Meme Literacy in the Age of Branded Content

Published: November 22, 2019  by 
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.