The Rise of Meme Marketing

Roughly a 6 minute read by Alex Sim

Over the years memes have become a fundamental part of our digital landscape, most notably on social media. But believe it or not, they’ve been around even longer than the Internet...

The term “meme” (rhyming with team) was originally coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976 to describe a cultural idea or trend that circulates and grows in popularity, much like a successful genetic trait. Dawkins reasoned that memes are imitated because they strike a common chord and increase the chance of evolutionary survival.

In a human sense behavioural examples of Dawkins’ definition can be found throughout history (ideas such as Democracy and Christianity started off as memes!), while a more modern example of them in their current guise is “Kilroy was here,” the written seal of approval by a World War II ship welding inspector.

Thousands of soldiers came across James Kilroy’s safety check signature “Kilroy was here” on vessels, and at some point during the war it merged with British cartoon character Mr. Chad. The result was subsequently scribbled on every bridge, bunker, building and monument American GI’s came across for years to come.

The establishment of the Internet and meteoric rise of social media has since seen the definition of the word adapted to mean: “an image, video or piece of text, typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.”

Nice history lesson, now show me some modern examples...

Memes can take many forms; from viral videos such as Dancing Baby, Numa Numa and Star Wars Kid that spread predominantly through email and later YouTube..


Star Wars Kid (2003) was one of the first truly viral videos, with an estimated 900 million views to date. the more commonplace macros (popular images with corresponding text on them) like Facepalm and Condescending Wonka that currently dominate our social media newsfeeds...

Macro memes such as But That’s None of My Business are popular as a form of reactive social commentary, especially amongst millennials. They are often defined as memes, even if they don’t go viral.

The above are mere tips of an iceberg that is constantly redefining the social media arena, and when there are this many people paying attention, brands naturally want a piece of the action.

Speaking of tips, do you have any on how brands can adapt?

Our social media worlds are mainly informed by commentary, references and jokes made by both friends and influencers that we follow. Memes play a large part in the social media narrative, and as a result of consuming so much viral content (the average person spends more than 100 minutes per day on various social channels) the last thing many people want to see is a sponsored advert.

Because of this, digital marketers have had to look at ways to adapt their thinking, getting smarter with their content so as to give their brand’s followers a more tailored social media experience designed to elicit a positive reaction. This means less promotion and more joining the humourous Internet conversations already out there.

When getting involved in meme marketing, brands can either look to hop onto already trending memes, or risk creating their own from scratch. Taking popular or topical meme templates and adapting them appropriately can be a great way for a brand to resonate with their audience...

How Do You Do, Fellow Kids? is a reactive meme commonly used to respond to people (or brands) trying to fit in with a community they are unfamiliar with. American firm Bagel Bites turned this meme on its head with this piece of self-mockery.

On the flipside copying existing memes can run the risk of appearing unoriginal. Memes are also extremely volatile, in that some may burn out within a day whilst others can hang around for months or even years. Posting a meme that is deemed "dead" by the time it reaches its target audience can have the negative effect of making a brand seem out of touch. So too can making them too salesy...

Posts outdated, overly-branded memes. Thinks they’re gr-r-reat! - This meme was met with huge derision when it was posted on Twitter.

Alternatively marketers can look at creating their own memes. This format is a lot more difficult as it not only requires out-box-thinking, but also lacks the launch platform trending memes already possess. It’s often cited that the video for ‘Hotline Bling’ by Drake, where the rapper performed cringe-worthy dance moves in front of plain backgrounds, was done deliberately in order to generate memes. The sheer volume of content generated around it helped the song gain huge traction outside of traditional advertising and turned it into a massive viral hit with over 1 billion YouTube views.

You talk the talk, but can you...

A recent trending meme we were able to adapt for one of our brands was called He Protec but He Also Attac, an intentionally misspelled variation of the expression, “He protects, but he also attacks,” used to caption various image macros featuring subjects preparing to defend against or engage an enemy.

This meme started to gain a lot of traction on social in July, undergoing several alterations and hitting its Facebook peak at the end of the month. In anticipation of this we created our own version for rock n roll bar MOJO, merging the original format with their own design style and content themes, thus creating a meme that was both brand-specific, recognisable and completely original...

Going out to a combined audience of 36,000 fans, this meme received over 1,000 reactions, 600 shares, 400 comments and reached 230,000 people.

When used correctly memes can be a formidable tool in a digital marketer’s inventory, giving brands the ability to reach vast numbers of people whilst simultaneously helping them be part of the social conversation. They should not be underestimated!

Would you like your brand to be heard over the noise? Drop us a line, we may be able to help...