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Marketing Memes

2010 August 8

Successful marketers spread ideas.  Regrettably, some unsuccessful marketers do as well.  There is no shortage of false gurus that gain fame and fortune for themselves while doing very little for any product or service.  Bad ideas can spread just as well as good ones.

Memetics can help us understand why.  Unfortunately, “meme” is a term that gets thrown around a lot without much thought.  People often use it to denote something they think is new and cool, but that misses the point entirely.

Understanding how memes work can help us understand how both good and bad ideas get spread.

What’s a Meme?

The term meme was originally coined in Richard Dawkins classic book, The Selfish Gene.  Simply put, it’s something that replicates information.  Just as genes replicate genetic data, memes replicate cultural ideas.

The first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are a meme as are famous advertising slogans like, “Just Do It” or “Where’s the Beef?”  Other memes are longer, like the Magna Carta or the US Constitution and some can be fairly technical, like Google’s PageRank algorithm.

Like genes, some memes are more successful than others.  Some, like Google’s  algorithm, get copied because they are useful.  Others, such as David Beckham’s haircut, hitch a ride with other memes (i.e. playing sports) that they are bundled with.

Understanding how and why memes get replicated is an essential marketing function.

Two Hunters

Memes can spread in lots of different ways for lots of different reasons.  Susan Blackmore, in her book The Meme Machine, describes how altruism can spread memes through a story about two successful primitive hunters, Kev and Gav.  Kev, is a nice guy who shares his meat while Gav is a bit more selfish and keeps the proceeds from his hunt to himself.

Blackmore notes that Kev will come into contact with more people and they will be more likely to copy his style of hunting  (i.e. type of bow and quiver, etc.).   Moreover, other memes of his will be transferred as well, such as the type of feathers he adorns himself with, songs he likes to sing, etc..

Gav’s memes won’t be as successful.  He won’t spend as much time with others so, whatever his merits, he won’t get copied as much as Kev.  As information gets passed down, future generations will be more likely to adopt Kev’s memes than Gav’s.

Google, Microsoft and Apple

Google has tried very hard to be like Kev.  Despite the occasional gaffe, they make an effort to be collaborative.  They routinely give tours of their campus, are polite in meetings and do more than most companies to build cooperative relationships (at least in my experience).

Microsoft has a history of being more like Gav (although they do seem to have changed their tune in past years).  This earned them enmity among the Silicon Valley digeratti, which made for a very poor product pipeline as well as a long and costly anti-trust battle.

Apple, as I wrote in an earlier post about Steve Jobs, is a bit of both.  They are extremely user focused product wise, but Jobs’ overbearing personality creates problems for them.   As the Ad Contrarian pointed out, a minor backlash has already started.

The important thing to note is that all three spread their memes successfully.  Google though openness, Microsoft through some fantastic strategic decisions and Apple through inspiring products.  Just as different genes are fit for different environments, memes can thrive for different reasons.

Search Engine Memes

Sergei Brin and Larry Page of Google have built an enormous business out of memes.  They noticed that academic memes were not spread only by one paper citing another, but that the cites themselves became important.  The more a paper was mentioned in other papers, the more important it was considered to be, which would lead to more readers and more references.

They built their search engine algorithm, called PageRank, on the same principle.  The more links a page gets from other web pages, the higher it will appear in search results.  So just like Kev sharing his meat helped spread his ideas, now companies share information to help spread their product memes.

Take Nike’s site.  Of course, you can buy their products there, but they also have plenty of information about sports that isn’t directly related to anything they sell.  The result:  nearly 10,000 links and very good traffic results (I would assume great sales as well).

The PageRank meme has considerably changed the way other memes get spread.

Social Memes

A while back, I wrote a post about social search which raised another memetic issue:  Why was PageRank so successful?  At the time Google launched, Jon Klienberg of Cornell University had already developed the HITS algorithm, which many consider to be superior to PageRank (and has since been implemented into and the Google Wonderwheel).

PageRank memes moved further and faster in the context of Silicon Valley; populated with a robust network of venture capital people, entrepreneurs and early adopters.   HITS, developed by a university professor in the small city of Ithaca, New York was mainly circulated in academic journals.

As social media continues to develop, memes are not only circulating more efficiently, we can see where they go and how.  It’s as if Kev not only sat around telling hunting stories, but could then go see who repeated them.  This will revolutionize how we evaluate the memes we want to invest in.

Content Memes

I previously argued that content will stay free based on the economic reasoning that consumers have historically been more valuable to advertisers than content has been to consumers.  I also pointed out that there is nothing to indicate that this has changed or will change in the future.

However, there is also a good memetic reason why advertising is a very effective way of financing content.  The reason that information wants to be free is that memes want to be successful (because ones that aren’t don’t survive).

A great example is The New York Times previous paywall, called Times Select, which made some content (like columnists) a premium service that had to be paid for.  While some people (like me) actually did subscribe, the columnists lost influence and revolted.  More recently, The London Times added a paywall and immediately lost two thirds of its audience.

For memes to survive, they need to replicate and spread.

Synaptic Memes

Of course, the main vehicle for spreading memes is our own brains.  We see and hear things, remember them and pass them on.  Of course, we forget most of the memes we come across.  There are just too many memes competing for our attention for them all to be successful.

Scientists now have a pretty good idea how this happens. (See Advertising on the Brain). We remember memes that are either repeated a lot, which takes a lot of money and effort, or those that are highly emotional.  Put a human face on a banner and you are sure to get more clicks.

It’s safe to assume that people remembered more about Kev’s hunts that were fraught with danger than the others.  This is a good example of how genes and memes interact.  Those who carry memes that are useful for survival tend to live on and pass on their genes.

How to Use Memes

Memes, like genes, don’t really exist, at least not in the sense that they can be generally defined with any specificity.  It is their function that distinguishes them, not their structure; and their function is to propagate themselves.

For all the mindless debate about traditional vs. digital, push vs. pull and branding vs. direct response, the reality is that memes have a variety of ways to achieve their goal.  Just as the title of Dawkin’s book suggests, it helps to think of memes as selfish, and our product memes don’t want to be held hostage to our marketing memes.

As marketers, we often lose sight of the difference.  For whatever attractions a particular marketing channel might have for us, it is the success of our products that determines the success of our strategy, not the other way around.

– Greg

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Zahid Hussain permalink
    August 9, 2010

    Thanks Greg for delivering what you had promised in response to one of my comments.

    This is something really interesting. Once I saw a beautiful campaign based on the theme: “Pass it on…” The story of Kev and Gav has reminded me of that.

    I personally feel that that there will be “End of History” until a single Kev is alive because nobody knows in a digital age how many people will benefit from his virtue and deed.

  2. August 9, 2010

    Thanks, I ‘m glad you liked it!

    – Greg

  3. August 9, 2010

    I fully agree with the sentiments in this article. To such a degree that I have partnered with colleagues that specialize in identifying the memes to any specific question and we assist organizations in developing strategies that revolve around those memes.
    See for more information in this regard. It really is quite mind-boggling and very exciting work to be involved in….

  4. August 9, 2010

    Thanks for your input, Neville.

    – Greg

  5. Robert Neuschul permalink
    September 2, 2010


    As usual a challenging article.

    I have, in recent months, being thinking a little about memetic interactions in the context of knowledge and networks: how one meme can wipe out another, how several can synergise into supermemes etc

    Consider the complex and intricate memetic “threads” involved in “The War on Terror” or 9/11 for examples of how various memes can interact negatively – or how a bunch of memes come together in positive reenforcement every time there is an Olympic Games.

    Where I’m going with this is that it has occured to me to try applying small world network analysis to these interactive issues: I haven’t yet got around to doing so – and I’m not even sure yet that it’s possible to do it, but if I can find the time it would be quite fascinating to see where and how product and marketing memes do or don’t interact. I suspect there may be lessons to be learned


  6. September 2, 2010


    I absolutely agree that memes are related to networks. However, I don’t believe that “small worlds,” at least in terms of Watts and Strogatz, is the right model. I think it fits in much better with Barabasi’s fitness model.

    I wrote about it here:

  7. November 13, 2012

    Well with time we now see that we are paying for the content of the NYT and are happy to read it on our iPads. So the design of the iPad/iPhone display is a meme in itself, as it seems to travel well.

    My friend David Dirlam has made a career of memes as he builds a memetic profile for various “professions” with four levels of competence and make that point that we learn memes best from the level immediate above our own level.

    Thanks for coming to the geekend in Savannah. I would like to adapt your concepts such as tent city from Ukraine on a local level if you want to discuss that.

  8. November 14, 2012

    Thanks Gordon. If I can be of any assistance, feel free to get in touch.

    – Greg

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