Commentary

Meme Marketing Makes Brands Go Viral

Today’s teens are uniquely equipped to tune out ads. For a while, Instagram influencers seemed like the perfect solution, but the sponsored influencer posts that flooded social media lacked authenticity, diminished influencers’ relationship with their followers, and discouraged sharing.

That’s why, according to Bloomberg, brands like Netflix, Uber and JetBlue are turning to meme marketing on Instagram. In many cases, they’re partnering with meme accounts like MyTherapistSays and allowing them to generate memes using their name and logo.

In exchange for surrendering creative control, and anywhere from $7K to $20K per campaign, brands get the opportunity to go viral across social media, and reach Gen Z in a new and impactful way.

Paid memes see engagement rates of about 30% across Facebook and Instagram, far above the rates of 1%-15% seen for influencer or branded content posts.

The “voice” in these posts sounds a lot more authentic and relatable, written in contemporary teen speak rather than brand speak. The humor adds to the entertainment value, and by definition the combination of an arresting visual, simple text and a snarky caption is designed to lodge in the brain quickly and deeply. Then recipients feel obligated to share it with their friends, and from there, it could go viral.

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Hinge has sponsored posts on meme accounts that recount dating misadventures. Uber partnered with “Overheard LA” and “Overheard New York” to create “Overheard Uber.” And Gucci, Universal Music Group, JetBlue and Uber have all worked with MyTherapistSays, whose memes for Gucci even made it into Vogue.

With more companies turning to meme marketing, what are the rules of engagement?

*Don’t brag. The best memes tend not to be boastful, and are actually quite self-deprecating, allowing creators to air their darkest thoughts in a socially acceptable way.

This isn't a medium for perfect photography or superlative-filled copy. Memes typically look very homemade, sometimes painfully so, and tend to have a snarky, world-weary tone, filled with inside jokes and pop culture references.

So it’s important to get the tone right for a meme to go viral, and it should acknowledge some dark, unspoken truth in a reassuring way, to tell recipients they aren’t alone -- your brand understands them and can make things a little easier.

*Show some heart. Not all brands or categories lend themselves to humor. Uber, for instance, is working to overcome some very serious reputational issues, and trying to reassure consumers about the safety of getting into cars with strangers. So its Instagram account has more heartwarming content, with Twitter posts from real users talking about conversations and interactions with drivers who affected them deeply.

So if humor doesn’t work for your brand, consider other content about helping others, self-care, or social change.

*Don’t steal. Most memes involve repurposed images and jokes, and in most corners of the Internet, it’s considered acceptable and even standard to pass along a meme, or to tweak it a bit and claim partial ownership.

But brands don’t have that luxury. If your perfect meme involves Kris Jenner or RuPaul, you’ll probably need to secure their permission and pay them a publicity fee to include their likeness in your paid placement.

And that perfect joke could be a line from a song, a movie or a comedian who will put you on blast and say you ripped them off. The biggest risk in meme marketing arguably isn’t reputational, it’s legal, due to all the IP issues.

Still, memes offer one of the best ways for today’s brands to connect with Gen Z. If a Real Housewife can go viral for screaming at a cranky cat, so can your brand.
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