This week, we dive into the belly of the internet beast to explore meme marketing’s true effectiveness.

Meme like you mean it

Why meme marketing often sees brands become the punchline in their own joke and how to prevent it.

Abby Clark

Creative

5 minute read

Meme marketing sounds like a bit of a joke – and that’s the point. But it all rests on whether you can get a young audience laughing with you, not at you. Firstly, what is meme marketing, and what draws brands to it?
In short
  • Meme marketing is a popular strategy for big brands with young audiences.
  • Because of its success, this strategy has been rising in popularity, with mixed results.
  • We tested some common assumptions to determine if meme marketing truly engages millennials and Gen Z.
The relationship between brands and memes

Memes come in a variety of media, but at their core, they’re a means of disseminating culture. They’re shared on the internet to comment on anything from pop culture to society or current events1, and they live and die at a typical internet rate (that’s to say, quickly). I would argue that the first examples of brands assimilating into the online environment rose on Twitter. As brand accounts started tweeting in a way that simulated real conversation, their banter with other brands and customers gained traction, like when Old Spice and Taco Bell originated the now-famous ‘brand feud’ in 20122.

Fast forward to today, and memes of any format are seen as a way to humanise a brand and connect with a young audience. From Instagram to TikTok, meme marketing has exploded on every social platform as brands try to insinuate themselves among millennials and Gen Z. TikTok in particular has seen branded content evolve to become almost indistinguishable from user-generated content. The distance between a brand and an individual has evaporated – some brands, like Duolingo, have even become something akin to characters that play out their life on our feeds.

Where meme marketing goes wrong
Because this strategy has seen some viral success, advertising blogs across the internet say that meme marketing is worthy of a place in your strategy if you want to reach a younger demographic. But there are too many botched branded memes out there that don’t quite hit the mark, like this tweet from Airbnb.
There’s even a subreddit at r/fellowkids3 dedicated to brands’ failed attempts. This begs the question: does meme marketing land beyond the success of a few key brands?

The 52 Mondays team put some common assumptions to the test to see if branded memes are anything more than a laughingstock among the very generations they’re supposed to target.
1. Young people are online, all the time

They say with millennials and Gen Z spending so much time online, memes are one of the types of content they’re conditioned to expect. Memes deliver branded content in a format native to the internet and thus familiar to your audience.
We found that millennials and Gen Z do spend a lot of time online; our survey indicates most people spend between one and three hours on social media each day, which is affirmed by research from the Global Web Index4. Plus, most have a neutral or positive reaction to the concept of a brand posting memes, which means you’re off to a good start.

2. Memes are accessible

They say memes speak to young people in their own language, making them more relatable and successful than other content.
We found that while more than half of our respondents said they see a branded meme that makes them laugh sometimes, a negative reaction was still more likely. Why? Many brands can’t slip seamlessly into meme conventions, making their unfamiliarity with the format obvious.

3. They encourage (the good kind of) viral sharing

They say social media’s distribution capabilities (like tagging or sharing to stories) encourage word-of-mouth and social sharing, giving branded memes the opportunity to reach broader audiences.
We found that 65% of people said they had never shared a branded meme with their friends, indicating that reaching beyond your existing audience is hard enough – let alone going viral.

“It all rests on whether you can get a young audience laughing with you, not at you.”

No laughing matter

The success of some brands makes it seem like meme marketing is low effort with big payoff, but digital natives are hard to impress. If a branded meme doesn’t walk and talk like millennials or Gen Z, it’s not going to pass muster. And just like most tactics in advertising, meme marketing isn’t as simple as it first seems. To make it work, you need a meaningful understanding of how young audiences relate to your brand and an awareness of the ever-changing online environment. Most of all, it needs to feel authentic. The success of meme marketing is case-by-case, which means brands need to look beyond the hype when considering adding it to their marketing mix.

on the death of GIFs
GIFs have long been an essential component of internet discourse – Mashable calls them a ‘fungible meme engine’ – but their days are numbered. Or, at the very least, they might be going out of style. According to Vice, GIFs have been cast out by Gen Z and now firmly reside in Boomer territory.

Written by and 52 Words by Abby Clark, editing by Natasha Velkova, key visual by Alice Guo, page built by Angelica Martin
References
  1. Paul Gil, What is a Meme? (8 December 2021), Lifewire.
  2. Nathan Allebach, Brand Twitter Grows Up (24 June 2019), Vulture.
  3. Unknown Author, r/FellowKids (undated), Reddit.
  4. Unknown Author, Social media marketing trends in 2021 (2021), Global Web Index.

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