If you’ve been on social media lately, you’ve probably noticed that memes are king (among a certain demographic, at least). It’s no wonder brands have been jumping on the memewagon ever since the term first entered popular consciousness, with results ranging from hugely successful to downright disastrous. Have you been thinking of taking up this double-edged blade for your social media campaign? Read on for more to help you decide whether memes are truly suitable for your business.
Before anything else, you should ask yourself whether you want to attract that meme-loving demographic to your business — if you mostly cater to an older age group or professionals (or it is important for your business to retain a professional image) then memes are not for you. If you don’t understand the basic concept of a meme yourself, then memes are also not for you (not yet, at least).
How Memes Work
If you’re considering using memes as a tool, the most important thing is to understand the specific appeal. If you were to narrow memes down to a few key factors, I would say the most important four are: self referential humour, self deprecation, relateable situations, and a good dollop of absurdity to top it off.
The self-referential aspect requires whoever is in charge of social media to have knowledge of different memes and references to use them effectively — many popular posts from Facebook meme pages are the result of layers and layers of memes, a kind of in-joke shared between hundreds of thousands of people. This has even reached a point where the concept of a meme is a meme in itself. Are you confused yet?
Interestingly, marketing campaigns themselves have been known to become memes — whether it’s positively as in the case of Old Spice Man or, more often, negatively as with the spate of recent memes mocking Pepsi’s tone deaf protest ad with Kendall Jenner.
It’s worth thinking about the different types of memes that exist, too. For example, the hugely popular Nihilist Memes page traffics in images where the punchline is invariably the reminder that death is inescapable.
Denny’s, a US brand that is well-known for having a good grasp of meme marketing, riffed on this theme in a take on the ‘zoom’ meme, in which the reader is instructed to zoom to different parts of a large image to reveal a secret message. In this case, the punchline is “has this distracted you from overwhelming existential dread lol” and with more than 123,000 retweets it’s one of the more successful examples of meme marketing.
zoom in on the syrup pic.twitter.com/omRBupjrXq
— Denny's (@DennysDiner) March 1, 2017
Also gaining traction, perhaps in response to depressing memes like Nihilist Memes, is the concept of Wholesome Memes. Most active in a popular subreddit, the punchline of a wholesome meme is simply something uplifting, usually a compliment or inspiring message of some sort. If used properly, wholesome memes could be a little more business-friendly than the nihilist type — especially if it suits your business or message.
What Not To Do
Let’s start with a list of common meme-related errors first — because there are many, many traps to fall into here. The number one mistake for brands using memes is not understanding the meme in the first place. Here’s a simple rule: if you don’t understand a meme, don’t use it. In fact, if you don’t personally find a meme funny, don’t use it. Additionally, if you have to remove elements from a meme that aren’t ‘safe’ for your brand, don’t use it. There’s nothing people will pile on quicker than a family-friendly version of an otherwise risque meme.
This is straight out of Don Draper's playbook. pic.twitter.com/8U5CrGKPEj
— Brands Saying Bae (@BrandsSayingBae) January 7, 2015
Another big mistake is using outdated memes. Though some memes only last a few weeks, others are fairly evergreen and are still relevant now. It can be hard to keep track of which is which. If you’re not sure, try to stick to the most recent stuff — and definitely stay away from cheezburger cats, which seem to have become a shorthand for out of touch brands trying to be relevant.
It’s especially important to make sure there’s not an offensive double meaning behind the meme you’re co-opting. Brands can also get in hot water when asking people to submit their own content, for example a Coke campaign that was tricked into quoting Mein Kampf on its own Twitter. Oftentimes user-submitted content just serves to ridicule the brand for its poorly thought-out campaigns, such as the Kia meme-making campaign that mostly resulted in a bunch of nonsense. This campaign was run in partnership with Cheezburger, Inc, the company behind Know Your Meme, which just goes to show that even the experts can mess this stuff up from time to time.
Refrain from shoving your entire tagline or sales pitch into a meme and expecting that to gain traction — it can be jarring and comes across as overtly promotional. The less a post looks like an ad, the more people will engage.
When you find out your friends aren’t lying about $1 sub day at participating Jimmy John’s pic.twitter.com/asMSrfd4UF
— Jimmy John's (@jimmyjohns) May 2, 2017
Overall I would suggest using memes to boost your content on social media, rather than running entire marketing campaigns around them. Don’t overuse a single type of meme, but rather keep an eye out for what’s new and popular, and think about instances where you can combine multiple jokes in an unexpected way. The NSW Police page is a great example of light-hearted memes combined with serious, important content, as police media must naturally address.
What To Do
The number one rule of memes is to never take yourself too seriously. Self deprecation is ideal — if you make a bad meme that really doesn’t work out, be honest about that. In fact, you can even make a meme of the failed meme to gain redemption, proving that your brand is self aware not out of touch.
Going back to Denny’s again, even this mostly well-received account can be self-deprecating, using the ‘playlist’ meme to spell out: “Please notice Denny’s cry for help, we are unhealthy, just a fool meme generator who needs to sign off.”
made a playlist etc pic.twitter.com/n5LfWNupx6
— Denny's (@DennysDiner) April 21, 2017
Of course, you do have to question whether this sort of barbed humor is suited to your own business before you use it. The biggest appeal of this sort of joke is that it’s so unexpected, especially to a young, jaded audience who are very used to overly positive marketing speak from brands.
Another way to approach memes may be to take a page out of the book written by brands like Mr Rental. This company’s page traffics almost exclusively in memes about ‘affordably priced appliances’ of various sorts, gaining over 70,000 followers for those efforts. It’s refreshingly low-tech, using the purposefully bad design elements of a number of other popular meme pages — complete with badly photoshopped images and text that’s been obviously and carelessly replaced, often in a different font:
While many of Mr Rental’s posts on their own would be the kinds of meme posts other pages would be roasted for, these ones work because of the character of Mr Rental himself. The character is an overplayed one who loves memes and appliances, even going so far as to tag himself in a post about renting affordably priced fridges. This is one example where using memes as an entire campaign on their own can work out — if you’re not afraid to own that goofiness.
If this kind of commitment to memes isn’t for you, then maybe you’ll do better with the tactic the NSW Police Force page has been using lately, falling back on the occasional cute picture of dogs — or rather, doggos who are invariably ‘good boys/girls’.
This ‘doggo’ language, popularised by Facebook group Dogspotting, is one of the most enduring current memes — it could even be considered the current equivalent of the once ubiquitous cheezburger cat memes. If all else fails, always post cute animals.