Defined as “any fad, joke or memorable piece of content that spreads virally across the web, usually accompanied by a clever caption” – a number of brands are recognising the power of memes as a marketing tool.
So, which brands do it well and why? Here are a few examples, and a few key points to remember.
Memes are perfectly aligned to the highly visual nature of Instagram. Barkbox, a subscription service for dog treats and toys, recognises this, making up the majority of its Instagram content with animal-related memes.
It creates memes that are both relatable and humorous to animal-lovers, which ensures that they are shared thousands of times (regardless of whether or not users are fans or followers of the brand itself).
In fact, this is one of the main reasons this example (and the medium in general) tends to work.
Usually, memes do not feel like an ad or promotion for a product, instead engaging users on the basis of being funny, clever, or irreverent. In turn, this can also help to build authenticity and the identity of a brand.
Luxury retailers do not typically use humour or viral trends in marketing, instead relying on polished and carefully crafted content to mirror their exclusive and high-end nature. Surprisingly, Gucci recently decided to lower its tone, using memes as part of an ad campaign for its new ‘Le Marché des Merveilles’ timepiece collection.
The #TWFGucci campaign involved the brand commissioning artists to adapt well-known memes to feature Gucci watches. For example, one compares a mundane watch with a Gucci version, using the caption “me vs. guy she says I shouldn’t worry about”.
As you might expect, the campaign has divided opinion. Some were put off by the luxury brand’s attempt at high-jacking internet culture – others championed its refreshing and bold approach. Personally, I think it worked well, putting a high-end spin on what is typically an easy and low-effort form of content.
The memes combine professional photography with quirky illustrations, cleverly promoting its product as well as a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour.
Seamless, the US online food delivery service, often uses humorous imagery across its digital channels. In 2014, however, it created an entire set of memes on the back of what is always a popular topic on social media – the Academy Award nominations.
Dubbed ‘OscarNomNoms’, it created a number of spoof film posters, including ‘Waffle of Wall Street’ and ‘August: Sausage County’.
— Seamless (@Seamless) January 16, 2014
One of the most effective parts of the campaign was the fact that it encouraged user-involvement, turning suggestions from followers into new film posters. By combining timely newsjacking with memes, this example created a somewhat short-lived but still memorable splash of engagement for the brand.
Memes tend to be popular because they convey relatable emotions and scenarios. Nickelodeon capitalises on this to create content (and promote its TV schedule) for Twitter and Instagram.
Basing them on simple but relatable topics for children like living with parents, watching television, or feeling excitement about a new episode of a favourite cartoon – the memes are effective at engaging young viewers.
When you're the first one awake on Saturday morning pic.twitter.com/4SAY9AneTn
— Nickelodeon (@Nickelodeon) March 17, 2017
Meanwhile, Nickelodeon takes snippets from its shows to create them, meaning that the content is guaranteed to grab the attention of fans invested in a particular character or programme.
Smile Train is a global children’s charity that works to help children with cleft lip and palate repair. In 2015, it launched a campaign inspired by popular baby memes, using the approach as a way of appealing to and engaging millennials.
Instead of the typical marketing used by this kind of charity, which often involves graphic and upsetting imagery, Smile Train used a light-hearted and relatable message to encourage donations. The campaign saw nine-month-old Walter going on a ‘smile strike’ in sympathy with afflicted children around the world.
With the hashtag #seriousbaby, the campaign was deliberately designed to be shareable, capitalising on the idea that young people are more likely to do so when something is humorous or entertaining.
Denny’s is well-known for its off-the-wall social media content, characterised by memes, emojis and internet slang.
In March, it jumped on the ‘zoom in’ trend, with a meme that asks users to zoom in on particular parts of an image, before revealing hidden messages and the eventual punchline: “Has this distracted you from overwhelming existential dread lol”.
zoom in on the syrup pic.twitter.com/omRBupjrXq
— Denny's (@DennysDiner) March 1, 2017
The meme has generated 122,152 retweets and 172,548 likes to date, making it one of the most-shared brand tweets ever. The reason it generated so much engagement is that it was fresh and original at the time, with Denny’s being one of the first brands to jump on the zoom trend.
Meanwhile, instead of coming across as inauthentic or try-hard, it’s perfectly aligned with the brand’s social strategy – something that consumers have come to expect.
this pancake is not ripe enough to eat yet pic.twitter.com/V1Sgsugafr
— Denny's (@DennysDiner) September 26, 2017
Start-up company Hipchat showed just how popular memes have become when it used a viral online image in an offline advertising campaign.
It put a spin on the “Y U NO guy” meme for a billboard in San Francisco, cleverly capturing the attention of internet-savvy consumers as they drove by. This example is arguably a little lazy, merely jumping on another trend rather than creating anything particularly clever of its own. However, its context is what makes it clever, with the combination of an offline medium and an online phenomenon resulting in a refreshing ad.
It worked too, with reports suggesting that search traffic for HipChat went up 300% when the billboard appeared.
So what can we learn from these examples? Here are a few key takeaways.
- Memes can be hit and miss. Like newsjacking or slang in marketing, it’s important to recognise the potential pitfalls of jumping on the meme trend. Simply put, it might make a huge splash or die a death within days.
- A meme can shake up marketing. However, like Gucci shows, memes can be used as part of a creative and innovative campaign – as long as it involves more than overlaying a funny caption on Grumpy Cat.
- Using memes can further engagement. Memes are so popular because they are an inherently shareable form of content. And as the Denny’s example demonstrates, they can further flesh out a brand’s humorous and quirky image.