Although memes have gained cultural relevancy in recent years, the word meme dates back to 1976 when Richard Dawkins coined the term as a way to explain how cultural information spreads. The word derives from the Greek word mimema, meaning to imitate, and the English word gene, to imply reproduction. Although memes are often thought of as a photo and caption, a true meme is any cultural element or behavior that is passed from one individual to another, making trends like the dab or the Birdbox challenge memes, as well as viral photos like the dark-hooded Kermit we all know and love.
Memes and humorous social media in-jokes have become so ingrained in modern culture that it was inevitable that brands would jump in to enter these cultural conversations with their target audiences. Strategically using this type of content can strengthen brands’ affinity with their key audiences, while attracting new audiences as the meme spreads across different parts of the internet, and they do not require the creation of original content. But with potentially great reward comes a great risk. Improper use of a gag or a misreading of the cultural zeitgeist can doom a brand to becoming infamously mocked across the Internet — and harm their target audience’s overall perception of them
Brands that Do It Well
It’s hard to know exactly when and where a brand should jump in with a humorous post or a meme. You don’t want to offend audiences, but you also need to be able to leverage an item going on in the cultural discussion online to your advantage. Here are a few brands that do it well:
Denny’s is known for cheap diner food at all hours of the night, and their voice on social media matches. They tweet often, and have been able to create a comical yet peculiar presence on Twitter, causing many to wonder, Is Denny’s okay?
This presence, in part, stems from Denny’s ability to partake in a wide variety of memes almost as soon as they gain traction.
One of the most recent memes to take the internet is the summoning circle. Is it incredibly funny? Not really, but that didn’t stop Denny’s from creating their own pancake-summoning circle just a few days after the trend sprung up on Twitter. In just one day it had over 6,000 likes. In some cases, it’s not about the wit of the meme, but being able to add your rendition in a timely manner, before users deem the meme dead.
summoning circle, the cakes. we need them.
🕯 🥞 🕯
— Denny's (@DennysDiner) March 7, 2019
What makes Denny’s stand out is their commitment to the bit. They know their social media stands out, because they don’t always focus on including a plug or call-to-action in their post. They focus on the thing that makes Denny’s, Denny’s:
we’re not like most corporate accounts, our thing is pancakes.
— Denny's (@DennysDiner) January 28, 2019
When using memes for your brand, it does not always have to be directed to make money. Memes should be fun and overthinking them in a way to advertise will force them to lose their true nature. When using memes for your brand, think more about if your post will make people laugh, and less about how to promote your business.
The lovable, but terrifying, mascot for the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers is the king of taking social media memes and trends and leveraging them in his own fuzzy, orange way. It’s something that started from the very beginning of his existence.
On the day Gritty was announced, there was a widespread conversation about him. Who, or what, is he? Why does he exist? Why are his eyes so terrifying? While we’re still not sure, one thing is certain: Twitter, who originally criticized him for his unconventional look, loves Gritty. Everything Gritty does is relevant, mainstream and hilarious, gaining him over 200,000 Twitter followers in just half a year.
How does Gritty use memes?
Here he is doing the Fortnite hype dance:
— NHL (@NHL) September 28, 2018
Here he is mimicking the infamous Kim Kardashian Paper Magazine cover:
Goodnight, internet. pic.twitter.com/gx2Pbxfcds
— Gritty (@GrittyNHL) September 25, 2018
And finally, here is Gritty creating his own meme challenge after The Bachelor’s most dramatic scene yet.
— Gritty (@GrittyNHL) March 7, 2019
While Gritty might not use memes as we know them, he participates in challenges and phenomena that are memes because they are replicated and reproduced at extraordinary speed. The breadth of references and gags Gritty makes shows the Flyers’ savvy awareness of pop culture and how to use it to promote a brand. With a full professional marketing team behind the orange mascot, we are excited to see how the Flyers’ ticket sales do this season.
This shows that even if you have a subject that can cause people heartburn, you can use memes to help inject some levity into it to at least make it bearable. Just remember, if you know your followers may be on edge, be careful with your memes. Keep them lighthearted and fun like WSDOT.
Another food-industry brand that has been able to develop its voice through memes is Ruffles, maker of the beloved, ridged potato chips. Ruffles uses unapologetic humor to remain relevant on social media. Their Twitter bio says it all, “We’re chips. We have ridges. We tweet. Deal with it.”
The 90’s cartoon Arthur, resurfaced on social media when a simple photo of his fist indicating displeasure or anger became the next viral meme. Ruffles was quick to join in.
When your roommate eats all the Ruffles. pic.twitter.com/vyKnZKUmVW
— RUFFLES (@RUFFLES) July 29, 2016
The brilliance of this tweet is in its simplicity. Often, companies will overcomplicate a meme, which often shows their lack of knowledge on the meme itself. Memes are created to be funny and relatable – they shouldn’t require much thought. The ease in understanding this tweet in addition to the speed in which Ruffles was able to contribute to the trend before Twitter fans moved on, are two examples of what makes this brand a success when it comes to using memes.
Brands that Need Some Help
After seeing these companies go viral, you may be thinking your organization should jump into similarly light, humorous, and millennial-friendly territory. But be careful – when types of posts go well, they are retweeted and shared, but when companies get them wrong, they become the next trending #Fail.
For example, the Keebler Elves. There’s something off about these little guys. Their social media is presented from elderly Ernie Keebler’s point of view. His premise and brand positioning signal that he doesn’t understand memes or social media at all. His cover photo on Twitter reads, “Keebler elves. Cookies, they know. Social media, not so much.”
Keebler attempts to use memes by not using memes, or by using them incorrectly. The elderly elf is infamous for misinterpreting a social media meme or trend, like “trolling.”
People here say to avoid trolls. But why would I? My neighbor's a troll, and he loves Fudge Stripes. He's the best! pic.twitter.com/rQvkJbj1Bn
— Ernie Keebler (@KeeblerElves) July 7, 2016
If there’s one thing that drives young social media users crazy, it’s having to explain social media to someone who just doesn’t get it. Using this as a marketing campaign must be done perfectly and unfortunately for Ernie, he’s just not funny enough. Maybe that’s why the Twitter account has been eerily quiet since August 2018.
If a brand is going to contribute to a meme or social media trend, they should know the context surrounding it completely. DiGiorno Pizza missed this vital step back when #WhyIStayed was trending. The hashtag was created as an outlet for victims of domestic violence to illuminate some of the reasons victims can’t always leave an abusive relationship.
DiGiorno decided to join the trend.
The tweet has since been deleted and we’re hoping someone clued DiGiorno in on why this may come across as offensive. Using an issue like domestic violence to plug a frozen pizza isn’t a great tactic. DiGiorno’s hashtag mistake just goes to show the importance of understanding the context before following a trend. And if the trend has nothing to do with your product or service, sometimes it’s best not to get involved.
One of the biggest trends of 2018 that still resonates in 2019 is “weird flex but OK,” a remark used when someone brags about something they really shouldn’t be bragging about. The nature of “weird flex but ok” is to mock someone, meaning if a company wants to use it, they should consider who they’re directing it toward before posting.
Unfortunately, BBC Three chose to target the wrong person, making this meme fail; it was not only bad publicity but altogether rude.
In the recent outbreak of measles, one teen decided to get vaccinated as soon as he turned 18, despite his mother not giving permission. Lindenberger spoke to BBC, stating he made his choice based on science and because he had two younger siblings at home that may not be able to fight the disease. BBC Three decided to call this a weird flex.
If BBC Three is making a political stance against vaccinations, choosing an 18-year-old target and using a meme should not have been their strategy. If BBC Three is just trying to be relevant by using memes without understanding the implications… weird flex, but OK.
Use Jokes and Memes with Your Voice and Tone in Mind
When looking at your brand’s social media strategy and if/how you should integrate humor and memes into your ongoing content calendar, it’s important to go back to the basics. What is the voice and tone of your brand? Is it fun, engaging, even a bit snarky? If so, integrating memes or trends into your content is something you should consider. But, make sure you fully understand the context of the joke and how it integrates into the larger conversations on social media before you jump in.
On the other hand, if your voice and tone is business focused, memes and social humor might not be the best way to share your voice in a conversation or reach your target audiences. It’s OK to have fun on social media, but make sure your effort is something that will be positive for your audiences, rather than get you negative headlines and a social media headache.