The meme — a viral, humorous and shareable piece of internet culture — has become an integral and powerful tool in modern-day marketing. A meme's ability to quickly capture attention and increase brand visibility has revolutionized the way brands connect with their audience.

Leveraging the meme

It's no surprise that businesses have recognized and taken advantage of their potential. From the wildly successful "Barbenheimer" campaign, to the Duolingo mascot becoming a TikTok star, and the rise of the McDonald's Grimace shake, there's no doubt that memes have become an essential asset for any marketing strategy.

They are the Trojan Horse of advertising, sneaking brands into the lives of consumers under the guise of humor. They can be used to initiate a genuine connection with the audience, are cheap to produce, and are particularly effective because they don't come across as overly salesy. Instead, they feel like a friend sharing something funny or relatable.

The meme as a source of engagement

Memes also offer a level of engagement that traditional marketing methods can hardly match. They are quick to consume, easy to share, and can go viral in a matter of hours. For a generation with a notoriously short attention span, memes are a marketing goldmine for Gen Z and millennial audiences.

One notable example of a brand successfully harnessing the power of memes in marketing is the fast-food chain Wendy's, which became famous for its witty and snarky responses to followers on social media. They used memes and internet slang to interact with their audience, creating a strong, relatable online presence. This approach garnered massive attention and engagement, turning Wendy's into a viral sensation.

When memes go viral

Memes have a unique ability to go viral. When the right meme strikes a chord with the online community, it can spread like wildfire. While some may be a fleeting fad, others have withstood years on social media feeds.

One example of a meme that has stood the test of time, as seen in several marketing campaigns over the years, is: "The Distracted Boyfriend," which features a man ogling another woman while his girlfriend looks on in disapproval. Its format is simple but relatable, making it an instant hit. Many brands have jumped on the bandwagon, recreating the meme with their products. This meme's virality allowed these brands to reach a massive audience that was actively engaging with the meme.

Careful use is key

However, not everyone gets it right. A critical aspect of meme-based marketing is authenticity. Brands must be genuine and understand the culture they are engaging with. Failing to do so can backfire spectacularly. In 2017, McDonald's attempted to capitalize on the popularity of the animated show "Rick and Morty" by bringing back a limited edition Szechuan dipping sauce. The promotion led to chaos at some locations, as fans of the show lined up and, in some cases, rioted, leading to negative publicity.

In 2021 Burger King tried to create a viral moment with their "Women Belong in the Kitchen" Twitter campaign. The tweet was part of a campaign to promote a scholarship program for female employees to pursue culinary careers, but taken out of context, faced immediate backlash and criticism for its insensitivity and tone-deaf approach.

Memes are evolving

In an ever-evolving landscape it can be hard to know what consumers are thinking, and it's crucial for brands to be aware of the cultural landscape and the potential impact of their marketing efforts, especially in the fast-paced world of social media and online discussions.

Memes are no longer just a form of entertainment; they have become a formidable force in the marketing world. They have the power to break through the noise and capture the attention of a highly distracted online audience. By using memes, brands can speak the language of their target demographic, connect on a personal level, and leverage the virality of internet culture to reach a massive audience.

How to incorporate memes in your marketing campaigns

As we move further into the digital age, it's clear that memes are here to stay, and their significance in modern marketing campaigns will only continue to grow.

Read on for 4 ways to succeed in incorporating memes into your marketing strategies.

  1. Focus on your niche — Meme generation can occur naturally from media events or news, but success relies on understanding the target audience's emotional connection. Resonating content with the niche's audience is crucial for meme popularity and virality.
  2. Don't take yourself too seriously — Memes work because they are lighthearted and often used as a momentary escape from stress. With 38% of millennials and Gen Z following social media accounts dedicated to memes, it's essential to combine trending content with simple, funny text.
  3. Be relatable — One reason memes have become a crucial communication tool is because of their relatable nature. While people use memes as comic relief, 36% of millennials and Gen Z use them to express feelings and 28% when they can't find the right words to express themselves.
  4. Set realistic expectations — Making viral memes doesn't require a large budget, complex photo editing, or deep pop culture cuts. However, creating viral content is a risky endeavor. Memes fluctuate in popularity, rapidly trending and fading. The goal is to evoke emotions in a relatable, humorous way, but not everything can be an instant hit and nothing will last forever.