How Brands Can Master Memeing Without Coming Across as Cringey

It’s a fine line to walk

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Millennials and Gen Z collectively belong to the largest generation in the world. They were born after the internet went mainstream and were about 10 years old when the iPhone launched. They’re ethnically diverse, socially tolerant, globally connected and environmentally aware.

But living in households with an average of 10 connected devices has given them an attention span of just a few minutes. This is why they prefer highly visual and video-centric platforms that host engaging, fast content like Instagram, YouTube and TikTok. On these platforms, they make and share their own content and watch content created by influencers and their peers.

Knowing that their preference in content is short and sweet, does that mean your brand should be investing in the shortest of all content and generating memes to capture the attention of these generations? Do it well, and you can connect in an authentic way with this important demographic. But do it incorrectly, and you risk looking out of touch and inauthentic.

In a time when young consumers distrust advertising and paid branded promotions more than ever, there are ways that brands can create memes that capture the attention of this audience while avoiding the cringe-factor.

Tap creators who are meme experts and great brand partners

You have to know when to enter a conversation, join a trend or adopt new lingo and when to stay in your lane.

Brands have consistently embraced cutting-edge marketing tactics and trends, but memes have proven to outwit them at every turn. Memes and their ability to metamorphose by the minute forces marketers to move quickly, be more concise and capture cultural trends as they arise. This is not always what brands—especially large brands—do well.

But there are thousands of creators on various platforms that have perfected the meme and are looking for brand partners. Many of these creators are skilled at turning creative briefs into memes that rise to the top of the online conversations that young consumers are having, all while keeping the brand front and center. By establishing collaborative partnerships with brilliant creators, your brand can create content that is creative and entertaining while staying true to its DNA. When content entertains and excites, it is more likely to be shared.

Don’t stop behaving like yourself

Gucci was one of the first luxury brands that dared speaking to consumers via meme, the most informal, accessible and light-hearted marketing tactic to date. None of those are traditional brand attributes that usually attract luxury brands, but they created memes in their own luxurious style and stayed true to brand by partnering with people like fashion photographer Amanda Charchian and then recruiting meme creator April Eileen Henry, who runs the viral account Texts From Your Exisentialist. That campaign might not have been nearly as successful if Gucci didn’t tap the right creative team, with Charchian creating Vogue-worthy photography and Henry leveraging the meme’s ability to hijack cultural and current affairs in real time. Had Gucci used low production value artwork, a photographer that wasn’t editorial level or tried to unnaturally insert itself into mainstream culture conversations, it would not have worked. Their memes were accessible and smart, but they stayed solidly in the luxury space, which is where even the youngest consumer wants to find them.

Be authentic and relatable

Millennials don’t just pick up on a brand trying too hard to be cool, they can turn your inauthenticity against you. Consider the Twitter account Brands Saying Bae, which mocks brand attempts to appropriate youth culture and vernacular with blistering satire, sarcasm and flat-out mockery.

The feed is filled with brands using the word “bae,” dabbing, hijacking Pride Month and using memes. The thing to note here is that it isn’t always bad for a brand to attach itself to celebrity news, cultural events or social causes, but it just isn’t always the right move for every brand. You have to know when to enter a conversation, join a trend or adopt new lingo and when to stay in your lane. Young consumers don’t need you to speak exactly as they do as long as you are reliably good at what you do. If you are a potato chip company, consumers are happy if you produce memes about potato chips and BBQs. You don’t need to appropriate new lingo or hijack every new moment in the news cycle.

Distribute your content where your audience lives

The best way to make authentic and relatable content is to connect with your audience where they live and to enter that platform on their terms. The worst way to make and spread memes is to try to force your way into a community that doesn’t want you there, stealing the way they speak without aligning with them in any other way. Deliver memes through distribution channels that are endemic to how millennials consume and engage with content. Platforms that possess the capabilities to not only distribute among their massive audience but can also flex their capabilities to create bespoke content will be the ones that are able to harness the power of short-form content. There are sites for football fans, college students and car lovers, and if you are creating content that aligns with those passion points, you are one step closer to reaching the young consumer.

Young audiences are increasingly distracted, but new media is often the antidote for the consumer that is hard to capture. Using the right combination of creative help, community building and distribution will let you deliver high engagement and positive sentiment for your brand. If your brand is ready to embrace new media like GIFs and memes, go for it. Just do it well enough to avoid the cringe.