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Now more than ever, we are seeing a rise in the “unhinged brand” or brands using chaotic conversational moments and memes for content.

For those who don’t melt their brains with content all day like I do, Google defines a meme as an “image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by internet users, often with slight variations.” Think Doge, Success Kid, Disaster Girl, Exit 12, Distracted Boyfriend, and the famously infamous Grumpy Cat.

Most (if not all) of these will have incited a groan similar to “omg I remember that one.” But chances are, you saw it in the context of a friend sharing something funny–one personal social media account to another. So, why are marketing teams scrapping traditional marketing and dipping into the meme barrel to find something to show their CEO at their weekly roundup?

It’s because memes have become one of the primary modes of digital communication for Millennials and Gen Zs, and they’re now reaching into the mainstream. YPulse's research reveals that 55% of 13-35 year olds send memes weekly, with 30% sharing them daily. Instagram alone witnesses a million memes shared daily, doubling the numbers from 2018. Memes are no longer confined to internet subculture; they have emerged as a legitimate avenue for mainstream marketing.

The act of sharing a branded meme can amplify your brand message and increase the chances of creating strong memory structures. While meme marketing should not replace long-term brand-building strategies, it excels in generating spikes of fame, buzz, and attention that drive growth for businesses!

What is Meme Marketing?

So, how does a blip on the proverbial radar of the internet become solid marketing material?

Hubspot defines meme marketing specifically as “the use of memes to promote your brand narrative. It’s a fun, low-effort way to connect with your audience and increase your engagement rate, as memes are highly shareable.”

It could be referencing the co branded movie posters of Barbie and Oppenheimer (which wildly backfired for Warner Bros.), using Jennifer Lawrence eating hot wings to make relatable work content like girlboss, or changing Kourtney Kardashian’s pregnancy announcement to best serve your language learning platform like Duolingo.

The word we should focus on from the definition is copied.

Below is an example of the difference between a meme and an original way to bring a huge culture moment to a brand. See how MailChimp took their own spin on the Barbie branding? While Gong took imagery directly from copyrighted materials?

The likelihood of an individual getting sued for posting a meme is quite low, given that popular memes are widely used across various platforms, and pursuing legal action against individual users would be a waste of time and money.

However, for companies aiming to make a profit (i.e. everyone) the situation is different. The common argument for using memes in marketing revolves around fair use, a defense against copyright infringement. Fair use cases involve four factors, including the purpose and nature of the use, the copyrighted work's nature, the portion used in relation to the whole work, and the effect on the potential market for the copyrighted work.

In the context of meme marketing, two of those raise questions. Firstly, if a for-profit business is using memes on organic social platforms, it could be considered a commercial endeavor. Additionally, since most memes only slightly modify the original image with added text, the issue of how much has been changed becomes relevant.

There is legal precedent for this, involving Pepe The Frog. When Pepe became associated with the alt-right and InfoWars used him for a poster sold on their website, the original artist, Matt Furie, filed a lawsuit. The court denied InfoWars' fair use argument, stating that "meme-ification" did not diminish Furie's copyright ownership, emphasizing that copyright owners are entitled to protect their work against unauthorized uses, regardless of its popularity.

Considering this legal precedent, it becomes apparent that using someone else's copyrighted material in marketing campaigns can carry legal risks. Now, my legal knowledge stops at Law and Order, so it’s essential for companies to consult actual legal experts to ensure they comply with copyright laws and avoid potential legal issues when using memes. 

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Tips for Meme Marketing

1. Stay on Brand

Just like any marketing approach, you'll want to ensure that the memes you use align with your brand identity and messaging. When considering a viral meme for your brand, ask yourself if it complements your brand values, tone, and target audience. Will it resonate positively with your customers, or could it potentially cause confusion or disconnect? Remember, a meme that works for one brand may not necessarily work for yours.

While trends and viral memes can be incredibly tempting, it's crucial to exercise caution and thoughtfulness. Not every viral sensation will suit your brand's personality and objectives. It's essential to be selective about the memes you choose to create content on and those that you decide to pass on.

2. Don’t be offensive

Similarly, it's crucial to ensure that your meme remains non-offensive. Brands can find themselves in trouble when they jump on the meme bandwagon without carefully considering the implications. Before joining in, it's essential to ask a few critical questions about the meme's content:

  • Does the meme mock or belittle a specific group or community?
  • Does it contain insults, slurs, or offensive language?
  • Does it rely on suggestive imagery or inappropriate language?

If the answer is "yes" to any of these questions, it's wise to reconsider using the meme in your marketing efforts. Avoiding offensive content is essential to maintain a positive brand image and avoid potential backlash from your audience.

3. Follow the “Meme Rules”

Meme blunders are truly cringeworthy, comparable to parents awkwardly using teenage slang—it stands out like a sore thumb. To avoid such mishaps, here are some essential guidelines to follow:

  • Keep it Concise: Short and sweet memes are more effective. Avoid overcrowding with excessive text or elements.
  • Opt for Readable Text: Ensure the text is large and easy to read, as viewers should grasp the message at a glance.
  • Maintain Recognition: Customization is fine, but don't go overboard. The meme should still be recognizable to the audience.
  • Respect the Original Meaning: Avoid altering the meme's core meaning, as it may confuse users and dilute its impact.
  • No CTAs (Call to Actions): Keep memes free of sales-y or promotional messages. They are meant to entertain, not sell.

By following these guidelines, you can create memes that resonate with your audience, avoiding the cringy pitfalls of meme marketing gone wrong.

4. Strike while the iron is hot

Timing is everything. Ideally, you share your meme when it's at its peak popularity, rather than after it’s already made the rounds.

When a meme is trending and capturing widespread attention, it presents a golden opportunity for your brand to join the conversation and gain traction with your audience. However, once the meme's popularity starts to fade, you may miss out on the chance to make a significant impact.

This requires an incredibly nimble approach and the ability to swiftly adapt your marketing strategy.

The Flip Side

1. Like I said, they fade… fast

One of the defining characteristics of memes is their fleeting nature. They have incredibly short lifespans, often lasting from a few days to a couple of weeks. And, memes are highly context-specific, emerging from and reflecting the cultural environment in which they originate. Remember the "left shark" meme?

As soon as memes become part of mainstream media, they lose their appeal. By the time your marketing campaign includes a meme, your younger audience might have already been aware of it for weeks, making it feel like their dad is trying to incorporate “cap” into his vernacular.

Meme usage can inadvertently date your brand and alienate the very audience you're trying to engage. To stay relevant and appeal to your target audience, it's crucial to be mindful of the transitory nature of memes and ensure your marketing strategies remain fresh in other ways. 

2. Lots of companies get it wrong

The risk of looking ridiculous is high. SaaS companies often cater to businesses and professionals who expect a certain level of professionalism. Memes, with their irreverent attitude, may not align with the image that your company wants to project.

The recent Barbie and Oppenheimer flub from the social team at Warner Bros is a great example of how one mistake can be extravagantly costly. The Barbie movie team thought they were just commenting on the mashup of a Barbieheimer poster with “It’s going to be a summer to remember” but Warner Bros. Japan condemned the comment and interaction with the meme. They believed that the account was acknowledging and making light of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings that killed 250,000 individuals. 

3. They’re shallow

I said what I said. Memes are like a massive kiddy pool, lacking in depth but offering access to all. If you’re a diver or a pro swimmer, you’re going to want deep water to explore in. Same goes for audience engagement; content depth is crucial, especially in the SaaS sector.

The only reason we’re here talking about memes in marketing is the potential to join a viral trend and garner more attention. Memes build on a self-referential history. If you're not already familiar with the meme, you’re going to find yourself wondering why it's funny.  Websites like Know Your Meme are in existence purely to explain the joke! Lame.

So, Should You Hop on the Unhinged Bandwagon?

Honestly? Probably not. I know, it’s not the fun answer you hoped for.

While meme marketing can work well for certain industries and many B2C brands, SaaS companies should carefully consider whether it aligns with their brand identity, target audience, and marketing objectives.

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By Melissa Glazar

Melissa is a writer and professional specializing in growth marketing and digital marketing. With three years of experience at small to medium sized companies, she has driven social media growth, optimized a sales funnel to work with overall company marketing efforts, and seen enough KPIs to make your head spin. She’s excited to bring her knowledge to you, and knows you’ll find it valuable!

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