Memes can quickly become a shared cultural phenomenon for people in very different markets. Harnessing these popular phenomena can bring opportunities for global businesses. But memes are fleeting things, and it’s hard for large business to respond quickly enough. Getting it right culturally is an even harder prospect.
Memes have been described as ‘packets of culture’. Encompassing such varied aspects of human invention as fashion trends, manufacturing techniques, and language innovations such as figures of speech, they are infinitely replicable and adaptable across humanity.
Throughout human history, memes have included styles of architecture, weaving techniques, political systems, hats, and programming methods.
But in the internet age, the concept of a meme has a very specific meaning. On the internet, a meme is fundamentally an inside joke that a large number of internet users are in on.
There are many types of online meme; from static images with text overwritten, to brief gifs and video clips. There are also trending ideas, such as planking or owling and other silly internet fads that come and go pretty quickly.
Whatever form they take, memes tend to share certain characteristics. They are easy to consume, usually very simple and with minimal (if any) text. They tend to be consumed in formats that are easy to share; spread via social sites that easily boost both images and video by social sharing buttons and networks.
Popular memes tend to follow themes that many people can relate to, for example, they feature celebrities or familiar situations such as sitting in a traffic jam, or they concern popular TV shows or films.
Memes are very often funny or silly, and they are often very good at bringing people into a community and making them feel part of something. That’s a good reason for brands to want to join in: memes can be great vehicles for engagement.
An Internet meme may evolve over time, by chance or through commentary, imitations, and parody versions, or even by collecting news accounts about itself. Internet memes have a tendency to evolve and spread extremely swiftly, sometimes going in and out of popularity in just days.
They are spread organically, voluntarily, and peer to peer, rather than by compulsion, predetermined path, or completely automated means
Memes are both global and local
The beauty of the internet is that ideas spread like wildfire across the world. Memes such as Grumpy Cat have become popular in many parts of the world, where they’ve often been adapted to suit local ideas. Cultures adapt existing memes or create their own, to reflect the issues that are of local interest. This may be something to do with a popular local celebrity or a person in power such as a politician.
Quite often memes will be created to reflect local concerns or problems; many traffic-related memes come out of Los Angeles, for example.
Sometimes these can be shared outside their market of origin: or they may be very specific to local concerns. Harnessing locally-relevant memes are one way to show that your brand really understands local concerns.
If your brand is new to a market and looking to establish itself, harnessing memes can be a good way to show you relate to your local audience. But it’s hard to get it right, and can backfire.
Perhaps the best approach is to really immerse yourself in the local culture before you even try to join in the local meme scene. Understand what works and what doesn’t, what the cultural tropes are, and who they appeal to.
It’s vitally important to avoid any culturally sensitive topics. Steer clear of politics, even if political memes are highly popular. Memes that go viral are nearly always from anonymous sources; any that your brand creates will not be. Leave the creation of controversial memes to anonymous web users.
Although memes are adapted to suit local interests and preoccupations, there are some trends that are particularly strong in some markets. Swedes have a love of wordplay, so there are many Swedish-origin memes playing with language ideas and puns.
Chinese memes are often satirical comments on society and the authorities – cynicism about the effectiveness of the corruption crackdown is a popular theme. Memes that come out of South Africa frequently reference local problems such as power outages. Many Russian memes reference outed prime minister Dmitry Medvedev.
The challenges of meme marketing
Memes often have very short lifespans; a fact that can be problematic for brands trying to join in. Even if your brand spots the perfect meme to jump in on, by the time you’ve gone through the process of clearing the idea with stakeholders you may have missed the opportunity.
Nimble small enterprises have the advantage here – although they may struggle to gain the same traction as bigger brands with more budget and a bigger audience.
There’s also a small possibility of meme trends backfiring in odd ways. The seemingly harmless cartoon frog Pepe was co-opted by the far-right and white nationalist movements in a move that surprised even its creator.
US restaurant chain Wendy’s, unaware of the connection between a cartoon frog and alt-right politics, naively tweeted an image using Pepe and had to hastily retract its post. Because memes change and evolve so quickly, their meaning and associations can become twisted. It’s hard to predict which memes may become tainted if even a cartoon frog can become an ugly symbol of hate.
It’s arguably no more dangerous to use a meme than it is to link your brand to a celebrity spokesperson. Even the blandest celebrity may surprise everyone by suddenly turning into a liability and one you wouldn’t want representing your brand.
Subway probably had the worst possible experience when their spokesperson Jared Fogle was suddenly investigated for child pornography charges.
Bill Cosby went from the third most trusted celebrity in America to bottom of the pile after some alarming rape allegations surfaced unexpectedly.
Athletes such as Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, Ryan Lochte and Oscar Pistorius were all active with high-profile brands when they very publicly fell from grace. Memes are no more risky than celebrities for tying your brand to.
Meme marketing can offer lively brands the opportunity to show a playful side. But it’s also an opportunity to make a fool of your brand if you get it wrong. The key thing to remember is that you have to know your audience very well indeed to try to connect with them in this way.
Memes may look simple, and they’re cheap to make, but only brands that put the work into understanding their audience can hope to make a success of this style of marketing.