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The History of Memes and Why We Use Them in Social Marketing

Leeroy Jenkins. Numa Numa. The “I can haz cheezburger?” cat.

Oh, how memes have changed in such a short amount of time. But even as memes are largely associated with the internet, can we really say that they’re actually… new? After all, where did memes even come from? And when?

And, more importantly, how do they factor into your marketing strategy?

 

The Origin of the Word “Meme”

To find the original origins of our modern memes, we’re going to have to turn around and take a look at Greece. In fact, we’ll be glancing all the way back to Plato and Aristotle, who first coined and defined the term “mimesis” as a concept by which art is imitated, re-represented, or essentially copied.

Generally speaking, this theoretical principle is used primarily in the field of humanities. But not only is mimesis used as a way of describing the anthropological transfer of visual art concepts, it has since branched out and also become prominent in the study of literary criticism.

But how, then, did this seemingly-academic Greecian concept evolve into internet memes as we know them today?

Simple — from mimesis we have the word “mimeme,” or simply, “something which is imitated.”

Then, in 1976, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene, a book from which we can trace back the initial establishment of the word “meme.”

In an effort to describe the proliferation of ideas and trends in a manner similar to that of genetics, Dawkins shortened the term “mimeme” to “meme” so that it would sound closer to the word “gene.”

Thus, he defines a meme as a unit of cultural transmission or imitation.

“Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches,” Dawkins explains. “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.”

 

The 21st Century Meme

With Richard Dawkins, the term we know so well today was officially coined. But the next question, then, is how did it diffuse and become all but synonymous with global virality?

Well, the advent of the internet not only expedited the process by which memes are spread from one individual to another, but the use of memes on social media platforms fundamentally changed the very definition of what a meme is.

“[Internet memes] often take the form of pictures, videos, or other media containing cultural information that, rather than mutating randomly, have been deliberately altered by individuals,” according to Britannica. “Their deliberate alteration, however, violates Dawkins’s original conception of memes.”

Despite this deviation, however, Dawkins himself has affirmed that, while the modern definition of the word “meme” is no longer an exact match to his original 1976 definition, it is still similar enough in that his original premise still concluded that a meme is “anything that goes viral.”

In fact, the final chapter of The Selfish Gene features a passage in which Dawkins uses the metaphor of a virus in order to describe the way a meme functions and is transmitted.

 

Enter: Marketing with Memes

Okay, so we just recounted historical origins and semantic variations regarding the word “meme.”

But what does this all mean for your company?

“Memes work for brands because they’re designed specifically for social platforms and provide value through entertainment,” Forbes states. “Memes aren’t overly promotional — they make people laugh with a casual reference to your brand.” 

In other words, entertainment breeds engagement.

And not only are today’s memes inherently designed to be entertaining but, as memes exist based on the basic premise of imitation and recreation for cultural purposes, they can remain in circulation for long periods of time, thereby enhancing your brand awareness and generating earned media when one’s audience is engaged correctly.

The key, then, is defining what the “correct” usage of memes involves. After all, in order to stay trendy, social media managers and marketers need to:

  • Be cognizant of the high rate of meme turnover when strategizing social calendars
  • Keep up with breaking news and use emerging memes in a timely manner
  • Mind their audience in terms of their interests and demographics
  • Be relatable rather than blatantly sales-oriented, particularly for Gen Z and younger Millennials
  • And more

Now, is that a lot to take into consideration? Absolutely.

But don’t worry,  you don’t have to struggle to stay afloat in the flood of memes and internet trends. Rather, you can pass that responsibility on to the professionals you trust.

Namely, you can pass it to Mad Men Marketing!

Here at Mad Men Marketing, we are rooted in the belief that brands should interact with their customers, not interrupt them. And what better way to integrate that mindset into your strategy with memes? That’s why our team features social media aficionados and research experts who can help you stay on top of the ever-changing landscape of social strategy and trending memes.

So, if you’re ready to learn more, contact Mad Men Marketing today by calling (904) 355-1766!

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