Memes are highly visual in nature, meaning they often go hand-in-hand with image-led social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter. Although they can at times be controversial, memes are often used to spread humour and opinions. But how can they be used effectively by brands? The answer lies in a process called meme-hijacking.
Meme-hijacking is the art of using popular memes for marketing purposes. This has been carried out effectively by global brands such as Fenty, Gucci, Netflix, and Disney. But why do they do it?
Often, a key reason is that meme-hijacking allows businesses to connect with a hard-to-reach younger audience. This is the demographic most likely to engage with memes and share them on their own social media platforms. Alongside this, memes are a quick, easy and cheap marketing tool. Often the memes used are already viral, meaning that half the work is already done. All that brands have to do is create their own witty caption and hope that it takes off.
Arguably, Netflix is the ‘king’ of meme-hijacking. Netflix even has its own account on Instagram, which is littered with memes and internet jokes, all promoting its own shows. The success of Netflix produced film Bird Box’ could be due, in part, to a series of memes that feature Sandra Bullock’s character blindfolded while in a boat, a very recognisable scene from the film. Even if you haven’t seen the film, you are likely to have seen this image floating around in the ether.
The Bird Box memes also took on another form – video challenges. Netflix asked a handful of popular users on Twitch, a popular live-streaming platform, to do the ‘Bird Box Challenge’. This originally involved gamers playing their favourite games while blindfolded. However, it ultimately led to users on social media videoing themselves performing everyday tasks while blindfolded, giving Bird Box free social media exposure in the process. While this created a huge social buzz for the film, it also forced Netflix to issue a statement urging people not to injure themselves while taking part in the challenge.
Despite not being a highly rated film, only gaining a measly 6.6/10 rating on IMDB, Bird Box was watched by over 45 million people. Could this be down to Netflix creating mass meme hysteria? Did people watch it because they wanted to, or because of a strategically placed meme on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook? It’s fair to say that it would be been a strong contributing factor.
Naturally, other factors were also crucial to the pace at which Bird Box gained momentum. A shout-out from Kim Kardashian about the film to her 59 million strong Twitter following certainly would have helped, as would the cleverly orchestrated timing of the Christmas holiday release. However, the effectiveness of user-generated social content around Bird Box cannot be denied. It made the film’s name and premise go viral and, most importantly, transferred social conversations into film views.
Popular makeup brand Fenty Beauty is another brand that has benefited from incorporating memes into its social strategy. The brand regularly posts memes on its social channels. One of the most recent examples features Family Guy character Peter Griffin dressed as a woman with the caption ‘How I’m rolling up on FaceTime after I win that $500 Fenty Beauty gift card’, making light of the current communication situation while also selling their products. Posts of this kind tend to gain far more interactions than usual content.
Does this mean that memes could be an effective way for brands to communicate online?
The answer is not a straightforward one. Yes, when used correctly and by the right types of brands, using memes can be a highly effective way of securing brand exposure. However, effective use of meme hijacking requires an in-depth and highly current understanding of social and cultural trends.
Like any trend, memes are highly topical and the fall from favour can be rapid. This makes it really important that brands consider a number of things before incorporating memes into their social media strategy. Firstly, will meme content resonate with our current and target audiences? For memes to work, your target demographic needs to be predominantly young and highly active on social media.
It is also crucial to consider whether your input will gain positive traction. Do you, as a brand, have a full and informed understanding of the cultural roots of the meme and why the audience is engaging with it? The world of social culture is often less straightforward than it may appear and it’s vital that your brand has a thorough understanding of any trend before contributing to it online.
Memes are an innovative and highly entertaining digital phenomenon. They can present great opportunities for audience growth and social media exposure to brands. However, think carefully and do your homework before jumping on the bandwagon.