In this guest post, PUSH Collective brand strategist Eugene Healey (pictured below) takes a look at memes and the value it can bring to brands…
Brands are in a difficult spot right now. Memes, and the internet culture that surrounds them, are akin to a new language that’s fundamentally shaped the way we communicate with one another online. It’s a language that’s complex, rapidly evolving and, for the majority of large corporations, seems to remain impenetrable. Every now and then this cultural myopia results in something so iconically terrible it can’t be ignored, but this masks the broader issue of mediocre content being made with no real understanding of the audience it’s being served to.
It’s time to lift our heads out of the sand. For brands, understanding culture remains essential, because it shows they understand the audiences that participate in that culture. Meme culture in particular requires a challenging rethink of the relationship with that audience: moving away from authoritarian brand management and creating a more permeable platform that others can contribute to and influence. But a big payoff awaits those who are taking the time to become fluent in the language of the internet: being given the rare opportunity to participate in, and even shape the cultural conversation as it unfolds in real time.
What’s in a meme?
The purpose of internet memes is broader than some realise. The collection of images and videos we encounter online do more than make us laugh. They can be a vehicle used to drive home a message, either to positive or nefarious ends. Memes can be the shroud of levity that gives us the outlet to publicly express and own our flaws and anxieties. And they can be a way for people to connect with others by discovering that the oddities of their own personal stories are actually shared experiences (in the case of Subtle Asian Traits, the oftentimes strange experience of being a diasporic Asian living in the Anglosphere).
In essence, internet memes are an important medium through which culture is consumed and shared online. That means, by definition, meme culture is culture. And given that so few brands have a genuine ability to understand meme culture, much less participate in it, they’re missing out on an opportunity to connect deeper with online audiences who are the next legion of consumers.
You can’t sit with us
The level of ‘internet illiteracy’ brands suffer from is especially dire whenever they hop on the bandwagon to coincide with a particular cultural moment. You’ve only got to look at the state of branded content around Game of Thrones to get an understanding of what I mean.
Compare that against the brilliance and creativity of fan-made show memes. It only exacerbates the banality of corporate messaging, making it crystal clear to audiences they’re only interested in leeching from, not participating in the zeitgeist. In essence, it’s the brand equivalent of Hillary Clinton dabbing on Ellen.
Worse still is when brands try to inhabit the persona of the internet itself. There’s no greater ‘fellow kids’ moment than watching a host of fast-food corporates all doing their best to sound like a same snarky, disinterested teenager.
Your audience has the paintbrush, be the canvas
There’s a better way to show you’re fluent in internet culture – and no, it doesn’t rely on making memes. It goes deeper, tapping into your audiences desire for creation. Your responsibility is to release some control, giving audiences the opportunity to create art using your brand as a canvas.
This is already something that artists in the entertainment industry are capitalising on. (Previously) independent Soundcloud rapper Lil Nas X has just broken the record for longest-running Billboard No. 1 single ever (19 weeks and counting) with a country/trap hybrid track built off a beat purchased from a Dutch teenager for $30. Dig deeper and you’ll find the catalyst for Old Town Road’s rise actually began last year with its use within a meme on the Gen-Z video sharing platform TikTok. On the platform, a mind-boggling three million videos were created using the track as part of a Harlem Shake-esque ‘Yee-Haw challenge’.
The success of this tune is no accident. It came because it was purpose-built to be exploited in the context of meme culture, whereby art is subverted and recreated by the end-consumer to fit their needs, not yours.
It’s time brands started tapping more consciously into their audiences’ desire for creation. It can be as simple as providing them a single, solid image to latch onto and carry over into their world. By repeating a consistent message, in a consistent tone of voice, you are already creating a cultural reference point that acts as a canvas for your audience to paint their art on. Nike’s ‘Believe’ campaign, Industry Superfunds ‘Compare the pair’ ads, and even the great Bunnings sausage sizzle are all fantastic examples of how memetic behaviour can be incited through repetition of a common theme (yes, memes exist of all three).
To take it even further, you could begin to release specific assets, or even certain elements of your branding system up for your audiences to play around with – setting the perimeters of the sandbox and allowing them to run free within it.
US Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg recently released an entirely opensource design kit to help followers support his grassroots campaign. Contrary to the largely controlled and static world of political branding, it’s an inclusive and unconventional approach that plays well with Pete’s complex and multi-faceted story (he is, among other things, gay, a military veteran, a Harvard graduate, millennial – and a devout Christian).
Enter the matrix
For brands, the difficulty in this approach is as much philosophical as operational. Co-creation in this manner is an admission that the boundaries of your brand belong to your audience, not yourself – and it’s a trust-fall exercise into the maelstrom that is internet culture.
But when you allow audiences to construct meaning in their own language, it’s infinitely more powerful than trying to define it exclusively on your terms. Brands mean different things to different people, and by embracing polysemy you can magnify your cultural footprint far beyond what you could accomplish on your own. Rest assured, if it exists, you can meme it. Why not be in on the joke?