Creating Smart Memes Helps Brand Advertising, Marketing

You hear it all the time: We’re in an era of massive change, where everything from business models to technologies to human behaviors are massively disrupted and reinvented daily. To share and process all the world’s new ideas, our language has evolved. Not just in words and specialized vocabulary, but how we communicate ideas.

In an unforeseen but exciting turn of events, memes are rising as the unofficial language of digital culture. If you’re not fluent in this language or its application for your business, it’s time to start studying.

Earlier this week, I was part of the Memeology 101 panel at Advertising Week, along with Joe Federer, brand strategy lead at Reddit and Katherine O’Brien, creative director at Grey. Federer guided us through a framework of how “memes” can be thought of as the equivalent to “genes.”

Both are replicators, make copies of themselves, and like successful genes, successful memes spread and evolve. While the goal was to educate the audience, we got an education ourselves.



What we heard from the audience was: teach us the fundamentals. How do we dip our toe in the water? How should we include memes in our existing campaigns? How do we mix a low-hi content medium with the high production value of our brands? Oh, and -- is Reddit safe? (Spoiler: Yes, it is, if you respect the rules of engagement.)

One of the most direct requests was for simple tips on creating a meme. It's the quintessential question, and the one with the most helpful answer. A few of us have created memes as personal fans of social media — but creation of memes for brands isn’t yet a common experience for the business.

Memes are created quickly and crudely, but their message packs a heavy, authentic punch. Once they’re out into the world, the response is immediate. If you don’t get it right, you’ll know.

And you don’t want to come across as this guy.

If you’ve vetted the tactic, and it’s right for you -- here are three tips to help guide your meme-creation.

1. Be Brave.

Don’t just dip your toe in the waters of meme culture. Run at the wall, full speed. Try it, fail and expect to keep failing a few times. Advise clients this is going to take time and nuance, and a little bit of fear to create winning results. Fear of response will stifle creativity. If you can’t be brave, this is not the space for you — but it is a space full of opportunity.

Your bravery can be emboldened by respect for the audience and community. Federer says: “Pay close attention to the format of the original meme and how different ideas are presented within them. Any time your brand joins in on a meme, it's entering user-owned and user-created culture, so make sure that when you put something out there on behalf of your brand that it feels like it's both genuinely coming from your brand's perspective and adding value to the conversation."

2. Be Collaborative

The world of advertising used to be a broadcast strategy. We speak to you; you listen. Today, marketing is a conversation, and brand value exists through the lens of co-creation. You shouldn’t want to create memes from scratch. Instead, you’ll want to strategically hijack a meme and mold it to fit your brand voice and your audience’s desire.

Yes, collaborate between agency teams. Collaborate quickly between agency and client. But at the core, collaborate with the community in new ways, at new speed.

Brands that co-create, succeed because they are authentic and transparent enough to make consumers feel like part of the brand evolution. That feeling will be genuine when the inclusion of the community is genuine.

3. Be Surprising

“The crux of any good meme is its ability to surprise,” says O’Brien. “When you’re joining a conversation of replicating ideas, being original can be tough. It’s taking a structure people are familiar with and inserting your brand’s voice in an unexpected way. If anything, you start to feel familiar, flip it on its head. Then do it again and again until you don’t recognize it.”

The ability to disarm a viewer and draw them into your creativity will help create an even stronger connection. When you surprise, you inspire. When you inspire, you connect. That connection can transcend vertical competition.

Diving into meme culture is equal parts magic and logic. Understanding your audience, understanding what they love, and being able to adapt your brand voice to fill that void is a special sauce that is hard to come by – but if you’re brave, collaborative and surprising, you’re onto the right recipe. If you can stand the heat, get in the kitchen.

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