Memes are everywhere today, on social media, television, even in print media. You can’t scroll down your social newsfeed without seeing hundreds of memes, many of which you’ll likely share with friends and family.
Many brands embrace meme culture, and while some succeed, others fail miserably, coming off as promotional, disingenuous or just downright offensive.
This article will look at how brands successfully use memes to gain new customers and build a stronger connection with their customer base.
The Popularity of Memes
A meme is a behavior, concept or idea that spreads inside a culture. Today, memes typically spread through social media, but they can also be found on t-shirts, coffee cups and billboards.
Memes are a popular way of conveying humor, sarcasm, social commentary or even protest, using graphic images that may include celebrities, comics or other aspects of popular culture. Many websites are devoted entirely to memes, such as the Internet Meme Database, otherwise known as Know Your Meme, and Memedroid, which categorizes memes commonly found on social media.
According to a 2019 YPulse social media survey, 75% of 13–36-year-olds share memes with one another. More surprisingly, 55% of 13–35-year-olds share them weekly, and 30% send them daily.
Many memes start out as normal images, which individuals and brands then use as the basis for a meme. A good example is the “distracted boyfriend” meme, which is based on a 2015 stock photograph that Barcelonian photographer Antonio Guillem took.
The image — which has been used as a way to depict different forms of disloyalty — became a viral meme in August of 2017 after a Twitter user, Omar Essam, posted it with the man labeled as "The Youth" being distracted from his girlfriend, who was labeled as "Capitalism," with the object of his gaze labeled as "Socialism."
Brands began using the meme soon after. In January 2018, a version of the meme was used to depict the biblical story of Lot's wife turning into a pillar of salt as part of the "Enough: National School Walkout" gun violence protest. Not long afterward, the New York Times used the meme in its business section to reference the proposed merger of Renault and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
The distracted boyfriend meme on the front of today’s NYT Business page pic.twitter.com/DsUeJEhwcC— Michael Sheetz (@thesheetztweetz) May 29, 2019
How Are Brands Using Memes?
Becca Klein, founder of BeccaKlein.co, a digital course provider that covers blogging, online business, marketing and social media, spoke with CMSWire about the ways brands are using this viral form of marketing.
She said that brands create and use memes to build a stronger connection with their customers. Effective memes typically combine a high-quality image with evocative text — even the font used, something that should be easily understood, is important for getting the message across.
“Some brands create memes just to inspire their customers (for example, Nike),” said Klein. “Many brands use memes to share their customers' unique experiences with other social networking members (for example, Old Spice).” In the case of the male grooming brand, they’re using memes as a communication tool to express the company’s personality.
“Some brands also pull memes to show their customers that certain memes are popular among their target customers (for example, FedEx),” she explained, adding that this is an instance of brands using memes as a trend tracker to see if the graphic-text combo is worth using.
What Brands Should Avoid When Using Memes
Because memes usually involve social commentary, satire or sarcasm, they can be both funny and insightful. Brands must ensure that the memes they produce are authentic and, unlike traditional marketing, not overtly conservative. Edgy memes show that a brand has a personality and a voice that is unique and confident.
That said, Klein indicated that there are a few things brands should stay away from regarding memes.
“Firstly, they should avoid creating memes that are sexist, racist, homophobic or otherwise offensive,” said Klein. “Secondly, they should avoid using memes that have already been overdone and are no longer funny.”
Lastly, according to Klein, brands should avoid using memes that use inside jokes that only a small group of people understand, as it severely limits their effectiveness and reach.
Noah Mallin, chief strategy officer at IMGN Media, told CMSWire that there's a fine line between being cued into how people use memes to communicate and trying too hard to fit in.
“If it doesn't feel authentic to who the brand is, a meme will fall flat,” said Mallin. “There are also unintended consequences of using a meme that may have originated in a subculture that will resent it being appropriated by a brand — the 'Karen' meme is a good example of this."
The Lifespan of a Meme
While some memes have a long lifespan, others are only good for the length of time they are topical. The Bernie Sanders meme, which shows him sitting in a chair wearing mittens made for him, was popular for about a month, with people placing the image of Bernie in strange settings, such as this one that shows him sitting on the moon.
Similar to an overplayed song, the general rule with memes is that they tend to lose their appeal when they’re overused. Some memes will continue to be used, albeit in different forms, for different purposes. The popular Drake meme doesn’t seem to be going away, for instance, as new uses for it keep popping up on social media.A 2018 tongue-in-cheek report by The Outline indicated that the average lifespan of a meme is four months — but that the lifespan is slowly but surely decreasing. Others have pointed out that the lifespan of a meme differs based on the social platform it resides on.
“It really varies by platform and meme — we typically see memes form on Reddit and Twitter and start to get played out after a few days while the same memes are just beginning to penetrate Instagram and Facebook,” explained Mallin. “Some memes can last for a few weeks by combining with other memes and continually mutating but this is the exception to the rule.”
The Challenges of Using Memes
Brands must determine the type of content their target customer base is interested in and create memes relatable to that group. This practice enables brands to reach a large number of people in a short amount of time, suggested Klein.
“Your audience will most likely be on social media, which is where memes originate from and are shared,” she explained. “The challenge is to find the right balance.”
Authenticity is vital so that brands do not appear to be jumping on the latest bandwagon — or worse, are offensive to the groups they are trying to reach.
“Brands need to be careful about using memes because they can come off as inauthentic or tasteless,” said Klein. “If you're following a negative trend, or the memes are negative in nature or use a meme that's been overdone, you won't get the results you're looking for.”
Aside from the tricky issues of simply using the appropriate meme for the right audience in an effective but genuine manner, there are also copyright issues to consider.
“Memes are often based on existing media — think of the litany of Ben Affleck memes — so there are rights issues when brands jump in that can be tricky,” said Mallin.
There’s also a concern that when appropriating a meme, brands can seem to be “that guy” who is going around telling everyone how cool he is, which essentially tells everyone how uncool he is.
Mallin said that brands should have a reason to participate in a meme, much like people do in general. “There is a shared truth or assumption that underpins successful memes that brands can either locate themselves in easily or feel forced. Most of all being self-deprecating rather than promotional goes a long way towards earning the right to participate without feeling like, well, 'Hello, fellow kids.'”
When done correctly, memes can be a great short-term way for brands to express their personality, provide their customers with lighthearted entertainment and gain new followers who would have otherwise not become aware of them.
However, brands must avoid memes that are offensive or negative, focus on themes that coincide with their own values and recognize that memes have a very short shelf life — lest they oust themselves as inauthentic and out-of-touch.