The following is a guest post from Jaime Klein Daley, vice president of strategy at brand strategy and design agency CBX. Opinions are the author's own.
Gen Z and the youngest millennials spend much of 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 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 the game's reverse card for Halloween, I had to decode the semiotics at knowyourmeme.com. (That meme is basically a punchy comeback 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, where 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 indie 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. 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 a 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 in 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 better approach is to play with meme culture and bring your own creativity into the mix. That's precisely what Beats by Dre did 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. The site drew nearly 6 million personalized labels in just weeks, according to The Hollywood Reporter, and trended across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. This engagement reinforced brand exposure among potential Beats by Dre customers.
Because such open systems can be co-opted and customized by consumers, there's a sense of ownership surrounding user-generated content in meme culture.
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. Slim Jim's Instagram account has about 630,000 followers, with enthusiastic commentary on Reddit and elsewhere. The official account refers to the meat products as "Long Bois" and Slim Jim fans as the "Long Boi Gang." It posts its own irreverent parodies and pushes the envelope in its replies to users' posts.
The juxtaposition here — an official corporate account actually understanding 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 interesting, consistent and fluid approach to engagement. 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. To that end, it's important to understand the online subcultures and influencers that most resonate with the brand's core values.
Be wary of zeroing in on specific visual or auditory elements that may quickly change. "VSCO girls," for example, may put down their scrunchies and sticker-covered Hydro Flask water bottles. It's the underlying sensibility that stays the same. But this is not to suggest that everything about a 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, physical objects. Consumers' entire lives do not take place on a flickering screen.
Brands and agencies must be able to navigate back and forth between online and offline worlds and study how one impacts the other. Market and trend research can inform this process. In the end, though, a calculated 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 Eater publication 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 a brand relevant by helping it steer clear of the tendency to replicate viral aesthetics. Marketers can 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.com.