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StrategyFeb 11, 2019

Marketing With Memes

Evan Westermann

Memes as modern marketing? I know what you’re probably thinking, but just hear me out. Since marketing agencies and corporations first began promoting products, advertisements have evolved alongside the technology available at the time, as well as the culture and general attitude of the given society. Take for example American advertisements circa 1940; corporations drew upon the viewer’s sense of duty and patriotism during World War II, hoping to strike a chord with their target audience. We live in a very different society today, and as such, companies must update their marketing strategies in order to reach and relate to their target audiences. Any marketing campaigns’ dream is to become “viral,” to spread rapidly with a catchy phrase or quirky character. The catchphrase and mascot routine have been the relatively successful modus operandi of many companies for years, (Geico’s gecko, Frosted Flakes’ Tony the Tiger, and McDonalds’ Ronald McDonald to name a few) but starting in the early 2000s, a new potential marketing vehicle arose to prominence: the meme.

what is a meme?

A meme is simply a picture, phrase, or figure that references something in popular culture, sometimes obscure and usually comical. Since memes are typically relatable, viewers feel more inclined to share these images or quotes because they invoke laughter or a sense of joy, a feeling which can then be associated with a company’s product or brand.

the meme challenge

The difficulty with a meme as a marketing tool is their relatively short life cycle. Take for example the yodeling Walmart boy, or the “backpack kid”. Both of these memes blew up relatively quickly, catapulting the respective people behind the meme into the spotlight. The yodeling boy went on to sign a record deal and go on tour, while the boy famous for his dancing went on to appear on Saturday Night Live with Katy Perry and even launch a music career of his own.

These are simply two of the countless examples of the sheer power of memes and social media in general. They possess the power to launch someone from relative obscurity into the national spotlight. However, the flip side is the inevitable and rather rapid decline. A meme is only popular and relevant as long as it continues to generate new shared content from fans, prompting them to create their own spin-offs in the form of videos, pictures, and parodies. As quick as they rise is as quick as they fall; such is the nature of memes.

making memes work

So here’s the million-dollar question: How does a company or marketing agency seeking to harness the power of this phenomenon succeed?

First, it’s important to identify the target demographic that will respond most favorably to meme marketing: chiefly, millennials. Unfortunately, there is no formula to guarantee success of a meme, since the point of origin of memes varies greatly. Some are generated from online forums like Reddit, while others are spawned on social media platforms like Instagram or Twitter.

Creating a successful meme also requires a profound understanding of the social climate and current meme culture to determine what will succeed and what won’t. It’s definitely an art, and nobody can expect to churn out successful memes on command. There are, however, some key points that can be used by companies to increase their odds of creating a meme that has longevity and viral potential in addition to accomplishing its goal of increasing brand awareness and/or customer loyalty.

3 keys to successful memes:

  1. Brand Subtly – Today’s social media consumers are quick to recognize an obviously branded advertisement masquerading as a meme. This is a tightrope that must be walked by all who want to tap into this resource. Wendy’s is a prime example of meme marketing done right. Their content is hilarious, topical, and typically goes pretty viral across Twitter. Many of their tweets get tens of thousands of retweets and likes. The brand name or product should exist within the meme in some form or fashion but should not be the focal point of the piece. Consider it guerilla marketing in the digital age.

  2. Divide and Conquer – In order to increase the potential for success of a meme, spread it to as many platforms as possible. Be careful though that this is not a cookie-cutter approach. The meme should be tweaked and modified to suit the platform it’s being introduced to (Twitter, FB, Reddit, Instagram, etc.).

  3. Piggy Backing – This is the easiest, and most often misused, approach to meme marketing. It’s simple because the meme already exists, and a company only needs to tweak it appropriately to plug their own brand. The danger here is misusing a meme in a context it wasn’t intended for, painting the company as “out of touch” and behind the times. A prime example here is this billboard from Fanta, utilizing a meme format from 2012 and posted on a popular subreddit r/FellowKids, a forum that makes fun of poor attempts of companies to market to millennials. A deft touch is required for success.

making much of memes

The meme is here to stay. How companies and marketing agencies use it for their marketing success is up to them, and as memes continue to shift and evolve along with society, companies must follow in order to stay relevant in an ever-changing digital landscape.