This Friday the team at digifi.it have been taking a look at the weird (very weird) and wonderful world of internet memes, and how brand managers can use the phenomenon to market to the vast online community that creates them.

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Put simply, a meme is a concept or behaviour that spreads – in this case – via the internet. The most common manifestation of memes is an image or animation (GIF) with a simple word or phrase attached. The wording of a meme always links back to an original photograph or idea, such as the now-mainstream “Grumpy Cat”, who — you guessed it — is grumpy.

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By the end of 2014, Grumpy Cat had grossed over £64m in commercial deals, including a line of coffee drinks called “Grumppuccino”. (I’m not joking.) With these most successful of memes spreading like wildfire across the internet, it’s not surprising that brands and marketers have begun to leverage memes for their own marketing campaigns.

Instant messenger service HipChat used the now-classic and ever-popular “Y U No Guy” from the Rage Comics meme style to promote their then-brand-new communication tool for businesses with this attention-grabbing billboard in San Francisco.

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Here is an example of a brand using an internet meme to awesome effect. Here’s what they had to say on their blog shortly after the end of this simple campaign.

“The response far exceeded our expectations and continues to pay off today … Shortly after it went up, it was all over the place: Twitter, Tumblr, FAIL Blog (in the “Wins” category), and every startup’s dream, TechCrunch. It also caused a ridiculous rise in searches for “hipchat”. Most importantly we got a lot of new, happy customers (the actual goal of any advertising campaign).”

After some of our team here at digifi.it began asking variations of the question “Y U NO USE HIPCHAT?” I’m pleased to announce that we are now a fully converted HipChat office, happier than ever. They’re clearly doing something right!

sucess-kid-virgin-mobile-uk-resized-600 Likewise, Virgin Media used the extremely popular “Success Kid” meme to promote their campaign, but with slightly less success. Similar to some backlash on Reddit that HipChat received, the internet community became defensive of what was seen as a commercialisation of their beloved creations. On the whole, however, still an engaging and amusing campaign, probably with a larger scope than the HipChat example above in that you can still understand the joke without the deeper reference to internet culture.

There have been several examples of brands using memes “incorrectly” which has created huge online backlash, especially if audience participation is encouraged through the use of a hashtag, for example. (In the eyes of many in the online community, to misuse a meme and attach a hashtag is to invite criticism.) To avoid this, brand managers need to learn to respect and understand the medium, as well as the culture that has created it. However, if you do get it wrong, the nature of social media means your faux-pas will soon be forgotten, so just weather the storm and try to get it right next time! (Or likewise, poke fun at your own mistakes, as Downton Abbey did with their slightly out-of-place props last winter.)

Here at the digifi.it HQ, we’re big consumers of memes and internet culture, and we’d love to see some more meme-marketing that you’ve seen around – good or bad! Comment below, or tweet us at @digifi_it.