Memes are more than a lo-res picture with words—they are community level conversations. In an Advertising Week session called “Memeology 101: The New Language of Cultural Ideas,” Reddit’s head of brand strategy Joe Federer explained why memes work, how brands should utilize them for effective marketing . . . and when they shouldn’t.

Like genes, Federer explained, memes replicate themselves with small personal changes. The format stays the same, but someone adds their own twist and repeats the process.

To varying degrees brands have tried to incorporate memes into their marketing campaigns, Wendy’s twitter stands out as a highlight while there have been many more attempts from brands that didn’t quite work.

To uses memes as a marketing strategy, brands must first understand why they work. The movie Office Space is a “meme machine”—something that generates memes about the work environment. Still, people may not sit down and watch the entire movie just to get a quote you want to share. When you take a screenshot, however, you take the same idea and deliver it into a bite-sized conversation.

“The meme machine is as important as the meme itself,” said Federer.

Brands that want to use memes as part of a marketing strategy risk being perceived as an older person trying to look cool. In fact, there is an entire group on Reddit devoted to this idea called r/fellowkids, named after a scene in the show 30 Rock in which Steve Buscemi tried to pass as a kid in a high school.

Don’t let this intimidate you, however. Federer said that failure is part of the process. He told the audience about a campaign he worked on with water purifying company, Brita, that used self-depreciating humor to reach Redditor users. The brand went so far as to recreate the “How do you do, fellow kids?” meme with a 55-year-old member of their team.

In the case of Brita, the campaign was successful because it stayed true to the format and message of the original joke.

“When you jump on a meme, don’t dismantle it to serve your needs,” warned Maria Vorovich, fellow panelist and strategy director at Grey. She added that you can have a brilliant meme living side by side with cinematic marketing like matching luggage. Vorovich also stressed the importance of being agile in the social space. The meme space is constantly in flux, so jumping on a meme too late won’t have the desired effect.

“Make sure you have a place in the conversation,” she said. And, if you don’t, that’s okay. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge that it’s not right for you or a client’s brand.
At the request of an audience member, Federer and Vorovich offered three pieces of advice on how to successfully use memes in marketing.

The answers were:
1. You don’t have to create from scratch. Go ahead and hijack an existing meme.
2. You can learn from commonality looking at meme story history. Understand what the meme is saying and how it got there.
3. Surprise people with something they don’t expect. If it feels familiar, take a different approach.