Memes can be an inexpensive and powerful tool for brands to connect and engage with their audiences on social media. They can help build brand equity and awareness through in-the-moment, lighthearted content.
“Memes are a fun way to enter of-the-moment conversations and jump on the bandwagon of the cultural zeitgeist. They’re a way to show that a brand ‘gets it,’” said Sarah Aitken, CMO of messaging content provider Holler.
But “getting it” isn’t always easy, and what makes a meme successful—wit, relevance, and relatability—can also be its downfall. Not only do brands risk offending people, given that humor is subjective, but marketers also have to worry about being labeled “cringey” for seemingly trying too hard or hopping on a trend too late in the game.
“Many brands have tried to piggyback on an internet trend and fallen flat on their faces,” said Don Caldwell, editor-in-chief of internet culture database Know Your Meme. “There’s even a meme mocking brands that do this, called ‘How Do You Do, Fellow Kids?,’ based on a screen grab of Steve Buscemi in ‘30 Rock.’ Brands need to avoid being seen as the ‘How Do You Do, Fellow Kids?’ Steve Buscemi.”
There’s also a brand safety risk: Memes are made to go viral, but when they do, they can often take on a life of their own.
“Many viral memes are borderline or explicitly dark humor,” said Denis Litvinov, chief information officer of FunCorp, a mobile entertainment app development company. “Those kinds of memes can alienate certain groups or cause them to reject an associated brand and, therefore, should be avoided.”
With that in mind, there are three main factors brands should consider when deciding whether to include memes in their social media strategies: audience, authenticity, and appropriateness.