Warwick Cairns, Strategy Partner at The Effectiveness Partnership, explores the enduring power of memes.

I want to talk about things that stick in your mind, whether you like it or not, and what those things tell us about human nature and our relationship with culture. Along the way, I’d like to look at what they mean for marketing, and, also, about how to build a brand.

If you ask people about things they can’t get out of their head you’ll often get a song. Barbie Girl by Aqua. Macarena by Los Del Rio. Who Let the Dogs Out by the Baha Men. You might get an advertising jingle or catchphrase. Things like Budweiser’s Wassup! McDonald’s I’m Lovin’ It or Ricola’s Riiiicolaaa!

You might also get an internet meme.

One of the most enduring has been the Distracted Boyfriend meme, which has been doing the rounds since it first appeared as a post on a Turkish Prog Rock Facebook group in 2017, making a ‘joke’ about Phil Collins. It wasn’t particularly funny then. It’s even less funny now. The meme has mutated millions of times since then, but it’s still with us, nevertheless. It has its own online generator, which helpfully – or unhelpfully – allows you to create your own bespoke captions.

You see the same patterns coming up again and again on the internet. Something emerges out of nowhere, it multiplies and mutates, and then suddenly it’s everywhere.

There’s a TikTok craze right now involving people uploading videos of themselves ‘stacking hands’ with their dogs. It’s grown so fast it’s reached the attention of the Washington Post. The gist of it is that two or more people sit in front of a dog and place their hands on top of each other’s, one hand at a time. What happens next, more often than not, is that the dog joins in. There are millions of versions of this same scenario online, gathering tens of millions of views. One compilation of hand-stacking videos has already been viewed 32 million times.

There’s also an appetite for hand-stacking goes wrong videos, like the one where a cute dog suddenly goes psycho and attacks its owner’s hand.

For good or ill, millions of us seem to have a capacity to be ‘hooked’ by these things. And from the jingle-and-catchphrase-writers of the 1950s, to the TikTok content creators of today, brands and influencers have long used that knowledge to create messages that create mass appeal instantly and linger in the mind.

We live in the age of the meme. Perhaps we always have done.

It’s worth digging deeper into this.

The term meme is often used in a fairly narrow sense nowadays. We think of it as an attention-grabbing image with some words on it, or a short video clip, shared online. But when the word was coined, the intention and meaning were far bigger and more ambitious. It first appeared in the 1976 book The Selfish Gene, written by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

In his definition of the meme, Dawkins describes a meme as a unit of culture.

It’s worth letting that sink in.

Examples of memes, for Dawkins, include not just images, tunes and catch‐phrases, but also clothes fashions. Ways of making pots in the Bronze Age. Ways of building arches in the early and later Middle Ages. And Dawkins sees ideas as memes, too. Even his own ideas. For Dawkins, a religion is a meme. A philosophy is a meme. As is pretty much anything that transmits from person to person and lodges itself in your mind.

In perhaps his most challenging explanation, Dawkins says that memes should be regarded as living structures. He goes on to say that he means this ‘not just metaphorically but technically.’

So, he says, ‘When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitise my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitise the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn't just a way of talking — the meme for, say, ‘belief in life after death’ is actually realised physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.

There’s a whole theory of social evolution, called memetics, based on evolutionary principles, with the meme as the fundamental unit of culture. Like genes, memeticists say that memes carry information, are replicated, and are transmitted from one person to another, and they have the ability to evolve, mutating at random and undergoing natural selection.

We know that brands have long used what we’d now call memes, in the modern-day sense of catchphrases and jingles. But in a far deeper and more fundamental sense, the most successful and valuable brands actually are memes in themselves.

Each year, Kantar publish a list of the most valuable brands of the year. This year’s list includes Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and McDonald’s. [1]

Each one of those brands offers features and benefits that can be obtained from rival brands, often at a lower price. There are smartphones with better cameras than Apple’s. There are search engines that work every bit as well as Google’s. There are numerous software companies and online shopping businesses. You can choose from any number of burger bars on your high street. But all of those megabrands have, on some level, transcended the purely functional. They’ve become units of culture.

If you want to know how the balance between ‘product’ and ‘unit of culture’ pans out, a good place to look is the large-scale research that prompted the Pepsi Taste Challenge. In blind taste tests, Pepsi was judged as the better product. But when the branding was visible, the public’s preferences were reversed. All other things being equal (or even slightly unequal), it’s culture that makes the difference.

In 1988, the Victoria & Albert Museum launched a controversial series of posters that positioned their appeal as ‘An ace caff with quite a nice museum attached.’

That attracted a lot of criticism at the time. The V&A, and its agency Saatchi & Saatchi, were accused of trivialising the seriousness of the collection and getting the balance all wrong.

But there was also a deeper truth to what they were saying. Because in reality, a lot of us really do go to museums for social reasons rather than purely educational ones.

In the same way, the appeal of successful brands lies in much more than the functional features and benefits of their products. Paraphrasing the V&A, you could say a strong brand is always going to be ‘an ace unit of culture, with some quite nice products attached.’

And the job of marketing is to make that a reality.

Sources

[1] Kantar: Revealed: the world’s most valuable brands of 2024