Social media is powered by memes. This is an extreme – but accurate – statement. Memes have become not just an integral part of British culture, but are one of few digital trends that have penetrated beyond the western world, becoming equally popular in The East, too. Fun fact – Peppa Pig is the most “meme’d” character in China after Chinese social media app Douyin started mocking the character as a gangsta, spawning millions of memes showing Peppa smoking cigarettes and wearing gold chains.
The word meme was coined in the early seventies (although it didn’t actually appear in the dictionary until the nineties) and derives from the Greek word “mimema,” meaning imitated. The British biologist who invented the phrase, Richard Dawkins, used the term to explain ideas that spread from one person to another within a culture.
And that notion – of passing an idea very quickly from one internet user to another, often with a humorous slant – is infectious, and is why memes are so powerful. Indeed, memes are now a culture of their own – which is why it’s so vital that brands capitalise on them to authentically resonate with younger audiences. Should every brand use memes? No. Used incorrectly, they are awkward, unengaging and a quick and painfully obvious way to highlight a disconnect with your target audience.
But when they work, they work really well. It only takes a quick scroll through some big, social media dominant brands to see a successful meme strategy in action. Gucci, Gymshark and Glossier are all global brands operating in different sectors that are using memes – which are an extension of brand personality – to foster a community and drive huge volumes of organic engagement and reach. The clever brands know when – and when not – to jump topically onto trending moments. Bernie Sanders and Jackie Weaver are two classic 2021 examples of that already, just 6 weeks into the new year!
During my time leading the social media team at BEAUTY BAY, memes played a crucial role in the brand’s social media success. I joined the business when the Instagram channel had just 300 followers – and grew it, almost entirely organically, to a 2 million strong community. A successful meme strategy undoubtedly fueled a significant portion of that acquisition – early into the role I was fortunate enough to unlock a talent of mine which involved writing memes that really resonated with the beauty community and trended regularly. The success of the memes saw me nicknamed internally within the business as “The Meme Queen” – and on a personal level, I imagine that the dopamine high of 100,000 users resharing your original memes in just 24 hours is akin to a stand up comedian telling a new joke to a packed theatre. It’s a pretty cool feeling seeing the content from your brain resonate on such a scale – which is why, at their core, memes are so effective. All good memes (and let’s be clear: there are some poor ones out there) tap into emotion, and the best ones translate into virality, too.
Indeed, memes are now so popular that “meme librarians” are now bona fide jobs and you can officially study memes at Cambridge University. And as lockdown 3.0 draws on, many of us will continue to seek solace by scrolling through memes, often unconsciously being served “meme marketing”. @MedievalReacts is a personal favourite page of mine, and one which often partners with brands such as Deliveroo who want to tap into such an engaged audience in an authentic way and generate brand exposure.
As for the future of memes? They will only get bigger as the new “video meme” scene grows. The popularity of TikTok and Reels means that it’s easier than ever to get a 10 second quick-hit of humour, and then immediately scroll back to your day-to-day business. One things for sure, they aren’t going away – and any brand looking to connect with a Millennial or Gen Z audience must factor that into their social media strategy. Instagram’s Head of Content Jeffrey Wisenbaugh once joked “a meme a day keeps the doctor away” and I’d be inclined to agree.
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