Theo Watt, Digital Editor at Social Chain, explores the success of memes in the digital world and why brands and marketers should be looking to memes for the answers.
Love them or loathe them, it’s hard to ignore the cultural significance of memes.
What started life as a tongue-in-cheek internet trend has spread far and wide to become a worldwide phenomenon - they are everywhere and about everything.
But what do memes really say about us? Why have we fallen so head over heels in love with them? And, more importantly, can millennial and Gen Z brands use memes to their advantage?
The making of memes and why we share
It was the famed ethologist and author Richard Dawkins who first coined the term ‘meme’, having written at length about the concept in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.
In Dawkins’ eyes, the meme is that of “an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture” - a definition not too dissimilar to what we know of memes today.
The success of memes in the digital world is a result of their ability to relate and resonate with a specific group, or groups, of people - this is the first rule of an effective social media campaign.
Moreover, there is also clear correlation between relatability and what we do and do not share online. We share because we feel compelled to do so, and it’s these emotional responses that inspire action.
Going deeper - memes help us to identify and portray our own personality
Social media serves as a platform for us to portray elements of our own self-identity, both consciously and subconsciously.
One of the many ways we do this is through internet memes. While you may think that sharing a ‘Dark Kermit’ meme is just for comedy’s sake, the reasoning behind doing so goes deeper.
It’s one of the reasons for the rise of more particular ‘meme subsets’ which are intended for niche audiences - like Harry Potter fans, students or gamers.
By sharing certain memes, we are sending a clear message out about our humour, our likes/dislikes and our personality - often without even knowing it.
Empathic emotional response - sharing memes for the benefit of others
Likewise, we often feel a sense of fulfilment when we share memes that we know will make our friends or followers laugh.
The above is otherwise known as an empathic emotional response - the theory of finding pleasure from making other people happy.
Again, it’s this process of sharing across a wide audience that leads to virality and the overall phenomena of the internet meme.
Why brands and marketers should be looking to memes for the answers
Memes have evolved over the years, from fairly basic low-resolution GIFs to culturally relevant clips and even 3D images.
In that time, they have risen in popularity to become a stalwart of every social media feed on every platform - yes, even LinkedIn.
As with any internet trend or social media development, there is plenty of scope for brands and marketers to adopt memes to appease their millennial and Gen Z audiences.
When done well, memes can help brands to stand out and break through the noise on social; likewise, they can help portray a message or call to action by grabbing attention immediately.
However, overtly salesy or unfunny memes that do not resonate can do more bad than good by putting audiences off.
It’s something many brands fall foul of when trying to reach students. Millennials and Gen Z are smarter than you think and know exactly when they are being sold to.
The outlook for brands
Any risk of ‘getting it wrong’ shouldn’t deter brands from adopting memes to reach millennials and Gen Z. Nevertheless, they are an art form and creating a viral branded meme isn’t easy.