Brands, read this before jumping on the latest meme trend

In recent weeks we’ve seen the return of “Hide The Pain Harold” and the emergence of a new meme, “Girl Explaining” (below), which is rapidly becoming social. Here, Wunderman Thompson’s Rebecca Pinn explains how advertisers can get creative with meme culture without being weird.

Just when you thought ‘Hide The Pain Harold’ had forced his last smile, he’s back – this time in a series of digital video ads for Vodafone Italia, where we learn that winning a brand new electric Mini has delighted him. Almost.

‘Hide The Pain Harold’ is, for the uninitiated, a meme based on a series of photos of an older man whose genial smile is never enough to mask the sadness in his eyes.

Will brands jump on the ‘Girl Explaining’ meme?

Well, he’s made his way from stock image libraries, gone viral on social media and is now the face of numerous advertising campaigns – from a used car dealer to a British student discount scheme, to aptly, the Hungarian version of the Samaritans (András Arató, the real Harold, lives in Budapest).

Upping your ad game with meme content isn’t a new phenomenon, with the ‘Success Kid’ hitting the charts a decade ago telling us how excited he was about his *check notes* parents accessing HD channels on Virgin Media at no extra cost.

Vodafone meme

(No points for guessing who changed his shirt from green to red.)

But as the volume and speed at which memes spread only increases, it’s likely that many marketers will be faced with a decision as to whether memes will give them the funny/relatable/culture centerpiece they’re looking for. Or if they’re just going to make consumers cringe.

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Let’s be honest. When brands get it right, it works. But when they get it wrong – yikes. So let’s break it down by looking at some of the highs and lows of memes in advertising and what the success stories have in common.

Understanding your audience better, one meme at a time

For memes, memes have become human truths in an image. Their ability to distill complex emotional thoughts into a single message means they are almost the purest forms of knowledge.

Discovering wild memes in their natural habitat can give you more than a week’s focus group. Noticing patterns in how people make memes (I checked, it’s a real word) about a given topic can act as strategic shortcuts as well as providing inspiration for creative minds.

How far the brand digs into this direct source of knowledge is up to them. Bumble harnessed online rhetoric and meme-sharing about the often unpredictable world of online dating, using it to inform a distinct, relatable and personable tone of voice that went down a storm with its millennial users.

Unfortunately, just because your target base is using a meme doesn’t mean a brand should – a notorious victim is the commoditization of Megan Thee Stallion’s ‘Hot Girl Summer’ trend, ruined by brands like Wendy’s, Forever 21 and Maybelline.

I hate to break it to you, but your lemonade is not the ‘official drink of Hot Girl Summer’.

Making your brand a meme

A great social media team will naturally soak up all the news, controversy and jokes by firing up feeds at any given moment of the work week. Instead of constantly trying to start a conversation about your brand, leaning heavily on what’s already been said at the right moment can take you from 10 likes to 10,000.

KitKat hero

Picture the scene. Kourtney Kardashian takes a big bite out of a four-fingered KitKat. Just wrong. And thousands of people are up in arms on social media about the ‘right’ way to eat one. So what does the brand do? He is not ashamed; furthers the debate.

Becoming a meme is, in theory, the kind of moment brand managers dream of—it speaks to hitting a critical mass in terms of your brand’s chatability, iconicity, and it shows that you’ve made an authentic connection with people.

Kit Kat

You never know how far being a meme can take you. For KitKat, it was prime time TV in the morning. Yum.

Making memes key in ads

How the brand chooses to reflect memes in its creative output is a skillful balancing act. Get it right and you’ll be doing what memes were always intended to do, providing a moment of fun – kudos to Sony Pictures for embracing the Spiderman meme with a fan-pleasing joke.

More detailed than a simple social post, some brands can step it up, as Vodafone did with ‘Hide The Pain Harold’. I personally love it – whether you know Harold or not, the facial expression that made him famous is the feeling that Vodafone is trying to convey.

However, I have to wonder if Vodafone have played it safe and therefore not been able to maintain originality – Harold first hit the scene in 2011… Something currently known might have had more impact , but it would come with the greater risk that in two weeks there will be a new meme of the month. But in most cases, the worst outcome is the meme sinking without a trace.

At the end

Meme culture is brilliant, funny, digestible, and offers some surprising insights into how people feel about life. Its meteoric rise to inevitability in our social feeds can teach us a lot as advertisers.

And it looks like it’s here to stay. So instead of lingering on ‘old hat’ techniques for fear of being out of step with the times, we should embrace it. After all, the fire is kindling itself.

But approach with caution. There is a temptation, as memes are ever evolving, to react and use them without due consideration for the audience and the long-term ambition of the brand. What may seem like low-hanging viral fruit can break your brand and cause irreversible damage.

Yes, ‘let’s make a meme’ should never be the starting point of a conversation. But maybe a conversation can start because of one.

Rebecca Pinn is a senior planner at Wunderman Thompson.

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