Know Your Memes—If They’re Part of Your Marketing Strategy

A number of companies, from fast food joints to luxury goods brands, have embraced memes on social media. We’ve seen Denny’s deploy the camera roll meme on Twitter and Gucci attempt to put a personal spin on the Arthur fist meme. Do these posts actually motivate customers to make purchases, though? 

While the data isn’t conclusive, memes certainly increase engagement—and for some brands, that’s a good enough reason to partake. But before doing so, marketers should determine whether memes serve a purpose in their broader strategy. Let’s explore how.

What’s a Meme, Anyways?

For the uninitiated, a meme is an image, video, or text with an underlying theme that is replicated as it passes from person to person. Often, internet users and brands will put a different spin on the meme by altering text or captions, also known as meme-jacking, which layers additional meanings onto the content. 

Doge, for example, is among the most ubiquitous of internet memes, dating back to 2010. It features a picture of a Shiba Inu dog with overlaid text, often small phrases in the font Comic Sans. Brands and organizations have used it with varying degrees of success in their marketing ventures. In 2015, Delta Airlines nodded to this meme in a flight safety video that went viral, ultimately promoting their visibility.  

But some organizations have flopped in their usage of the Doge meme. In an attempt to promote Obamacare, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HSS) tweeted its own Doge meme, which landed poorly among Twitter users. Why didn’t people welcome this tweet as warmly as the Delta video? One reason is that at the time they tweeted it, the meme was already hackneyed. Unlike Delta, which situated the meme in a video self-conscious of its absurdity, HHS tried blatantly to reach young Americans. 

Memes are a sensitive medium, as evident in the above examples. They require an understanding not only of latent meanings, but also the broader cultural attitude surrounding each meme. Long story short: if you tweet a Doge meme in 2020, people will definitely think you’re out of touch. 

The Pitfalls of Using Memes—and How to Avoid Them

Many brands use memes on social media to garner attention from potential customers or clients—but attempts at visibility can quickly morph into bad publicity. It’s always important to exercise caution before posting on social media, but especially critical when it comes to memes. Beginners should be aware of these common mistakes:  

  • Using a copyrighted image. If your company uses an image that infringes on a copyright restriction or implies endorsement by another entity, you could become vulnerable to lawsuits.
  • Referencing an insensitive meme. While a meme may seem innocent, its meaning could have evolved over time. Search for recent iterations on KnowYourMeme.com—and ensure the meme doesn’t carry any unwanted baggage.
  • Posting something at odds with your brand. Your brand identity should always remain top-of-mind. Remember: Social media users may approach your post with skepticism if it seems out of character for your company or organization.

Meme Marketing 101: Best Practices for Modern Brands

When used successfully, memes can strengthen a brand, reach a niche audience, and increase visibility. Here are a few tips for making your memes soar: 

  • Know your audience. Memes are most popular among teens and twenty-somethings. If this demographic comprises a large part of your customer base, memes will likely be effective at grabbing their attention. Having an age-diverse audience doesn’t mean you can’t use memes, but be sure to consider how a post will be received by older audience members—before hitting publish.
  • Hire a digital native. Digital natives are people who grew up using the internet and understand the nuances of popular memes better than anyone. Inviting young employees to join your social media and marketing team can help you avoid missteps and stay relevant.
  • Embrace humor. Memes are meant to be funny—so don’t be afraid to poke fun at your brand. Denny’s has done this skillfully by spreading lighthearted breakfast memes online, earning their Twitter account nearly 500,000 followers. 

Going viral or increasing engagement might be part of your company’s marketing goals, and memes are an easy way to accomplish either of those objectives. Adapting a pre-existing meme to your brand is the simplest course of action, as audiences will be able to immediately connect with your post—but you might also consider creating new memes tailored to your company. 

With proper strategy and a knowledgeable communications team, memes can bolster your brand and boost your social media stats. Just remember to exercise caution when posting them—or risk inadvertently making your brand into a meme itself.

After dabbling in journalism, communications, and science publishing, Anne found her way to MarketSmiths. When she’s not writing, this New Jersey native is likely spending time outdoors or expounding on the importance of the Oxford comma.

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