Memes are ideas, behaviors, styles, or usages that spreads from person to person within a culture. Some of you already know this. Some of you are thinking about Advice Animal macros. Others are new to the concept. Bear with me, all. It’s important, because memes are the core of every brand, and thus, at the core of every narrative.
What is a story but a shared idea about how the world works, after all? I have an experience that I share with a friend because it highlights an analogy I am trying to make. He retorts with a story of his own that is contrary or complementary. If one is better than the other, both change to reflect this. If not, or if the ideas are badly stated or too deeply entrenched to be affected, you have reached a sort of equilibrium state. Both co-exist, even if they are mutually exclusive. In both cases, the participants in the story have tried to express themselves in a way that crosses the gulf of humanity. It is hard enough being human without also having to be alone.
What happens when that isn’t enough, though? What if somebody is trying to change a culture?
The two formats are inextricably linked. You cannot sell if people do not want to buy, and people do not want to buy until they have a need. Sometimes, the needs are pretty basic. Other times, you need to inform people of how your product can solve their need. And sometimes you need to convince them that they had a problem that they didn’t know about in the first place. All such mass scale transmission of ideas requires both the capability of reaching a large number of people and the ability to build off of the core concept. Memes turn into ideas, just as genes turn into a genome, building into something grander that people understand without having to have the entire sequence read back to them from the beginning.
It’s a double-edged sword, of course. Apple stands for ease-of-use, or for super-expensive baby-food computers. Harley Davidson stands for Americana, or for aging relics of the past. The New York Yankees are baseball, with all the good and evil that entails. Changing one element can lead to a revolt in a consumer base, or an out-of-control narrative that has no direction. It can also lead to a stronger brand that understands the needs and wants of the people who spread it, like a virus that adapts to non-lethality so as better to spread itself among the herd. Brands need to be able to speak in a way that transmits their ideas effectively, competently, and succinctly. If they (or their PR teams) don’t, others will.
Like evolution, the best ideas are not necessarily the strongest but those that propagate the best. This means adaptability or intractibility. The idea has to be able to change to affect circumstances outside of its control, or else be so self-contained that it withstands . A banal idea changes too much, too quickly, until it is either discarded or no longer looks like itself. An overly complex idea is so rigid that it must maintain its own code by force, or else it splinters. In other words, you have to see how your ideas reflect the world just as much as how the world reflects your ideas, lest you become a zealot or a repetitive bore.
All fairly standard marketing and communications stuff so far, but notice how this affects storytelling. Broadcasting allows you to push the idea, but modern media–much like the storytellers of old–have to share ideas among a populace in order to succeed. Creators are the shamans of old, engaging in shared narrative experiences that must react to people’s tastes, lest they stir up counter-ideas. It’s not easy. We have entered a time of ubiquitous content, ubiquitous users, and ubiquitous access. People are sharing their stories, liking people’s comments, and connecting every day, everywhere. One misstep is enough to cause serious problems, and not just for fourth quarter reports to the shareholders.
How do you protect against the drama? Well, a few things…
With apologies to AA, understand that you are (somewhat) powerless. If you have a bad idea, or if the world isn’t ready for it, it’s going to be hard to get people onboard. This is one of the many reasons why you should seek out the message first and then the audience: you nail down a successful meme first and then find the people who will react to it, rather than the other way around.
Secondly, create a story that self-replicates in a controlled manner. If it’s too easy to create knock-offs, you’ll quickly be supplanted. If people can’t describe it, then you wind up with a lot of confused (read: unmotivated) consumers. You want to allow people to spread things because that’s how something goes viral, but you also want to maintain the messaging that your brand espouses. Vine is fine, but YouTube is… something that means good and rhymes with “tube.”
Next, continue to change the idea yourself. If you throw something out into the wild, it will survive or die on its merits. You may not recognize it by the time you come back to it. If you’re putting out material on a semi-regular basis, you feed the need for it to grow without overwhelming it. Think of it like a cactus: a little water goes a long way, but if you don’t water it, soon that cactus will be snuggling up to your girlfriend because she’s the one tending to it’s needs.
…okay, so, that’s a bad analogy.
Lastly, know when it’s time to move on. People too often try to keep milking a meme long after it has played its course. Extinction is not necessarily a bad thing, remember, so long as you aren’t the thing going extinct. Even global movements can burn themselves out if they don’t allow for time to lay fallow. People can’t be delighted or outraged or bemused or depressed all the time. Humans have a range of emotions and need varied stimulation in order to thrive. The same mechanism that brought your idea to fame will crush it if that meme doesn’t allow others to take their chance at the top.
What you have at the end is a self-replicating idea that contains a wide range of emotions, large swaths of history, ties to the world and its people, and a reason for people to buy into your idea. As a bonus, if you make it uplifting and aspirational, you’ll get them coming back again and again. People want to be engaged with the world. They want to connect. They don’t want to be sad or frightened all the time, even though these emotions can spur action or allow for cathartic release. When done properly, you’ll have given them the method to reach something that makes them think about the world just a little bit differently. And if they come to it on their own, you will barely need to say anything. You will have been at the focal point of change but you will have allowed something greater to emerge. People will recognize your words even when you aren’t saying them, even when they are truncated, even when they are obscured.
You’ll have given people the power to think on their own, and they’ll reward you with applause.