Gen Z and the youngest Millennials spend half their lives soaking up memes on TikTok and Instagram. Since semiotic codes drive consumer culture and decision-making, this has enormous implications for brands and agencies that want to stay connected to these audiences.
The opportunity here is exciting: The best memes take off because they’re full of funny, surprising or cute juxtapositions—the kinds of elements that, with a bit of artful synthesis, can create modern, innovative and purposeful brands.
But embracing meme culture requires an honest accounting of the challenges—and even the risks—involved. For starters, the line between visual and digital literacy continues to blur.
My Son on Halloween: ‘NO U!’
I played the card game UNO as a kid, so I have the visual literacy to rattle off the types of memories and associations that images of UNO cards stir among consumers. However, when my 10-year-old son dressed up as an “UNO reverse” card for Halloween, I had to decode the semiotics at knowyourmeme.com. (The UNO reverse meme is basically a punchy comeback—a pic of the powerful UNO reverse card from the classic game along with the rearranged letters “NO U!”)
The semiotic alphabet for Halloween used to be comprised of references to European folk tales and Hollywood monster movies, and so kids dressed as princesses, witches, vampires and ghosts. Even as recently as the early-to-mid 2000s, staying visually literate in a domain like American film was straightforward: You could rent indy movies on DVD, subscribe to Film Threat magazine and occasionally thumb through a tome like Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide. By contrast, today’s YouTubers upload an average of 500 hours of video every minute. Even keeping up with all the new films and TV shows on Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video can be daunting.
In this ocean of content, memes come and go like waves on the shore, which makes digital literacy a Sisyphean task. Then there’s the issue of speed: A life online speeds up the adoption curve of visual trends. When you’re 17 and living through memes, your semiotic codes have the lifecycle of a mayfly: They move from “emerging,” to “dominant,” to “done” faster than ever.
Mimicry Misses the Mark
Keeping track of every wave on the digital ocean would only be necessary if your brand strategy hinged on mimicry—lifting trending memes whole-cloth as part of an effort to virtue-signal to specific online subcultures. Fortunately, brands and agencies need not frantically track and regurgitate cresting memes.
In fact, repackaging specific memes can trigger social media backlashes from those who resent such references as inauthentic intrusions. A far-better approach is to play with meme culture and bring your own creativity into the mix. That’s precisely what Beats by Dre did back in 2015 when it launched an online meme-generator based on the buzz around the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton. You’d type in your hometown and see the likes of “Straight Outta Boise” or “Straight Outta Atlanta” in the form of N.W.A.’s black-and-white logo. As noted by The Hollywood Reporter, in just a couple of weeks the site drew millions of visitors and downloads and trended No. 1 across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. This was huge, brand-reinforcing exposure among potential Beats by Dre customers.
Because such open systems can be coopted and customized by consumers, there’s a sense of ownership that is perfectly in keeping with meme culture. This is why those “most played” lists at Spotify are such powerful marketing tools.
For its part, Slim Jim has managed to create its own distinctive online subculture. Like so much in memeland, the approach is heavily ironic and cryptic. On Instagram, @SlimJim has about 630,000 followers, with enthusiastic commentary on Reddit and elsewhere. The official account refers to Slim Jim products as “Long Bois” and to @SlimJim fans as the “Long Boi Gang.” It posts its own highly irreverent parodies and pushes the envelope in its replies to others’ posts.
The juxtaposition here—an official corporate account actually “getting” its target audience of younger males—clearly works. “Slim Jim is Winning the Internet with its Impeccable Instagram Game,” one blogger declared.
Slim Jim has built a trusted relationship with its audience via an approach to engagement that is interesting, consistent and fluid. So how can brands with very different audiences leverage meme culture to do the same?
The traditional approach to branding leans heavily on fixed principles as part of brand systems that change slowly. As Gen Z comes to the fore, brands will need more flexibility and fluidity, because meme-steeped consumers in their teens and 20s inevitably will respond to visual stimuli quite differently than their predecessors. They may expect more novelty as well as more resonance with their digital lives. But the key is to avoid tightly defining the visual system of the brand: If you pinpoint it to the semiotics of a particular moment in late 2019, it will be tired in short order. Toward that end, it’s important to understand the online subcultures and influencers that most resonate with the core values of the brand.
Be wary of zeroing in on specific visual or auditory elements that may change. The “VSCO girls” after all, may put down their scrunchies and sticker-covered Hydro Flasks. It’s the underlying sensibility that stays the same. But this is not to suggest that everything about the campaign should be ephemeral. While pixels change endlessly, real-world products hinge on manufacturers, production schedules, marketing budgets and other lasting commitments and decisions. As a result, they necessarily entail elements of stability. That’s OK: Even if you’re 15 years old, you will visit brick-and-mortar stores and look at actual, stable objects. Your whole life is not a flickering screen.
Brands and agencies need to be able to navigate back and forth between online and offline worlds and study how one affects the other. Market and trend research can inform this process. In the end, though, a calculated, left-brained response is more likely to ring hollow. Flowing with the changing sensibilities of younger audiences necessitates a shift of the pendulum back toward art and aesthetics and away from “data-driven” approaches focused on quantifying exactly what “they” think. With an intuitive and aesthetic understanding of online subcultures, you can create anchors for the brand that leave room to grow and change.
Staying in tune also helps designers sustain brand appeal despite a challenge that is endemic to meme culture—the tendency for semiotic codes to show up everywhere at once. This past fall, the blog Eater commented on an Atlanta trend in which restaurants all over the city covered their walls in amorphous, Matisse-inspired shapes. “The blobs appear to be taking over,” Eater declared.
Maintaining a strong sense of the subculture keeps the brand relevant by helping you steer clear of the tendency to replicate “viral” aesthetics. You get there by spending more time in the online and offline worlds frequented by key audiences.
If you get confused, don’t worry—it’s OK to take a peek at knowyourmeme.