Digital Marketing

Meme Literacy in the Age of Branded Content

open laptop with full cup of coffee, notepad, pen and phone nearby

It’s not enough to be online anymore. You have to be, as Twitter
affectionately calls it, “very online.” Very online includes being up to date
with what the teenagers are doing, decoding the latest meme that’s making the
rounds (without googling it), and, if you’re a marketer, subtly and lovingly
weaving the crazy and funny parts of the internet into your social media
strategy, without going overboard. But just how important is internet culture
and humor, and how much is too much? We’re looking at what is now knows as
“Brand Twitter” to guide you through the good and bad of incorporating internet
culture into your social media strategies.

Internet culture is ruled by relatability — even memes are
an attempt to connect through what the online community has crafted into an
inside joke. With that in mind, it makes perfect sense that brands would follow
in the footsteps of internet culture; they’ve been trying to relate and connect
with their audience through advertising, brand positioning, and messaging since
the beginning of time. And at first trying out a wacky new strategy on social
media seemed incredibly low risk. A Twitter account is cheaper than a series of
commercials, and the nature of social media seemed to dictate that the people
who got it would find it, and everyone else wouldn’t notice or mind. Things
have played out a little differently.

The first large brands to wholeheartedly embrace the
irreverent, humorous tone that fits right in on Twitter were large restaurant
chains. While others, like Pizza Hut and KFC, started developing an online
persona in 2009, Denny’s was the first to capture the spotlight in 2013. To put
it mildly, the internet was a different place back then. All you had to do to
be an edgy and funny brand was be a little bit off-beat, drop in some puns, and
use emojis. Denny’s went from a restaurant optimistically thought of as where you
went after prom because it was open all night, to an online sensation with
hundreds of thousands of followers. In many ways Denny’s provided a blueprint
for other large brands to follow, and they did.

2013-2016 was the height of brand rule on Twitter. Brands
were getting funnier and edgier, even roasting customers or making jokes at
their expense. But, as the internet is the internet, the heyday couldn’t last
forever. As more brands wrote “internet culture” into their online strategy
plans, the veil was lifted, and the audience seemed to split in a few different
ways. Some of this can be traced to changing politics and ethos: Brands that
were once unequivocally loved are now viewed with suspicion, Twitter isn’t the
lighthearted place it once was, and internet humor has shifted to follow, into
a darker place where it’s more dangerous for brands to play along.

With these changes, Denny’s, our great trailblazer, led the
pack into another kind of relatable tweeting in 2017: depression tweeting.

This, too, found a welcoming audience at first. It was
unexpected and funny to see a brand acknowledge something so much of the
audience was feeling. But as more brands followed suit, Twitter users were less
charmed.

Brands aren’t people, and the same way that people push back
when corporate accounts brand tragedy (like 9/11 posts), or drop into hashtags
with little context for the conversation, which DiGorno
in particular did very badly
, the new depressed tone on Brand Twitter
started to feel, at best, a commodification of genuine suffering.

Brands interacting with each other, checking on each other’s “mental health,” can look more like offensive role playing than relatability. And to many Twitter critics, it seems to be a symptom of overworked social media strategists behind the accounts. Forced to joke about mental health, when their own, real, mental health is probably ignored.

In 2019, at full brand saturation, there seem to be three
schools of thought on the antics of Brand Twitter. There are the people in the
middle, who are still surprised and entertained by the young, humorous tone of
these social media accounts. There are a large swath of people who just don’t
get it. And there are this new group of people who are critical of this
strategy, brands peddling depression for their goods has come to symbolize the
ultimate dystopia. Or, as they’d say on Twitter, a broken reality simulation.

So, what’s the best path forward for marketers? We want
content to be relatable and funny —bonus points if there’s a chance for
virality. And of course, to excel on social media, your brand has to offer
something, whether that’s humor, information, or really good deals on air
travel.  

The brands of Twitter, from 2009 to now, seem to provide an
object lesson that leads back to the same place: context. What we call meme
literacy or internet culture is really just an understanding of the context
you’re speaking into. Which means knowing what to take seriously — like
depression, social justice movements like #MeToo, and your audience — and knowing
what’s fair game for jokes.

Because the tides of internet humor shift so often, at
BigWing we believe it’s vital to have a brand identity that is present in your
social media voice outside of what is currently popular. The jokes and trends
on social media are constantly changing, and if that’s where your brand is
rooted, you’ll need to change along with them. This is a terrible formula for
developing a distinctive brand voice. And, as evidenced by pushback against Brand
Twitter, there are places that people can go that brands can’t. Creating a
strong voice that fits your clients’ ideas of their brand, while being aware
enough of the internet culture to be part of the current conversation, is our
sweet spot. It allows us to chime in on discussions and entertain with a
relevant meme, without handing the brand voice completely over to the will of
the internet.

The internet used to be thought of as just a tool, a new
medium, but now we know that it’s practically a living being with its own rules
and culture. David Bowie
called it
back in 1999.