have even a basic understanding of computing (which is almost certainly the case if you are a digital marketer), most memes are not at all difficult to make.
The fact that existing memes are already viral means that anything created with that meme format is more likely to reach a wider audience as it is part of an existing trend. Memes are also likely to be shared, so your content could end up being spread across various platforms and sites without much or any effort from you once you have created and shared it!
Memes can make your brand seem more relatable when they are used correctly and with humor. Skilled meme usage can show that your brand knows how to have fun (if this is appropriate for your business, of course), which is humanizing and predisposes people to feel more positively about the company.
The final, and most important, benefit of using memes for marketing is that creating memes is completely free, so there is no financial risk associated with trying it out!
Epic Marketing Wins of History
There are plenty of examples of brands successfully using memes in a way that is funny, memorable, and effective as part of their marketing strategy.
Of course, some memes themselves are excellent at exposing a product or service to the wider public due to the meme itself directly referring to the brand. An example of this is the Baby Yoda meme, which led to an increase in interest in Disney’s The Mandalorian, where the character originated. There are countless memes made out of screenshots from TV shows and movies. These are often turned into meme templates that can be re-used with minor changes, such as the “One Does Not Simply” meme, where the second part of the text caption can be replaced with any text of the creator’s choosing. Shows like The Office and The Simpsons have provided a huge number of meme templates and reaction gifs that can be deployed in many situations. In some cases, this kind of meme is deliberately engineered by the brand (for example, in Netflix’s promotional campaign for their original movie release Bird Box, which introduced this meme template) and in others they catch on inadvertently, but either way the brand often benefits!
American casual restaurant chain Denny’s is one of a number of brands that have become well-known for their use of memes via a Twitter account that is actually pretty funny! Luxury fashion brand Gucci has also developed an unexpected reputation for light-hearted use of memes on Instagram, in a market where luxury brands almost always shy away from humor. This risk paid off, with their marketing campaign being one of the more memorable and effective examples of memes in marketing.
Epic Fails of Marketing with Memes
Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples of brands attempting to jump on a meme bandwagon backfiring. The practice of brands using established memes for marketing purposes is sometimes known as “memejacking”, a term that usually carries a negative connotation, and is associated with brands being opportunistic, inauthentic, and disingenuous. However, when a meme is done well and makes people laugh, the fact that it was posted by a brand’s social media account rarely bothers most people.
There have been numerous examples of brands attempting to use memes in their marketing and failing simply because they do not understand how to use the meme correctly! Multi-billion dollar corporations like McDonalds have fallen foul of this, as well as government organizations like the US Department of Health and Human Services, which managed to completely misuse the “doge” meme in 2014, causing internet users all over the world to cringe with second-hand embarrassment.
It is not just embarrassment that can come from these blunders. In some cases, a badly chosen or poorly executed meme can even cause offense to people, even resulting in a loss of customers and a damaged professional reputation of the brand. As mentioned earlier, Denny’s are known for their witty Tweets, but one 2017 tweet about tipping in restaurants drew attention for all the wrong reasons, and Twitter users even used meme formats themselves to call them out on it!
In 2017, Chase bank posted on their Twitter account an attempt at a humorous meme that was criticized heavily and publicly by many, including US presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren. The Tweet in question was not only not particularly funny, but it seemed to accuse its own customers of having bad spending habits. From a bank that had already been controversial since the 2008 financial crisis, it didn’t quite hit the tone that the brand likely intended it to.
There are plenty of lessons that can be learned from these epic fails! When developing a digital marketing strategy that includes memes, there are a few things that you should make sure of before you click “Share”, “Tweet, or “Upload”.
The first thing to do is to make sure that you fully understand the meme before using it. Doing a bit of background research on a meme format before using it can help you to avoid misunderstandings that can be cringeworthy at best and offensive at worst.
You should also make sure that the meme that you are posting is timely and relevant. Using memes that are old (which can be a matter of days in the case of some memes or years for the more enduring ones) will just make you look silly. The last thing that you want as a brand is to look out of touch and using a Socially Awkward Penguin meme in the year 2020 is a sure way to do this.
Another thing that you should do is consider whether or not the meme in question—or indeed memes in general—are appropriate for your brand. Consider your brand persona and your buyer personas. For example, if you are marketing a financial consultancy firm, you will most likely want to present an image of maturity and good judgment that plenty of memes may contradict. If you are running a funeral directors, you should probably avoid any memes at all. However, if your business is able to use a more anarchic or “edgy” image, you can be more liberal in the use of your memes.
How to Fit Memes into Your Marketing Strategy
Memes alone are not the secret to a fully developed digital marketing strategy. An effective digital marketing strategy includes plenty of serious disciplines such as a solid grasp of data analytics, which you can learn about here. However, if you have developed a diverse and complete strategy across multiple platforms, a viral meme campaign could well be a bonus and bring plenty of attention to your brand. As long as you have a brand persona and strategy that is consistent across all platforms, you can have fun with trying out memes in your marketing.
What is the Future of Memes?
Memes are constantly developing and changing at a rapid pace. Predicting the next viral meme is almost impossible, but it seems unlikely that the popularity of memes will decline any time soon. After all, internet memes are just a digital take on jokes, and jokes have been around for all of human history.