As people converse and get to know one another online, memes have become embedded in digital discourse due to their satire and quick wit – but their slippery nature has made it difficult for brands to figure out how to join the party. Does the answer lie in going back to basics?
In the crowded landscape of online brand engagement, one of the biggest challenges is keeping up with internet parlance in a way that feels authentic, or at the very least, not cringe-worthy. This is a notoriously difficult task, for multiple reasons.
Firstly, the speed at which online discourse moves is perpetually at odds with the necessary checks and balances facing any brand comms team, especially with the growing prospect of being ridiculed for being behind the times. Secondly, while the very-online may feel assured in the meanings, submeanings, subtexts, and hidden messages of online humour, for the majority there’s an ever-present risk of misunderstanding, misuse, and missteps. Some platforms work better than others: on Twitter, for instance, there’s now a recognised coding for brand comms, usually in the form of wink-wink-nudge-nudge responses to unfolding events. But there is one particular facet of online language that can carry brand comms surprisingly well: the meme.
Memes work as visual carriers of instant messaging, which means that brands can effectively piggyback on already-existing online knowledge and humour. They’re also meant to be a bit weird, which provides the immediate caché of internet literacy. And crucially, they allow for a separation between brand communities and corporate interests, creating and supporting brand identities in ways that feel organic and authentic, and, interestingly, more human.
We’re also seeing this feed into brand creativity itself. Memes as inspo for and drivers of fashion trend cycles are being embraced by a growing number of direct-to-consumer brands, which are using meme culture as a propulsive force to cater to Gen Z desires for irreverence in both comms and fashion products. Brands such as Cowboys of Habit and Praying are tracing visual cues back to their memetic origins, creating a model of connection with their desired consumer base that meets them where they are: online.
While emerging fashion brands, legacy media, and even political parties are starting to crack how to successfully harness the power of memes, we’ve also seen plenty of unforced errors when it comes to brands employing memes in their comms. But the recipe for success isn’t as complicated as it may seem.
Memes are at their heart a form of facilitating connection – even if it’s fleeting, virality is about significant numbers of people sharing something. By bringing memetic sensibilities into brand development, outreach, and engagement, businesses can utilise existing frameworks of connection and place themselves in the centre of the constantly evolving mind map of internet interrelations.