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Mastering meme marketing: Strategies for brands

When starting my research to write this article, I had what I thought at the time, a good enough understanding about meme marketing, but upon reading additional articles, watching videos on YouTube and listening to podcasts, I slowly discovered there is more to the satirical images and videos that flood our feeds today.
Mastering meme marketing: Strategies for brands

Meme marketing isn't just about eliciting a chuckle; it's a sophisticated tool wielded by brands to forge genuine connections with fans. These fans, in turn, become the torchbearers of brand loyalty, shaping a new era of consumer-brand relationships.

If you want to go down the meme rabbit hole with me, or just see how a distinguished evolutionary theorist plays a significant role in our internet's history, or maybe, just maybe you only want to know which brands got meme marketing right, then keep reading, because this article uncovers them all.

What is a meme?

Meme’s are the hieroglyphics of the 21st century, where anyone with an idea and a sense of humour can create one and post it online for others to join in on the fun - it’s no longer just for the kings, queens or about the Gods.

Meme’s come in a variety of mediums like: image, video, and text. But they are more than just that, they are “a concept, belief, or practice conceived as a unit of cultural information that may be passed on from person to person, subject to influences in a way analogous to natural selection” as stated by the New York Times; or as I say, “funny pieces of content we share online without thinking of the repercussions”.

With each piece of content being closely linked to the current zeitgeist of pop culture, a message is solidified with a meta and alt tag, allowing it to live on through laptops, phones, instant messaging services, social media and your forgotten photo gallery.

The more current the meme, the more likely it leads to virility across the internet and hopefully it becomes a personal favourite to share with friends or family when you have no words; but you do have a sense of humour.

The origins of the word

The famous evolutionist Richard Dawkins is heralded for coining the term “meme” in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. He created it by combining the Greek word ‘mimeme’, which means ‘to imitate’ and the word ‘gene’ to create the now infamous word meme.

His rationale for creating the word is based on how humans have deep connections with one another and an ability to “replicate, mutate and evolve across ideas, ideals, cultural beliefs and customs”.

It is through this ongoing practice that we [humans] are similar to a virus - no I am not making this sh*t up - like a virus we “travel from person to person imitating, sharing and repeating” cells; or in this case, content.

And that’s the beauty of meme marketing: it all comes down to letting your audience join in on the narrative and create their own ones for themselves and you.

How meme’s took over the internet

Memes, however, over the years have evolved to become a significant form of communication. The old adage, “a picture speaks a thousand words" is now truer than ever.

A meme can be repurposed by anyone with an internet connection, and as I’ve said “a sense of humour” to be shared across the world wide web. It was through social media, particularly 9gag, the self entitled “Meme Museum” that created a platform that allowed users to scroll through endless memes.

The platform was created to celebrate humour allowing users to upload images, videos and texts. With this dedication to the art form it saw more and more memes being used across other platforms that were designed to show lifestyle, family or business related content. But memes can encompass all of the above.

What to know when doing meme marketing

So, now that we have discussed the above, it’s imperative to know that meme marketing is not just a quick fire win, it’s more of an art form that can have great rewards. But with reward there is also risk.

A meme is a form of communication that transcends time, it’s a medium that allows you to say so much by saying so little. It’s a communication device that can be replicated, tweaked and shared from person to person who understands its social context.

What brands should know when looking to use this type of marketing is that it needs to be fun and if it isn’t it can backfire. It can show how either on trend you are or out of touch you have become because the online audience can share it or slate it hiding behind a veil of anonymity. It’s like acting cool vs being cool.

If you are putting it on people (your audience) will see right through it. A little later I will share some insights into how you can use memes as an effective tool and why, but first here are some examples.

Successful Campaign: Crocs

Throughout the years there have been some notable meme marketing campaigns that have taken the internet by storm. In some regards these examples have not just changed the way other brands and agencies apply their tactics to make it work, but rather find innovative ways to allow consumers to be the mouthpiece for a brand… case in point, Crocs footwear.

The once failing footwear brand was close to bankruptcy following the 2008 recession. Due to plummeting sales the brand was on the brink of failure but on 2 October 2019 they created a TikTok account that would change their history forever and become a ubiquitous footwear choice amongst the youth.

Within one week they amassed 100k followers and struck digital gold with the Shaving Foam challenge - in which TikTokers would fill their Crocs with shaving foam and place their feet inside allowing it to squirt out.

A reason for Crocs’ meme marketing being an overall success is the target audience that engages with TikTok. According to Forbes, 32.5% of users are below the age of 19, with a total of 60% of users identifying as Gen Z. With this knowledge the marketing team at Crocs utilised meme marketing effectively to make their footwear cool with their captivated audience.

What ensued was a constant stream of meme’s all associated with the brand which was then “replicated, mutated, and evolved” by their growing consumer base.

This tactic allowed their new loyal patrons to make the content on their behalf and drive a fun online conversation in which many people could join by making their own aligned content.

Successful Campaign: Barbenheimer

The next two beneficiaries of meme marketing were an unlikely duo, namely, Barbie and Oppenheimer, the two movies that were released in 2023. Now, in my opinion, the internet is the only eternity that can make two films that are quite literally polar opposites become one synergistic masterpiece that became Barbenheimmer.

Both movies were set to release on the same day, 21 July, with both having very distinctive target audiences that would not necessarily mix, the ‘internet’ found a creative way to combine the movies with spin-off pieces of content that flooded everyone’s feeds.

Content creators made movie posters that incorporated elements from both films; like the neon pink colour palette of Barbie and the black and white cinema noir of Oppenheimer to make one feature that could only be viewed by back-to-back sittings. The Barbenheimmer challenge was then created which saw over 200,000 people book tickets for both movies on the same day.

Meme marketing entirely undertaken by fans of the two movies resulted in merchandise stores, a Wikipedia page and both films grossing over a billion dollars.

Thus etching them into the meme marketing master book of success stories that future Hollywood productions will look to emulate, but the trick here is that none of this was forced, if anything the pure absurdity of of combining two concepts so distant from each other made them fit like Yin and Yang. Where there was dark, there was pink; where there were bombs, there were blonde bombshells; and where there was quantum mechanics, there was “I’m just Ken”.

How to use meme marketing to effectively grow your brand online

So now, what have I learned from jumping head-first down this rabbit hole of memes? Well, I think Dev Patel - the SEO master - summarised it quite nicely and gave tips to help grow your social media followers.

1. Understand your consumer base:

Meme marketing will not work for everyone, it’s a specific type of genre that either you love or you hate. This may be down to an age thing but if the content relates, it relates and that cuts through time and space.

2. Timing is everything - be on trend:

Like everything in life - it comes down to when you do it. The same applies to meme marketing - if you are on trend and strike while the iron is hot you can create pixel gold. But if you recycle a trend because it serves your purpose as a brand but is out of popular opinion, posting that meme could do more damage than good.

That’s why it’s important to understand not only the consumer but also the digital landscape. Memes much like canned food have a shelf life, what was cool last month or what was trending yesterday may not be the right piece of content to produce today. However, if you can be agile enough to jump on the trend, and create something sticky then you are “A for away” for some easy engagement metrics.

3. Application is key:

Just because there is a meme does it mean you should post it? No! Choosing to do meme marketing for your brand is a bold move and only one that should be taken if you know how to make the meme work for your own narrative.

Copy-pasting something without much thought leads to the inverse effect - losing a following. One needs to apply the right sense of judgement and humour to change the meme into something that resonates and connects.

The overall goal should be to create a meme that inspires others to make more of them for your brand's narrative.

4. And lastly, they are relatively free to make:

Gone are the days when brands need to spend hundreds of thousands of rands to make their brand stand out. Instead, they can find a trendy meme, whack on some text that relates and post it.
A perfect example of this can be seen by the infamous (and recently ostracised) Kanye West who spent a total of 30 seconds and zero dollars recording his Superbowl advert in his car. Only spending the money for the ad spot which was in the millions resulted in over $70 million worth of online sales.

When using memes as a marketing tool, you have to know that they will not immediately work as a way to sell your product or promote your services. However, a consistent flow of memes relating to your industry, with unique insights that your audience will understand can help grow your followers and maintain a level of engagement.

Meme marketing is a clever and cost-effective way to draw people in to follow your page but if not done correctly you can hurt your brand’s image.

It’s an easy way to gain virility online but it needs to align with what you and your brand do, without that, you're just adding to the content fatigue that we all suffer from.

In the end, memes and the use of meme marketing by brands allow everyone to enjoy the joke. It gives a sense of community in which humour is the language. They are open to interpretation and editing by anyone who wants to join in.

Memes have become a foundation of communication in an internet-obsessed world, they constantly evolve with what is happening politically, socioeconomically and culturally.

Just like a virus, they can spread and mutate across multiple verticals with far-reaching effects and just like a virus, we as humans have the ability to let them grow or be stopped by the power of our online sentiment.

About Angus Hamilton-Morris

Angus Hamilton-Morris, client service director at DarkMatter
DarkMatter is a full-service agency offering video production, animation, design, UI/UX design, web development, public relations and social media management service.
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