How Brands Can Use Memes to Connect With Consumers in a New Way

They have to be brave enough to try, though

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Think about your favorite ad of all time. Assuming you’ve ever shared that ad with someone, think about how you did that. Did you verbally explain it? Did you call someone in from another room to see it? More likely, you shared a link.

Brands have been interested in word of mouth long before they ever asked agencies to create something viral. Most of what agencies have been creating is not really worth sharing and it’s not created to be shared, either. With an eye on the award shows, we see what ideas were the biggest of the year. Curiously, many of those that win awards are being seen for the first time. They haven’t traveled all that far from the ideas’ originator or beyond the intended audience.

That doesn’t diminish the quality of those ideas or the skills of the teams and individuals that assembled them. Between the time of local award shows early in the year and Cannes in June, you become familiar with the top concepts. Meanwhile, every day in that same timeframe you become familiar with dozens of memes.

Memes cross your feed aggressively. They arrive without a “Share Now” or “Please RT” call to action. They make their way across the internet to your brain because they’re designed to travel.

The significant lifespan of a meme has shortened almost as a byproduct of Moore’s Law—or at least as a function of the growth of a given platform. Based on the way we use the social web today, a meme can peak within 72 hours.

In that short timespan, a successful meme is seen by millions of insiders. Depending on that group, the idea can break free of a platform and gain mainstream brand awareness. Think Distracted Boyfriend, Mocking SpongeBob or White Guy Blinking.

Why are these memorable?

There has never been a medium that hasn’t been exploited by brands for advertising. Yet brands haven’t figured out how to participate within the construct of memes.

They are short, which helps make them easy to remember, but they’re not memorable just because they’re quick reads. The Distracted Boyfriend meme comes from a stock photo shoot made up of dozens of images with the same couple. Why did this one image catch on?

There’s two reasons. On its own, it communicates something simple and relatable. People are annoyed when their partner looks at another person. But it’s more than that. The image was initially captioned, “Tag that friend that falls in love every month.” Once it’s out in the wild, another user expanded the concept by labeling the image and setting the template that spawned the meme. That’s when it flew across the internet, changing as it went.

As a single stock image, it was amusing. As a piece of taggable content, it hung around. Once it became editable, it went off. Copies of copies of copies, each weirder than the last, were churned out hourly. People tied in the core concept of frustration with boorish behavior to an infinite number of scenarios and jokes.

White Guy Blinking was transmitted because the confused or insulted reaction was pasted as a response to questions or situations explained by individuals, each building on the last.

Now let’s get back to your favorite ad. You probably loved the way it engaged your brain. The ad led you to fill in a blank in your mind or misdirected you to lead to a surprise. Successful memes do the same thing. How many times did you see Distracted Boyfriend after you thought you already knew the joke, only to be amused again?

A new twist added by an individual led to that surprise. Yet brands never share anything that can be added to by viewers. Brands are protective of their intellectual property—and with good reason. But that leaves brands on the sideline for this critical cultural experience. The closest most brands get is mimicking the meme format with posts for social media that either borrow from popular memes to insert the brand promise or try to look like a meme.

We should consider that memes may be a medium of their own, transmitting ideas in their own unique way. There has never been a medium that hasn’t been exploited by brands for advertising. Yet brands haven’t figured out how to participate within the construct of memes.

The fear of giving up control is huge and justified. Many social media promotions that McDonald’s has launched with hashtags have been quickly hijacked and turned against the brand. Especially for big brands, this is not an opportunity for the faint of heart. For upstarts, giving people a concept they can label, exploit or build on in the way that works for them is a path to brand love.

Your favorite brand became so as an accumulation of experiences. There is give and take, an interplay. Memes are communication that allow for that interplay. Whatever brand is bold enough to try needs to share a concrete concept and a fantastic sense of humor.