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Meme Marketing: Leveraging Internet Culture for Brand Awareness

Meme Marketing: Leveraging Internet Culture for Brand Awareness

The internet is the ultimate playground for absurdity. From LOLCats to Doge, memes have taken on a life of their own, spreading organically through shares and likes. Innovative brands have noticed, co-opting popular memes and internet humour for their marketing campaigns. But does this tactic work to raise brand awareness, or does it come off as try-hard and inauthentic?

In this post, we'll explore the emerging strategy of meme marketing. When done right, internet memes can help even the stuffiest brands seem more approachable and “with it.” But meme marketing is a delicate art. Brands must strike the right tone, tapping into internet culture without appearing like obvious corporate shills. We'll look at some of the most successful (and disastrous) attempts at meme marketing and extract critical lessons for leveraging memes effectively.

Internet culture moves fast. Yesterday's hilarious meme is today's cringe-worthy artefact. With the right mindset, brands can ride each wave and look fantastic. But they also risk face-planting if they treat memes as a marketing gimmick. By understanding the driving psychology behind internet memes, brands can adapt to ever-shifting online tastes and become a vital part of the conversation.

The Internet generation values authenticity. But it also appreciates self-aware brands that don't take themselves too seriously. Memes allow brands to have it both ways – connecting authentically while also showing they get the joke. In the following post, we'll explore this delicate balancing act and provide a roadmap to meme marketing success.

What Exactly Are Memes, and How Do They Spread?

Meme Marketing Types Of Visual Content

Before diving into how brands can use memes for marketing, it helps to understand what internet memes are and why they tend to go viral.

A meme is any idea, behaviour, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture. Richard Dawkins first coined the term in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. While memes have existed for centuries, the internet has dramatically accelerated their spread.

Internet memes usually take the form of an image, video, or text that gets rapidly shared, imitated, and spread across social networks and blogs. Some famous examples include Lolcats, the Harlem Shake, and Distracted Boyfriend.

So what makes certain memes catch on while others flop? According to experts, successful viral memes often have the following characteristics:

  • Humour: Memes that give people a laugh or poke fun at something in a lighthearted way tend to be shared more. Humour makes content more entertaining and emotionally contagious.
  • Simplicity: Memes should be simple enough for anyone to understand immediately. If it requires too much explanation, people lose interest quickly.
  • Relatability: The most viral memes tap into experiences, emotions, or desires that many people relate to. This creates a feeling of cultural connection.
  • Timeliness: Trending topics, current events, and pop culture references give memes an air of relevance that increases their spread.
  • Adaptability: Memes are easily customised with new text or images that spawn countless iterations that breathe new life into the meme.
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The unpredictability of internet users makes it impossible to manufacture a viral meme. However, understanding these attributes can help increase the odds of a meme catching fire organically.

Why Brands Should Pay Attention to Memes

Savvy marketers are waking up to the potential of memes as a brand awareness tool. Here's why memes deserve a spot in your social media strategy:

  • Massive reach: The sharing power of memes allows brands to get their content in front of many eyes for little to no cost. A single viral meme can gain the same exposure as an expensive traditional ad campaign.
  • Targeted impact: While anyone can stumble upon a meme, brands can target niche communities where their memes are more likely to resonate and be engaged.
  • Low barrier to entry: Creating memes is as simple as adding text to a template image. For small brands with limited resources, memes provide an affordable marketing tactic.
  • Humanising effect: Memes allow brands to show off their funny, relatable, more human side. When done right, this can endear brands to audiences.
  • Conversation starter: Amusing or intriguing memes give people a reason to discuss and engage with your brand. User-generated content and word-of-mouth propel brand awareness.
  • Flexibility: Memes come in endless shapes and sizes, allowing brands to match the format to their goals, audience, and creative strengths.

In many ways, memes allow brands to speak the language of internet culture natively. While memes shouldn't replace more traditional marketing, they offer an easy way for brands to tap into the viral nature of social media.

Why Do Memes Appeal to Modern Audiences?

What Is Meme Marketing

There are several vital reasons memes have exploded in popularity:

Brevity

In the age of information overload, people crave short-form content—memes condense moments, emotions, or ideas into bite-sized packages that can be quickly consumed and shared.

Relatability

Memes use universal cultural references that allow people to see themselves and their experiences reflected in the content. This builds a sense of community.

Humour

Laughter helps people connect. Comedy also makes it easier for audiences to engage with and share memes.

Flexibility

The remixable nature of memes means they stay fresh as people personalise them. They evolve with the cultural conversation.

Sharability

Memes are designed to be spread. Their formats make it easy for audiences to participate by resharing and adding their spin.

This combination gives memes tremendous cultural traction today.

Memes as a Marketing Tool: What Brands Need to Know

For marketers, memes present a compelling opportunity – but only if used strategically. Here are some key considerations:

Lean into your brand personality.

Memes work best when they channel a brand's unique voice and perspective. Don't force memes that feel artificial. Build on your existing brand identity.

Add value with humour or emotion.

Focus on creating memes that spark joy, emotion, or laughter rather than just pushing products. If people don't find resonance, they won't share.

Remain agile and participate in trends.

Move quickly to respond to viral meme trends and conversations about your brand. But also know when not to force a meme.

Empower your community

Make it easy for passionate customers to meme your brand by providing template images, hashtags, etc. User-generated memes feel more authentic.

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Monitor carefully

Keep a close eye on brand mentions within organic memes. Look for opportunities to participate, but also be aware of potential negative usages.

The most impactful brand memes find the sweet spot between promoting products and sparking emotional connections. With the right strategy, memes offer a chance to cut through the noise and engage audiences where they already spend time online.

Meme Marketing in Action: 9 Brand Campaigns That Hit the Mark

To give a better sense of meme marketing done well, let's look at some tactical examples from leading brands:

1 – Netflix

Netflix has built a presence on Instagram entirely through memes. They routinely produce meme-formatted content related to their original shows that get picked up by audiences. These memes effectively extend scenes and jokes from Netflix programming into engaging social content.

@nickvavitis

Im a sucker for marketing especially for stranger things 🤝

♬ original sound – nickvavitis

Netflix leverages iconic scenes from shows like Stranger Things to create memes that fans want to share and riff on.

2 – Gucci

Fashion house Gucci sparked viral trends on TikTok, like the #GucciModelChallenge, where users pretended to model Gucci products. The brand's catchy music and retro vibes lent themselves perfectly to humour and copying on the platform. Gucci leaned into this by providing official soundtrack clips and hashtags.

Gucci Meme Marketing Strategy

Gucci gained huge exposure thanks to user-generated memes on TikTok

3 – LinkedIn

Even the workplace social network LinkedIn has tapped into memes. They routinely share funny work-related image memes on their Instagram page. While maintaining their professional brand, these memes use humour about remote work, networking fails, and work-life balance to engage followers.

@doublebaytoday

REALISTIC REACTIONS: Social networking website LinkedIn is being praised for adding a new reaction button to give users a broader choice beyond ‘Like,' ‘Comment' or ‘Share.' In an effort to address the growing number of self-congratulatory and boastful posts on its platform, LinkedIn has introduced a new ‘Calm down you tosser' reaction button: It's being hailed as a brave step towards maintaining sanity on the platform. “Our new ‘Calm down you tosser' option is already proving a popular button since it was introduced yesterday,” says LinkedIn head of user experience Sam Polansky. “We're giving people the option to start reacting more honestly on our platform.” The ‘Calm down you tosser' reaction button is reportedly being used heavily on posts by self-described experts sprouting generic business advice that everyone already knows. “Unfortunately our platform has become overrun by users with extremely questionable job titles, like ‘coach,' mentor' or ‘enabler,'” says Polansky. “It remains unclear how any of them actually make money.” It's understood LinkedIn is now also considering adding a ‘Stop, Please Just Stop,' reaction button.

♬ original sound – Double Bay Today

LinkedIn lightens their professional brand personality by sharing relatable workplace meme content

4 – Wendy's

Fast food chain Wendy's social media presence is built on sassy, sarcastic memes. Wendy's uses meme formats to poke fun at competitors while promoting their products. Their edgy personality shines through this meme content that fans love interacting with.

Wendys Meme Marketing Example

Wendy's perfectly blends product focus with its signature snarky tone

5 – Google

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Google often adds fun meme Easter eggs into their iconic search engine homepage logo. By participating in meme trends, they engage their massive user base while showcasing their tech and culture knowledge.

Google Doodles

Google Doodles add meme references to significant cultural moments like the Olympics

6 – General Electric

Tech firm GE took an educational approach to memes. They partnered with science influencers on Instagram to turn complex science and engineering topics into informative meme-style posts. This strategy made their industry expertise accessible and engaging to mass audiences.

Ge Mem Marketing

GE + science influencers broke down engineering topics through digestible memes

7 – Ruffles

Ruffles participated in the “distracted boyfriend” meme trend to highlight their product benefit of being “Flamin' Hot”. Their meme was on-brand while also riding a larger viral conversation.

Ruffles Meme Marketing Strategies

This spin on the distracted boyfriend meme tied neatly to Ruffles' brand promise

8 – Mailchimp

Email marketing platform Mailchimp ran a “Meme Your Way to Mailchimp” campaign, encouraging users to create memes to win prizes and a role in a meme-inspired commercial. By crowdsourcing from their community, the brand created authentic viral content.

Mailchimp Meme Marketing Campaign

9 – Duolingo

Language learning app Duolingo uses memes to educate while entertaining. Duolingo's meme content combines humour with tips and motivation for learning new languages. This lighthearted approach is on-brand and engaging.

Duolingo Meme

Duolingo memes tutor users in grammar and vocabulary while offering laughs

As these examples show, memes can be a versatile marketing tool when tapped strategically. Critical principles like showcasing brand personality, responding to trends and empowering customers apply across industries and use cases.

Best Practices for Meme Marketing

Jumping on the meme marketing bandwagon may be tempting, but careful strategy is required to avoid cringeworthy failures. Here are some best practices brands should keep in mind:

Know Your Audience and Go Where They Go

Different memes thrive in various online spaces. Do your research to find which platforms your target audience uses most. An active presence on Reddit, TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, and other vital channels will allow you to encounter and spread memes organically.

Fit the Meme to Your Brand Personality

Not all memes work for all brands. Select or create memes that align with your brand identity and values. Memes should feel like a natural extension of your voice, not a cheap hijacking of internet culture.

Time It Right

Hopping on a meme too late feels forced. But joining a fledgling meme too early can come off as trying too hard. Study trend patterns to identify memes taking off so you can engage at the optimal moment.

Add Value for Your Audience

Don't monopolise memes to talk about yourself. Offer entertainment, humour, catharsis, or new perspectives. If you don't enrich the audience experience somehow, your meme will likely flop.

Enable Organic Sharing

Don't try to force memes through paid distribution. Craft memes your followers will be excited to share with their networks. Make it easy to share by distributing on platforms with native sharing tools.

Accept Relinquishing Control

The internet will do as it pleases with your meme. Be prepared for remixes, iterations, and conversations beyond your control. Embrace this creative riffing instead of trying to maintain complete control.

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Monitor Response and Pivot If Needed

Keep a close eye on engagement and sentiment around your meme content. Be ready to pull memes that land poorly or spark backlash. Agility helps limit brand reputation damage.

Bring Your A-Game

Memes live or die based on creativity and humour. Invest time upfront in original concepts and polished execution. Mediocre memes reflect poorly on your brand.

Let Your Memes Evolve

Memes shouldn't be one-off campaigns. Allow your memes to grow and change over time. Building an engaging meme presence requires consistency, not just chasing temporary virality.

Conclusion: Memes Build Community When Used Thoughtfully

For today's brands, memes present an opportunity to cut through the noise and make emotional connections amid constant digital distraction. But marketers must avoid treating them as a tactical trick.

Proper meme marketing means tapping into the cultural power of memes thoughtfully. Brands must see themselves as participants in a shared community shaped by memes, not simply colonisers capitalising on a trend.

When used with care, memes can open new creative doors. They enable honesty, humour and listening – all while inviting audiences to co-create with brands.

In meme culture, the line between content creator and audience blur. Innovative organisations will embrace this shift. They'll join the conversation on equal terms to win trust. It requires honesty, agility and a human touch.

But brands willing to commit authentically to the rich culture and community around memes will reap dividends. Memes offer a shortcut past sales pitches straight into the hearts of modern consumers – but only if utilised wisely. Treat this potent tool with respect.

Frequently Asked Questions About Meme Marketing

What types of brands should use memes in their marketing?

Memes work best for brands with a strong, relatable personality that aligns naturally with meme humour and sharability. But any brand willing to lean into a more human, approachable tone can potentially tap into memes – if done artfully.

How can brands encourage users to create their memes?

Offer template images, branded stickers/filters, meme-generation tools on your site, and meme contests that reward user submissions. Use designated hashtags, so customers know where to share their meme creations.

Is it risky for brands to use memes? What are the potential downsides?

Memes carry risks like negative hijacking or brand dilution if not handled carefully. Have a plan to monitor memes and pivot strategies if needed. And avoid memes that feel overly corporate rather than adding genuine entertainment value.

How can companies track the ROI of a meme marketing campaign?

Analyse metrics like engagement rate, reach/impressions, clicks, conversions driven by memes to owned content or product sites, SEM/SEO impact, and sentiment in comments. Surveys can also gauge the impact on brand perception.

What makes a brand-created meme feel inauthentic to audiences?

Forced memes that lack humour/creativity feel disconnected from the brand's identity, overuse memes, and memes with a hard sales angle often fall flat or feel corporate. Users prefer entertainment and cultural relevance over pure promotion.

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Stuart Crawford

Stuart Crawford is an award-winning creative director and brand strategist with over 15 years of experience building memorable and influential brands. As Creative Director at Inkbot Design, a leading branding agency, Stuart oversees all creative projects and ensures each client receives a customised brand strategy and visual identity.

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