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Memes: What Are They And How Can You Use Them?

Making The Most Of Memes For Marketing

The word meme actually comes from the Greek word ‘mimeme’, meaning ‘imitated thing’. And in case you were wondering, it’s pronounced like ‘team’, not ‘mimi.

Provocative biologist Richard Dawkins defined memes as a ‘package of culture’, saying in his 1976 book ‘The Selfish Gene’ that memes are used to explain the way in which cultural information spreads. This was obviously a pre-internet definition, referring more to the manner in which regional sayings, fashion and architecture are spread and reproduced. A meme is an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person, it's a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols and information. Apply this to the internet and the fast-fuelled nature of social media, and open-minded marketers may be smelling a great opportunity.

One of the first known ‘memes’ dates back to the 1870s when Harry Frees took photos of his pet cats, added text and turned them into greeting cards – 145 years later and Frees’ vision lives on in the joys of LOLcats. 



The imageboard website 4chan, which is the home of LOLcats and which has more recently been in the limelight for rather unsavoury reasons surrounding the Jennifer Lawrence naked pictures debacle, is the innovator for memes as we know them today.

Memes can be gifs, videos, photos, political propaganda, rage comics made up of four panels or the social media favourite ‘macro’ meme, which sees a line of text placed above a stock picture with a punchline beneath. Macro memes offer possibilities for some, admittedly gimmicky, advertising and marketing campaigns.

The key to a successful meme, or indeed any viral campaign as we’ve seen with the Ice Bucket Challenge, is to make sure primarily that it appeals to the masses as this will help sharing. Humour is a great way to achieve this, particularly the slapstick or silly, as people can relate quickly to comedy. They say never work with animals or children, but in this case meme-lovers lap them up. Finally, you should know where to share your meme – meme-friendly sites include Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest and to a lesser extent Facebook.

Here’s a few memes in circulation at the moment:

Bad Luck Brian – starts out positively but the punch line ends ironically worse.

Success Kid – everything goes his way.


Confession Bear – the cynic.



Scumbag Steve – the selfish and piggish ‘mate’.


Thug Life – even when he’s bad, he’s good.


First World Problems – the plight of the privileged.

There’s money to be made in memes – I Can Has Cheezburger? is a weblog predominantly featuring the stars of lolcats and in one year the page can expect to receive over half a billion visits, rivalling the rather more highbrow New York Times. The site is currently valued at around $2 million, which isn’t a lot compared to the multi-billion valuations of other social media start-ups but when you bear in mind that the site is just a collection of cat pictures, I think most would be happy with that figure.

Marketing with macro memes can be, and has been, successful. They can make for effective campaigns because you are building on the back of an already popular and recognised internet trend – attaching your personalized brand message to an already trending meme helps your audience to remember and relate to the brand, driving higher reach and more engagement. Virgin Media have used this technique well, using the popular ‘Success Kid’ meme (mentioned above) on billboard and online materials.


The benefits of marketing with memes are that they’re easy and cheap to create. Websites like memegenerator.net enable users to find a popular meme and customize it with their own text or images.

They quickly establish an emotional connection with the audience (assuming that your audience is tech-savvy and aware of social media trends). Memes are funny, and content that evokes emotion is more likely to be shared.

They’re already popular. ‘Memejacking’ is an effective way to infuse your brand into already trending content.

Obviously, all marketing campaigns should be integrated these days so it would be unwise to solely rely on a meme, particularly because of their rude and close-to-the-line potential. However, memes do resonate well with millennials and the tech-savvy, and bring an extra dollop of cultural and symbolic meaning – after all, a meme is a ‘package of culture’, and that is something that all good marketing campaigns strive to capture. The bottom line is that humour is an effective way for marketers to connect with their audiences and encourage interaction; memes are amusing, they invoke an emotional tie from meme-lovers and this will help drive greater reach on social media and blogs.

Katie Rowley 

Recent graduate and now interning as content editor, when she's not writing articles Katie can quite likely be found festival-ing, holiday-ing or reading a book (dedicated English student that she is). Follow her @KatieAtSMF.

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Memes: What Are They And How Can You Use Them? Reviewed by Katie Rowley on Thursday, September 04, 2014 Rating: 5
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