Everyone has seen a meme, nearly everyone has talked about a meme, and -- at some point -- a lot of people have used, created, or contributed to a meme. But that doesn't mean that everyone really knows what a meme is.
Webster's defines meme as "an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture."
Unfortunately, that's a little vague. A better way to understand memes, says Todd Sawicki, chief revenue officer for Cheezburger, is to think of them as a language or linguistic element that is specific to a given community. Those communities, which can range from super-niche to -- literally -- the entire web, are the bread and butter of Cheezburger, which operates a network of meme-themed sites. Over the years, you've probably heard of at least a few of those sites. I Can Has Cheezburger has made the LOLcats meme into its own internet ecosystem. Likewise, Cheezburger's FAIL Blog has helped catapult a once niche expression into common use (just Google "fail" and you'll see how widespread that meme has become.)
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Memes aren't just silly jokes. For Sawicki, they are a crucial part of brand marketing these days.
"Achieving meme status is the ultimate qualitative measure of a brand's marketing efforts," Sawicki says. "If your marketing becomes a meme, you have real reach and a unique cultural relevance that you can't buy."
So how do marketers leverage memes? According to Sawicki, the best way to approach memes is to build your literacy. That is, if memes are a language, marketers need to research them, play with them, and understand how they work before putting them into action. For that, Sawicki advises marketers to find a community that appeals to them personally and see how that community uses its memes. "Take a look around and then participate," he says. "You'll learn pretty quickly how people use memes to share their thoughts and ideas and you'll be able to put that into practice for your brand."
To give the iMedia community a head start, we've taken the liberty of putting together some a smorgasbord of memes. Each meme was chosen because it imparts a specific lesson about the general topic. But collectively, this list should give you a taste of just how diverse the meme can be.
Where's the meme?
Remember, the iconic Wendy's commercial with the cranky old lady who would ask, "Where's the beef?" Of course you do. And if you don't, you can watch the commercial below.
Those three simple words achieved meme status shortly after the campaign launched (remember, the concept of meme actually pre-dates digital.) Amazingly, that meme is still relevant today, as this throwback web video from Wendy's illustrates.
But the latest campaign isn't just an answer to a 27-year-old question; it's also a new opportunity for Wendy's to engage its most passionate fans with a pun that could spawn its own meme. Using its Facebook page, Wendy's invited fans to wear the beef by completing their own "beef story" for a chance to win a t-shirt like the one featured in the video. In all likelihood, that pun won't achieve the same status as "Where's the beef," but then again it's a potential meme for a much smaller community -- the diehard burger fans who would take the time to write to Wendy's about their beefy experiences.