Memes, Memes Everywhere

Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story talks to his friend Woody, it’s a popular meme explaining what Buzz sees everywhere

Phoebe teaching Joey how to speak French on Friends.

Bernie Sanders asking you once again to take action.

And if you ever see this one, you know someone just got served.

Memes have infiltrated our digitally-native society. We see them every day, sometimes without knowing.

More than anything, memes are a chance to connect. They are the inside jokes of digital communities. And because of their close association with shared cultural moments, brands are always hot on the heels of the Internet, trying to find ways to connect themselves — often to the indignance of those they’re trying to reach out to.

Crazy spider with laser eyes saying silence brand

Is there any way brands can meaningfully join these conversations in the face of decimation by laser eyes? Absolutely!

Let’s start with a quick refresher on what makes a meme. Take your pick, but depending where you look, there are a few definitions:

  • an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation;
  • a type of behavior that is passed from one member of a group to another, not in the gene but by another means such as people copying it;
  • a humorous image, video, piece of text, etc., that is copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly by internet users.

If you’ve seen Bad Luck Brian, Doge, or Success Kid, you’re surely familiar with the last of those three definitions. The first two, however, speak to the deep societal and cultural meanings that help modern memes take the Internet by storm.

The most popular memes are born from shared moments among a well-connected community, spread by imitation and passed across all corners of the web. The first month of 2021 already provided us numerous examples.

The captive audience from this year’s presidential inauguration took note of several fashion trends, from the pastel-colored jackets of the Kamala Harris, Dr. Jill Biden, and more, to the Air Jordan Dior 1’s of Nikolas Ajagu, and of course the fashionable Vermont winter wear of one Senator Sanders. Followers of the recent stock market saga driven by Robinhood and Reddit will recognize the “stonks” meme, which also features a character aptly named Meme Man.

As we saw with these in the past month, any meme that catches internet fire is the product of both an identifiable cultural moment, and a rapid imitation and passing beyond the culture that created it.

We know all too well that whatever catches the eye of the Internet community is a short time away from being invaded by “the brands.” Sometimes it’s a vain attempt to appear relatable, and sometimes it’s an opportunity to expand their relevance outside their immediate community. In the best instances, a brand identifies an overlap where it makes sense to partake in “an element of culture or system of behavior” with their community and join that conversation.

Unfortunately, many memes shared by brands don’t get that moment of consideration to even ask why it’s being posted. A viral meme is seen on many occasions as a chance to make the rounds and get their stake of the engagement. A snap decision like that doesn’t consider whether the meme is in line with the rest of their content or how their audience will respond to the meme. Jumping on a trend for the sake of the trend leaves a brand out of the conversation entirely.

So where does it make sense to join a meme trend like Bernie Sanders or the stonk craze? Here are a few questions to ask, for starters:

  • Are you in tune with how the meme is being used at that very moment? The context around memes can change in an instant. The few hours it takes to get approval could change the conversation you’re jumping in to immensely.
  • Does the meme align with your brand’s values? If there’s no overlap between your community and the community sharing the meme, but you see the trend and try to jump on it for the likes, that’s textbook appropriation. I recently learned about the term digital blackfacing and now am more conscious of how we all “need to be cognizant of what we share, how we share, and to what extent that sharing dramatizes preexisting racial formulas inherited from ‘real life.’” Even political figures like Bernie represent a distinct political value set. If your brand’s values stand in direct contrast to those represented by a meme, probably best to sit out on trends like that.
  • Does it fit with the voice and tone of your brand? Sophia Aladenoye presented three key tenets to maintaining an effective brand voice at SocialFresh this past December, one of which was minimizing the chaos. If you don’t have a well-defined voice and tone, or if you do and it does not align with a certain meme, take a pass and wait for one that does. MailChimp’s voice and tone guide is a fantastic example to bookmark.

It’s likely none of the above questions are groundbreaking to hear, but these are questions that should be answered before a brand shares anything on social, not just a trending meme.

Another way to make sure a meme is in line with your brand? Make your own meme culture! It’s a strategy that takes dedication, time, and an awful lot of “trust the process” energy, but that’s exactly what the US Consumer Product Safety Committee has done (and shoutout SocialFresh again for highlighting Joseph Galbo and his work with the USCPSC).

The USCPSC makes their own library of memes and characters to draw upon in order to share educational information for their audience. It’s all done with simple, stock image-like photos and crazy neon highlighted borders around Photoshopped images. It’s an organic approach to conveying consumer safety information, and it works because they have the courage to stand out in a crowded space with consistency and frequency.

In the overlap between education and entertainment, the USCPSC found a unique way to emotionally engage their audience. By engaging with that audience and sharing useful information, they build trust. Trust leads to their community heeding their messages and taking the desired action, and voila: conversion, made possible by memes.

And that’s the endgame here. Any social-first tactic — including memes — should tie back to larger brand goals and the overarching social strategy.

For those who can find the sweet spot between their brand voice and conversation around a meme, own it.

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