A history lesson in memes
Memes have actually existed for millennia, in one form or another, but it took some time until we started considering how we use them to communicate. It was, in fact, the world’s most renowned atheist Richard Dawkins who coined the term in his book The Selfish Gene, where he stated that memes are the equivalent to culture as genes are to humans.
When you put it that way, you could say that things like democracy and even religions started off as memes. Ok, we might be pushing it a bit there, but we do know that one of the most notable early memes dates as far back as World War II. James Kilroy, a war ship-welding inspector, started signing off his safety checks with “Kilroy was here” before, somewhere down the line, it merged with the long-nosed cartoon character Mr Chad. The resulting ‘meme’ then started to appear on every bridge and building for years to come.
Since the Internet came to be, AOL died, and social media platforms started to become an almost unavoidable part of our everyday lives, the definition has somewhat changed. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a meme as “an image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.” In 2012, the word skyrocketed in popularity thanks to the likes of forums such as 4chan and Reddit, and now we’re living in an age where almost every current event is instantly turned into a meme.
Some memorable examples
If you’re active on social media, then you’ve probably been aware of memes for some time, and you’ve probably even seen some of the world’s biggest brands dabbling with them for viral marketing campaigns.
Luxury fashion brand Gucci heightened its appeal to the more affluent millennials by working alongside popular meme creators to advertise their La Marché des Merveilles watch collection. Visual comparison formats like ‘me vs the guy she tells you not to worry about’ and ‘TFW’ (that feeling when) were used on the brand’s social media under the campaign #TFWGucci to “reach new eyes and find new purposes.” Despite some backlash from social media users, as well as an opinion column on Fashionista titled ‘Here’s why Gucci’s #TFWGucci Memes Didn’t Really Have to Happen’, the campaign helped the watches reach a whole new audience and sold very well.
Kid’s cartoon channel Nickelodeon also took a dip into the world of memes via Twitter and Instagram, using images from its TV line up to put across humorous ideas that its target audience could relate to. With this, Nickelodeon demonstrated just how much it was attuned to family life from both the perspectives of a child and a parent.
This concept has been christened ‘memejacking’ and refers to the creative process of brands using previously created (and often memorable) memes in their own marketing in an attempt to go viral. If done successfully, this has helped brands reach a younger or more niche market, but it’s not necessarily the easiest thing to do.
Generally, this tends to be because memes have a very short lifespan. Before you know it, something that was viral a few weeks ago may now be irrelevant.
The word of social media is informed by commentary and jokes made by others that we follow. This means that memes have started to play an important part in our overall social narrative. If that’s the case, digital marketers must remain at the top of their game, adapting their content to give their followers an experienced that’s tailored and up to date.
Know your meme
Memes can help to produce immediate reactions, but social marketers should still be aware of what may or may not work for their brand. Because memes rely so heavily on humour it can be easy to latch onto something that others may find offensive or inappropriate; thus your attempt at going viral will only damage your brand. Always make sure that your content relates to your specific audience because, at the end of the day, these are the people that will make or break your marketing campaign.
So, should you use memes? The answer lies in how in-tune you are with your target audience. You want marketers that are up to date not only with current events but with Internet culture, and who can keep their finger on the pulse at all times to create something that they know your customers can relate to. One of the greatest examples of timely social media marketing is when Oreo won the commercial/marketing Super Bowl without spending a dollar on airtime. During a 34-minute delay caused by a blackout in the Superdome, the popular cookie brand simply tweeted this image, showing just how much timely, relevant humour can boost engagement.
Power out? No problem. pic.twitter.com/dnQ7pOgC
— Oreo Cookie (@Oreo) February 4, 2013
Of course, as with all social media engagement, using memes as part of your marketing strategy can be risky. They should never be used blindly, but should always have some context to your brand and, like all social engagement, allow you to strike up a discussion between you and your customers. The right humour can help to humanise your company, but it can be a very fine line between a meme that can go a long way and one that’s left as nothing but an online tumbleweed.