Meme marketing

BY Dylan Schoenmakers

When brands adopt the internet’s native tongue

Don’t blame memes for their ubiquity.

By definition humorous and easily shareable, a meme is a recognizable image, phrase or video that’s widely circulated via social media with slight variations. Usually riffing on some pop culture reference—or creating a new one in the process—a meme generates interest because of its own virality as much as for its content.

What part of that wouldn’t sound appealing to a marketer? Meme marketing can provide a great opportunity for brands to exercise personality through humour and build engagement with broader audiences. The practice has become so common that the term “memejacking” has been coined to describe the tactic of companies taking an existing meme and putting their own branded spin on it. It can be a smart way for brands to stay top of mind and respond to current trends that their audiences are tuned in to.

One of the biggest memes to emerge in recent years was an overexposed photograph of a dress that divided the internet in 2015: some viewers saw it as gold and white, while others saw it as blue and black. The impassioned debate over #TheDress ignited the internet in a way only a handful of memes do—#TheDress’s one-year anniversary was even deemed newsworthy—largely because the perceived (or not) colours of the dress polarized viewers so strongly.

Who wants to feel that something as fundamental as vision could be inaccurate or relative, or could differ from neighbour to neighbour the whole world over? As with any good piece of news, everyone—from celebrities to media to Joe at the water cooler—wanted to talk about #TheDress and find out the truth behind the colour-confused garment.

Given the condensed virality of this particular meme and its overwhelming reach, it seemed inevitable that brands would throw themselves into the ring, supporting team #whiteandgold or team #blueandblack. The memejacking free-for-all was summed up by a cheekily titled roundup by Adweek “Every Brand Wanted a Piece of #TheDress, but Who Wore It Best?

One of the standout responses to #TheDress was a campaign quickly rolled out by the Salvation Army. The campaign received a lot of praise for turning a fascinating though trivial internet debate into a platform to advocate awareness of domestic violence against women.

Featuring a bruised woman in the gold-white version of #TheDress, the ad questions, “Why is it so hard to see black and blue? The only illusion is if you think it was her choice. One in 6 women are victims of abuse. Stop abuse against women.” It took the central aspect of #TheDress phenomenon—its ambiguous colour—and made it something visceral, stark and entirely unambiguous.

While the Salvation Army’s intelligent and creative campaign capitalized on the skyrocketing interest in #TheDress—a campaign made even more timely as it launched for International Women’s Day—not all attempts to hitch brands to a popular meme take off.

On the other side of the planet, Australia’s New South Wales Police Force has been winning praises for their lighthearted takes on memes, using recognizable images and phrases to deliver messages about speeding and distracted driving in a fun, attention-getting way.

But what works for not-for-profit and public service brands doesn’t always work for for-profits. If successful meme marketing can help a brand seem current and engaging, the opposite can be far more damaging (or downright embarrassing).

The pitfalls of marketing with memes are fairly obvious: the longevity or lifespan of a meme is never certain, and there’s always an element of risk associated with buying in on trends. As soon as one peaks, there’s another to take its place as the meme of the moment.

Beyond timing, the major misstep of meme marketing is that it can make brands appear insincere and out of touch. The effort on the part of brands—to be current, youthful, appealing—is often blatant and ingratiating. And the kids aren’t buying it.

A noble attempt by an early adopter, Kia’s 2012 “Seasons Memeing Contest” was a notable fail. The campaign generated as much backlash as it did memes: “Kia, get off of the internet,” was the overarching reaction.

These days, witness the rise of help-based articles titled along the lines of “Bae for Brands? Content Creation Tips for Slang and Other Trendy Stuff” or “7 Things Marketers Should Know About Memes (The Ultimate Meme FAQ).” They point to the major difficulty of meme marketing: brands are adopting a communication style that too obviously panders to a youthful audience. It ends up feeling forced and fake.

In reaction to the insincerity of these tactics, the Twitter account @BrandsSayingBae took on the responsibility of compiling and lampooning these cringe-worthy attempts. The popular account was born during “bae’s” emergence in 2014, when the term of endearment was gaining traction as slang and inevitably found its way onto corporate social media accounts.

Their bio sarcastically sums up the disdain for brands that try too hard to sound like one of the gang: “It’s cool when a corporation tweets like a teenager. It makes me want to buy the corporation’s products.”

The feed, which is largely inactive now—although its followers continue to add current (mis)uses of slang, such as the now-popular “AF”—is a mixture of mocking commentary on appropriating memes or slang in marketing and faux-congratulatory tweets praising a company’s branding strategy and social engagement, always accompanied by screenshots of the offending tweet.

Some choice examples: “Great content or transparent cash grab? Hell, as long as it’s relatable!” and “Wait a second … a brand tweeted this? But it says ‘on fleek’—that’s not something a brand would normally tweet!”

The success or failure of meme marketing depends largely on brand and delivery, and the appropriateness of that communication style for your product and audience. A pizza chain or a video game company catering to high school or university students can probably more successfully integrate meme marketing than an insurance company. While successes are few and far between, Denny’s won some internet approval last year for its take on the “zoom in” meme. While the pancake image in the Denny’s tweet appeared run of the mill, if you “zoom in on the syrup,” a hidden message is revealed.

Competitor IHOP also tried to get in on the action, but the response from Twitter users was more “smh” than “ftw”:

The key takeaway for marketers? Like the Salvation Army’s campaign, you want to harness a meme to redirect the conversation to your brand in a way that enhances your message—instead of highlighting the inauthenticity of it.