Memes, Brands, and Missions

  
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Today’s topic is brands vs. memes. I made a transcript as well, using Descript, which you can find below. Apparently I spoke 1751 words in ~11 minutes. Wow, this is a high-leverage way to do “writing”. Also, I begin thoughts with “So…” a lot apparently.

Hello and welcome to another episode of the Breaking Smart short-format podcast.

So today I want to do a little bit on the relationship and connection between brands and memes. So brands and memes are somewhat similar concepts. They both refer to ideas and constructs that are designed to attract attention. Brands, they are a classic marketing concept and produce artifacts like, you know, taglines and logos and advertisements, and the idea is that if you establish a good brand, you will attract attention to your product or service. The right kind of attention from the right kind of people, and they will believe the right things about whatever you're selling. So that's positioning. So you want to project a certain perception and the brand is how you produce that perception. So that's a brand.

On the other hand, you have memes. So memes are little fragments of culture. So here I'm talking about internet memes, not memes in the sense of Richard Dawkins, which is kind of a broader evolutionary concept.

So memes in the sense of internet culture.

So these are fragments of information generally borrowed from say popular culture, and then recoded to communicate a different message.

So there's a fundamental ironic element to the creation and propagation of memes. While there are “original” memes, so to speak, where you actually create the content and message along with it in general when we say meme, we are talking about a little fragment of content appropriated from some other source, and then recoded with a new message. So that's why you can have for example that little scene from Game of Thrones where you have the Sean Bean character saying something like “one does not simply do blah blah blah” and then you can fill in the blanks blah blah blah of it with whatever you want. So you can say for example, “one does not simply stop climate change”, right, and that becomes a meme. So most memes have that format. So like brands, memes also attract attention. They attract attention in a very focused way towards something, and that something has a perception it wants to project that may or may not harmonize with the second recoding that the meme is imposing.

So in the case of The Game of Thrones meme you could say that it harmonized very well with the television show, right, because anytime an audience is having fun with your show, taking fragments of it and recoding it in a fundamentally friendly way, it's doing good for your brand.

On the other hand brands and memes can also have a hostile connection. So you might for example produce a little bit of culture that then gets appropriated and gets recoded in a way to mock you. An example of that is Trump when, he had one of his, I think first executive orders, and he held up that little booklet-like thing where his signature on his signed executive order was visible, and people had a field day with it. They took that open-book kind of artifact and then put all kinds of other messages in that. So that's a hostile meme.

So that's the relationship between a brand and a meme, and it can range from friendly to hostile. So the question is if you are a marketer in the internet era, how should you relate to memes around your product and/or service, whether it's a product or service in the traditional commercial sense, or personal brand around your online persona, or whether you're a celebrity?

Whatever it is, you have to decide how your brand relates to any potential memes that are around you. So that's the challenge, and the picture I have accompanying today's podcast is a little pyramid that I think models what's going on very clearly.

So it's a pyramid with three layers. I love three-layer pyramids.

The top layer is labeled Mission. That's blue. The middle layer is brand. That's in yellow. And the bottom layer is memes, that's in red. And below the bottom layer. You can see that in the left half I’ve sketched a little stone wall, which I have labeled the brand wall, and that's to keep out hostile wild memes. And on the right-side bottom of the triangle, I’ve put in kind of a porous boundary, and that's like an osmotic membrane, and that's to let in friendly wild memes, and have a kind of like good back-and-forth dialectical relationship with them.

So this visualization, what I'm trying to get at here, is you can have two kinds of relationships between your brand and the memes that might be associated.

So the left half of the pyramid I've tried to illustrate what I call the top-down authoritarian model of relating brands and memes. So this I think of as trickle-down memetics by analogy to you know, trickle-down economics. So what is trickle-down memetics? It starts at the top with a manifesto-style mission. That then trickles down into a bureaucratic brand and then the bureaucratic brand tends to produce cultural artifacts that in the best-case scenario will produce anemic memes. And in the worst case, of course, you're trying to, like, fight a war with the wild internet culture, and you will end up attracting very hostile wild memes.

On the right side, you've got what I'm labeling the bottom-up anarchic way of relating brands and memes, and this I think of as bubble-up missions, and here it's easier to start from the bottom.

So it starts with a friendly relationship with wild memes that might already be around your product even before you attempt any positioning or explicit branding, right? So this might seem unusual to a traditional marketer who starts thinking with like, you know, a name, brand, positioning all these like central commitments that you might start with, but it is very familiar to anybody who makes a living on the internet.

You might have a name. Or you might have your own name as a person, but fundamentally, your marketing positioning does not even start until you've kind of like developed a dialogue with the memes that form around whatever you're doing. So the bottom layer is friendly wild memes sort of making it into your own sort of governed meme space and creating a robust base of memetic potential for you, and this then bubbles up and creates a charismatic brand, and that further bubbles up and creates what I think of as a culture-code style mission. And here the reference is to this book I read recently — I’m going to mispronounce this name — Clotaire Rapaille, I think. It's a French name, but it's a book called The Culture Code and it talks about how you can uncover the code underlying any brand through the right kind of research. And this is a little bit of a dated book, it predates internet culture to some extent, but it applies with double force to branding and positioning in the internet era. So that ends up giving you a bottom-up anarchic kind of relationship between brands and memes.

And as you might expect a manifesto-style mission might give you, a lot more of a clear articulation of values you sincerely and earnestly believe in. Aspirational values for your company. But fundamentally the top-down structure of trying to go from there to a perception basically turns you into a bureaucratic organization, with at best an anemic meme culture around you.

Whereas if you're willing to actually play ball with the internet in its wild state and kind of like, make yourself a little bit vulnerable really by creating a semi-permeable osmotic membrane instead of a wall between you and the internet, then there's a chance that friendly wild memes will grow around your product. And of course the product has to be good for this, and then that'll create sort of a foundation from which you can pop-up a charismatic brand and then from that you can sort of do some research and uncover the culture code underlying the charismatic brand, and that's what ends up becoming your mission.

So most brands of course don't do either the top-down authoritarian or bottom-up anarchic in a pure form. They do some mix; a little bit of this a little bit of that, but fundamentally, I think what's happening on the internet today is that the anarchic bottom-up style brand-and-meme relationship is taking over. So if you're not able to do that, you're giving up so much upside potential in the, you know, potentially harmonious, positive-sum relationship between you and the internet, that your product is just not even going to pop. It's going to like languish in obscurity.

So top-down authoritarian marketing is sort of a diminishing returns curve. And the old-school Mad Men style marketer, the kind of people who really want to impose their authority on the brand, and really control the message and the optics of the brand, they may succeed in a certain sense, in that nobody says things about the brand that they don't want said. But the cost of that might be nobody says anything at all. Nobody pays you any attention at all. Whereas if you're willing to give a little bit of agency, cede a little bit of agency to the wild internet, you may not completely have control over the narrative, but the narrative could be very friendly to you.

And even though it might not create the kind of crystal-clear mission you're hoping will drive your company strategy and positioning forward, it will instead create a much more generative culture code that you can use as potential energy to do a lot more powerful things.

So that's my little spiel on two types of relationships between brands and memes, and the two types of missions that go along with it and missions. And missions of course are where marketing is an activity connects with the rest of the company.

So, let me know what you think, and especially if you can think of very good examples of one or the other style of doing things. I'll see you again next week.