Meme marketing could be close to receiving mainstream status, but advertisers might need more convincing. Longevity isn’t a major factor for advertisers. After all, Wonderful Pistachios debuted its Keyboard Cat commercial at the 2010 World Series, offering a well-received take on one of the earliest online sensations (the original video has approximately 60 million views on YouTube).
One issue is how memes — images, videos, or text referencing popular culture — have evolved digitally. It takes a high degree of savviness to appropriately use culturally loaded references that incorporate sarcasm, can confuse people, and often have a surprisingly short lifespan. On the other hand, they present an opportunity to resonate with audiences and go viral.
Memes offer the ultimate risk-reward proposition in this optional, at least for now, form of marketing.
The Risks of Meme Marketing
Integrating memes into an organization’s social media marketing strategy seems simple enough. Start with a popular image and make it relevant to your industry. However, it’s not as straightforward as it sounds.
An initial problem comes into focus when you consider how a majority of popular image memes are protected legally. Here are a few notable examples.
- Crying Jordan: The picture of Michael Jordan’s emotional reaction when inducted into basketball’s hall of fame is owned by the Associated Press. In a letter to ESPN.com, the news agency confirmed that they’re monitoring use of Jordan’s image in commercial settings.
- Success Kid: The picture of the baby at the beach with a fistful of sand has been used in multiple commercial settings, and the boy’s mother has threatened legal action for using it without permission.
- Grumpy Cat: The internet celebrity cat has a line of merchandise, books, and digital products. In 2013, it received a $710,000 judgment against a beverage company for copyright and trademark infringement.
Given how so many memes revolve around movies, films, video games, and other sources of protected content, there are legal risks to using memes that aren’t created in-house. Typical consumers might not have to worry about lawsuits, but the stakes are raised when companies use it to further their social media following or sell products. It’s not fully clear right now how the law and memes interact.
Another murky area for memes is their meaning and lifespan. Memes can be so obscure that your audience may have trouble understanding them. Some of them may have a hidden, offensive meaning that you don’t know about initially. And other memes can simply strike a lot of people as immature, like the once-popular phrase “u mad bro?” Imagine a pharmaceutical company posting that phrase while touting the strength of an anti-itching cream — it’s simply out of place.
It may also be surprising to learn how fast memes travel through the internet. After taking a few hours or days to vet a new phrase from a video game on a legal front and for appropriateness, it might be out of style. In that case, the best you can hope for is it not resonating with your audience. Alternatively, the ill-advised meme could lead to unfollows and attracting online trolls who make fun of you (with, of course, memes). If the meme has negative connotations, things could get much worse.
It’s safe to say that the stakes are raised in this complicated and fast-paced world of internet memes. However, if you can do it the right way, the positives overcome the negatives.
The Rewards of Meme Marketing
Thankfully, the high-risk, high-reward nature of meme marketing can pay dividends for businesses.
It’s what happened for a meme campaign from sauce and condiment company Heinz. The company sidestepped legal risks by creating its own content around the debate over whether tomatoes are a vegetable or fruit. It’s a safe topic that leads naturally to the popular Heinz Ketchup brand, and the meme campaign was a success, exceeding 4 million impressions and 80,000 engagements (likes, comments, shares, etc.).
Where the campaign shined was how the company connected to its audience with humor, as the following statements illustrate.
- “We can send a car into space, but can’t figure out if a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable.”
- “Knowledge is knowing tomatoes are fruit. Wisdom is not putting them in a fruit salad.”
Memes represent one of the strongest ways to get people laughing and sharing what they see with others. And, after all, that’s a big part of what social media marketing is all about. Use memes appropriately and the numbers and brand engagement will follow naturally.
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Is Meme Marketing in Your Future?
You might struggle to determine whether using memes in advertising is right for your organization. In some cases, it’s obvious that your brand should or shouldn’t be involved, simply due to your industry or target audience, but in a lot of other cases, it’s more complicated. There may be a desire to get involved with memes, given the potential rewards, but it’s risky.
There are companies like Heinz that are able to sidestep the risks of memes by creating their own content, thereby avoiding copyrights and offensive/obscure references. It’s safe to say that there are many more who, if left unchecked, may edit captions for popular memes from “Spongebob Squarepants,” “The Office,” and “Star Wars.” Or they may try to get involved in a meme referencing a recent song, anime series, or dance challenge with questionable content.
Ultimately, navigating memes and marketing requires multiple levels of understanding. You have to know how to actually use them without falling into some of the aforementioned risks. Part of that involves deciding who vets ideas and create content, as monitoring the resulting reactions and performance.
You’ll also need to approach meme marketing with the right strategy. Will memes target your actual brand or the topics in your industry? Will you use them in paid campaigns? How will you use them alongside other forms of visual content? Gain the skills and knowledge to answer those questions and become a business leader with an online MBA.
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