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What The Heck Is a Meme And Why Is It Important To Small Business Marketing?

02.11.2006 · Posted in It Articles

I wrote the phrase, “Irusha likes cake” on my brand new whiteboard and left it there for a couple of weeks. I was consulting a large financial company, and Irusha was the name of the guy that sat next to me – and a good friend of mine. The company had a brand new office space – and I thought a clean whiteboard is a sin, so I wrote the phrase as a joke.

In the two or three weeks it was up many people stopped by and looked at the whiteboard and puzzled at it. It had a bit of a poetic meter and people would walk away muttering, “Irusha likes cake?”

What happened next was truly astounding. Irusha would be introduced to people at meetings and they would say, “I hear you like cake?” If someone in the building had a birthday they would always save a piece a cake for Irusha. Many times these are people who didn’t know Irusha and had never seen what I wrote on the whiteboard. For the next few years this guy got a lot of cake. I may have a strange sense of humor, but sometimes it pays off.

“Irusha likes cake” is a meme. A what? A meme, pronounced MEEM, is a concept introduced in Richard Dawkins’ 1967 book The Selfish Gene. It is basically a self-propagating unit of social imitation. It’s something that people repeat and pass along. Concepts and behaviors can be memes.

Some more famous memes you might remember are advertising catch-phrases like “where’s the beef?” and “plop plop fizz fizz”. They are memes because their use spread way beyond their uses in commercials. How about “is that your final answer” from Who Wants to be a Millionaire? People imitate Donald Trump doing the cobra thing with his hand and saying, “you’re fired.”

Have you ever ‘Googled’ something, used a Kleenex, or made a Xerox. These are examples where brand names become the product. You don’t actually use a Styrofoam cup, you use a Styrofoam brand styrene cup. Marketers love this phenomenon – but the legal department hates it. Sometimes when trademarks become generic they lose their legal standing – but I’m not a lawyer so I won’t get into that here.

Memes can also be behaviors – like jogging with headphones. At one point people just ran; along came the Sony Walkman and everything changed. Emailing people is a meme. Back in 1995 I spoke with the person in charge of technology for state department of education and he couldn’t fathom why people would want to email each other. Using cellphones, text messaging, almost any new set of behaviors that people adopt and pass on are memes.

Accepted ideas – or beliefs are also memes. When people thought the world was flat and that the sun revolved around the earth – those were memes. Any belief held by, enforced by, or passed on within a group is a meme. A belief is simply anything that is held to be true (even if it is true). Religious, social, cultural, and political groups pass lots of belief-memes.

So what does this have to do with your small business marketing? You might create a meme that lives on beyond your advertising and marketing. Maybe you come up with a catchy slogan, a jingle, or a new behavior that people pass on. It might become part of your word of mouth marketing campaign.

What makes a good meme?

It should be short and easy to pass on. If it’s a phrase or word it should be easy to pronounce.
It needs to be a complete idea or behavior.
It should be easy to use.
If you find yourself with a good meme – you might find a huge bump in new business. Why? Think about Irusha and that cake. You get your message passed around with minimal marketing reinforcement. Isn’t that the point of a word of mouth campaign?

Look for the memes around you, and look to how you might make your own marketing meme-worthy.

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