The meme theory: how brands can tap into internet culture

meme theory

The Drum’s head of social media, Amy Houston, spoke with Reddit, Twitch and the7stars about how brands can (try to) use pop culture and memes to better connect with their audiences.

Meme theory was first developed by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Adapted from the Greek word mimieme, meme was used as a noun to describe viral ideas and cultural phenomena.

The term evokes a slightly different image these days, but it lives on as grumpy cats, sol-ba and kombucha girls.

meme theory

Sharing memes is a fun way to connect with people, and many brands see it as an opportunity to engage with their audience. Consumers are more likely to share a hilarious meme than spend time reading verbose ads, and brands can raise awareness with memes pretty inexpensively, so it’s not hard, right?

“Rarely is a standard feed ad perceived by a user as ‘content,’ it’s just an ad,” Simon Friend, head of client services at the7stars, tells me. “On the other hand, memes, if done right, are perceived as content first and ads second.”

High fashion brands, such as Gucci, have capitalized on meme marketing in recent years. For a brand steeped in prestige and tradition, it has proven to be an effective way to draw attention to its social channels. “Creativity is key to any successful campaign,” Friend adds, “as well as understanding that the brand entering these communities must provide some value to the community.”

meme theory

At this year’s Super Bowl, advertisers competed for the crown of most memorable content on the Internet, and one of the most memorable ads was a 5-second Reddit spot. It was an unconventional approach to the typical big-budget, flashy commercials and a play on the culture of online communities.

Reddit “has a monthly internal session on memes and viral content called We Meme Businesses to try to answer questions such as what makes a meme universally understandable and shareable?” says Rachel Weber Callaway, head of creative strategy at KarmaLab, Reddit’s internal creative strategy agency.

Creating memes as a marketing strategy works because “you’re adding language to the community you’re targeting, not just siphoning their creations and spouting ads at them.” Callaway adds.

For any social media strategy, you need to know your audience and not communicate with them in a completely foreign language, or it will look disingenuous. “Daddy dancing” is a common trait among brands when they “unnaturally try to talk to their audience or cut into the cultural conversation,” says Adam Harris, global head of brand partnerships at Twitch.

Digital audiences can “smell corporate speak from a mile away, so let your creative teams be flexible enough.” Don’t be too harsh and don’t be afraid to be a little sarcastic.” Harris adds. Social listening is a key part of meme marketing; keep track of what your audience is talking about and use it.

That’s what the7Stars focused on before launching a social media campaign for rapper Stormzy. The company was able to use topics of interest, link them to song snippets and finally partner with the Great British meme account to add the final magic touch: humor.

“The key is to trust the creators-they know what works and how best to weave your brand into their posts,” Friend notes. “At the end of the day, marketers don’t just pay creators to ‘create memes,’ they benefit from their expertise, judgment and insight.”

Humor is the most important ingredient in meme marketing; you want your audience to feel part of the inside joke. “Content comes first – advertising comes second!” concludes Friend.

Being timely isn’t easy, as customer approvals can potentially delay the process, but responding to cultural moments can pay dividends. If you’re trying to capitalize on a moment of rabid popularity, “it’s best to follow Ricky Bobby’s advice, ‘If you’re not first, you’re last.’ All the spoils go to those who are first in the race to create top-notch memes when it comes to pop culture.” says Callaway.

The key to using pop culture is “to think of pop culture not as a message you convey, but as the medium through which you convey it. You’re capturing a moment that everyone shares.” Callaway adds.

So, what tactics don’t work when it comes to marketing memes to brands? Consistent or recycled content often fails to resonate. “If your audience has already seen memes all over the place, they’re much less likely to break through, and more likely to be ignored in the feed,” Callaway says.

meme theory

You shouldn’t think that memes are the easy way out or the quick route to “viral popularity.” Those memes that are “designed for the general public are rarely successful, and those that are made with a specific audience in mind, with a sharp and unique point of view, get the most popularity,” she concludes.

meme theory

Memes are fun, creative and have the potential to draw attention to a brand on a pretty significant scale. The key to marketing memes is to know your audience, listen to what they want, get creative and add a much-needed dose of humor – in a “sol bae” style, of course.

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