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.
A lot of marketers will tell you that there's real value to creating your own meme. While this is certainly true, attempts to do just that are certainly susceptible to failure. And if they do flop, all you really have to show for your hard work is a dumb idea. At least, that's how it will probably look in retrospect. So where Wendy's had the good fortune to leverage a proven meme that it had created decade's earlier, Schick had to find its own way in the meme jungle, and the result was "razorbombing."
The idea is simple enough: users take a picture of a razor in the foreground, making it appear as though the razor is cutting, or "bombing," whatever happens to be in the background. But as a Mashable article on the campaign points out, razorbombing is close cousin to memes like planking and stocking, which both play off of the idea of visual puns.
What probably makes razorbombing work is that it's just funny and fun to look at. But building the meme within a thematic context was also important because it kept razorbombing from being marooned on its own cultural island without a bridge connecting it to the rest of the conversation. In other words, the joke connected because it felt just enough like planking to be understood at first sight, but it was different enough to be funny.
If Beavis and Butthead speak meme, anyone can
Recently, MTV brought back "Beavis and Butthead," the classic Mike Judge cartoon about two juvenile delinquent nitwits who spend most of their time sitting in front of their television, commenting on pop culture. Usually, the boys watch videos on MTV (where else?), but in one episode they watched a web video that went viral back in 2008. (Clearly, Beavis and Butthead now have a web-enabled TV).
Anyway, the clip in question was an amateurish video for a homespun hip hop song called "It's So Cold In The D." The video isn't good. In fact, it's awful. But the video's unintentionally poor aesthetics and the song's offbeat tempo helped it achieve viral status, because, hey there's something internet audiences love about content that sits at the nexus of crappy and compelling.
The video's viral status in turn launched a meme, inspiring a slew of user-generated videos riffing off "Cold in the D." Here's one mashup on the meme that made the rounds shortly after the video's debut.
While memes like "Cold in the D" are part and parcel of today's web, this meme is particularly noteworthy for how far it traveled. Three years after it first captured the attention of internet users, the meme made its debut on MTV's "Beavis and Butthead." That's a significant event if you're interested in how television is adapting in the digital age, but it's important for two other reasons. First, the meme's success shows that there really isn't a correlation between reach and quality. That is, even something that's bad can go a long way, if the poor quality can be made to work in its favor.
But the second compelling thing about Beavis and Butthead singing along to "It's So Cold in the D" is that it illustrates just how effective memes can be at connecting an increasingly fragmented media landscape.
On one level, Beavis and Butthead mocked the video by pointing out its obvious musical and cinematic shortcomings. But at the same time their ridicule built on a larger reaction to the video -- Beavis and Butthead were in on the joke! If you Google "Cold in the D" + "Beavis and Butthead" you actually get a lot of results from hip hop sites that are laughing right along with MTV's iconic idiots, which is pretty interesting considering that those sites probably wouldn't be blogging about "Beavis and Butthead."
Snakes on a meme
Is it possible to have a meme that pre-dates a product? If the experience of "Snakes on a Plane" is any indication, the answer is yes. Long before the movie's release, the film's highly quotable title spawned an internet meme. But despite the meme's age (it dates back to 2005, which is ancient by web standards), it can still be relevant to marketers today.
According to the film's entry in KnowYourMeme, New Line actually added five additional days of shooting to its production schedule in order to incorporate fan ideas that came from the meme frenzy.
Here's the film's director, David Ellis, speaking to the Boston Globe about the wisdom of bringing fan input into the production.
"Given the groundswell on the internet and the fans' desire to hear Sam [Jackson] in all his glory, we were thrilled we got five extra days to do the things they wanted us to do... We had the unique opportunity to embrace what they wanted to see before we finished it... We had a chance to listen to the fans and give them exactly what they expected."
Now, while Ellis' comments may be unsettling for some filmmakers, his words are right out of a marketer's playbook circa now! After all, it's about engaging, listening, and then responding with a product based on user input. Maybe that means you'll make a campy film with decent box office, but if your business is selling detergent, there just might be something to speaking and listening via meme.
For brands looking to harness the power of a cultural phenomenon -- whether niche or mainstream -- memes present a huge opportunity. But it's an opportunity that can only be exploited if the brand can find a clever way to build on the conversation.
Looking to reach tech-loving consumers for its new Yaris, Toyota recently took a big leap by creating a branded, tongue-in-cheek riff off of a popular meme known as "unboxing."
In a typical unboxing video, tech-loving consumers film and post that magical moment when they get to unwrap -- or unbox -- their latest toy. As you can imagine, the web is littered with unboxing videos for iPads, laptops, and other gadgets. And when the meme first began back in 2006, The Register even dubbed it "the new geek porn."
But Toyota's take is noteworthy because it walks the fine line of parody, making it an entertaining treat for fans of the unboxing meme. It's also significant because it earned the brand a lot of free media when tech sites like Gizmodo and Engadget took notice.
Is that a meme in your Facebook feed?
Last year, Matt Whitaker, vice president of strategy at imc² noticed something curious in his Facebook feed.
"A bunch of my women friends were sharing a one word status update of a color," Whitaker explains. "I saw post after post with things like 'Pink,' 'Black,' etc."
After a few emails, Whitaker learned that the colorful, one-word updates were part of a meme that was making the rounds. The idea was simple: Post the color of your bra to show your support for breast cancer awareness.
Secret Deodorant, an imc² client, was quick to join the conversation by posting, "Blue...of course." According to Whitaker, the meme presented an organic opportunity for Secret to speak directly with its fans.
"[Users] "liked" the post and engaged with the brand, proving that Secret understands what their consumers like and supports these women, which builds on Secret's overall purpose -- helping women be more fearless," Whitaker explains.
But while Secret made the most of the meme, it didn't own it, nor did it try to. Victoria Secret -- not surprisingly -- also got in on the conversation. But so did Pabst Blue Ribbon and many other brands. And while Whitaker cautions that brands need to think carefully and fully understand a meme before they engage, he also says they shouldn't dawdle.
"A brand has to move quickly [because] these things pop up unexpectedly, have a limited shelf live, and then sometimes disappear just as quickly," he says. "Act fast."
They're making memes without you
If you're one of those marketers who hasn't quite come to terms with the fact that you just don't have as much control over your brand as you'd like, these memes might upset you. But according to Sawicki, it's worth noting that memes generally aren't the province of haters.
"It just takes too much work to participate in a meme for a hater to really overrun the conversation," he says. "Mostly, memes are created by real fans, and so if people are using brands in their memes, it's probably a good thing, even if the content isn't what would normally come from the brand's marketing department."
So what might some of these memes look like? Here are a few examples floating around the web.
So are these memes good for your brand?
There are pros and cons. The folks at Pabst may not want to be associated with a dog. For one thing, dogs plus beer is a genre that still makes me think of Spuds MacKenzie, the popular Bud Lite character from the 1980s. But that analysis misses the point in a sense. Someone thought it was a good idea to make a joke with Pabst. They took the time to Photoshop the picture and their friends -- hopefully -- took the time to share the joke with a wider community. The extent to which the joke resonates is indicative of PBR's position in our culture. But the meme isn't just proof of cultural relevance, it's also an enhancer of that relevance; after all, PBR made the cut, the other beers didn't.
But is it good to be featured with a competitor?
If you were making an ad for Friskies, you certainly wouldn't include a bag of Meow Mix. But again, these memes aren't ads. The joke needs two brands to work, and nobody can honestly believe that Friskies got the upper hand. After all, it's just one cat's opinion.
But aren't they just making fun of our product?
Yes, they are. But what if "Saturday Night Live" had done the same thing? The sketch -- and any press clippings commenting on it -- would certainly be part of Monday's PR briefing. Sure, it might ruffle some feathers internally, but would you really demand that SNL take it back? Of course not. And if SNL gave you 30 seconds for a response the following week, you'd probably jump at the chance, right? Well, with memes, users are talking about your brand and you're always free to join the conversation -- if you speak the language.
The increasingly omnipresent meme
While working on this article, I took a quick procrastination break. But if I had the idea that I could somehow stay online and steer clear of memes, I was mistaken. Three of my friends -- none of whom are connected to each other directly -- shared the same meme on Facebook at about the same time.
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Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.
On Twitter? Follow Michael at @mestrin. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.
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