Brands: To Meme Or Not To Meme?

'Trend-baiting' or 'hijacking' memes is a recent tactic for brands. What are some dos and don'ts for trend-baiting and becoming more active in culture?

By avnie bansal

Brands appropriating culture for commercial purposes is not a new phenomenon. 'Trend baiting' or 'hijacking' memes is now the next step that has entered the marketing playbook of brands. It refers to creating content that makes light of the brand and utilises cultural moments to lean into irreverence and joy to win the attention of consumers. Thus, 'baiting' people to get talking about it. Thanks to engagement algorithms and hashtags, this spreads like wildfire. An exceedingly well-executed example of this kind of meme marketing was the recent Cerave’s Superbowl campaign featuring Michael Cera - born out of a conspiracy theory shared by a TikTok user.

The speculations, a long-standing joke in the skincare community, fueled by the TikTok comment, blew up and garnered so much attention that it resulted in this $7 million ad and 6 billion earned impressions.

In another examples - while the big NFL finale was going on and everyone was talking about Taylor Swift and her boyfriend, a footballer for the Kansas City Chiefs, the Japanese Embassy in the States tweeted ahead of the game reassuring fans that the singer would make it back from her Eras tour in Tokyo in time to attend the game.

While the whole world was talking about the pop sensation, the Japanese Embassy in the States and its creative agency Ogilvy leaned into the moment of fun and leveraged the trend.

Last summer, when the latest short-form trend online was all about rolling items down the stairs and rating them on their durability, Pop singer Selena Gomez's hugely viral beauty brand, Rare Beauty, jumped on the trend and rolled its beauty products down the stairs.

Good fun? 78k+ people on TikTok think so.

Boss was the first fashion brand to not only tap into a core trend but name an entire collection after one. Boss named its AW24 collection “corpcore”.

These trends move faster than ever, promoted by social media algorithms that collate and regurgitate related content. Is it time for all brands, big and small, to follow suit? What are some dos and don’ts for brands thinking of adopting similar strategies?

We ask the experts in the industry.

Charlotte Tansill, President, PR / Influence / Social, Ogilvy North America

Recent Kantar data shows the critical importance of cultural relevance for anyone in charge of a brand, as those with high cultural relevance grew nearly six times more than brands with low levels. Driving a brand’s role in culture creates deeper relationships with consumers which in turn builds brand equity and sales – essential to driving differentiation, meaningfulness, and salience. But you can’t buy your way into culture, you need to earn it – and you do this by harnessing aspects of culture that resonate with your audience and connect authentically to the brand. Being culturally relevant means driving and anticipating shifts in consumer desire and capturing the cultural zeitgeist in continually fresh ways, and it requires a more iterative and adaptable approach to marketing. Being clear on who you are as a brand, your core values, and personality is  key to guiding the ways you authentically join cultural conversations. And of course, ongoing social listening and trend monitoring is central to implementating this way of working. In our work on the Michael CereaVe campaign, for example, we started with social listening as we were looking for inspiration for our campaign, and we found a years-deep Reddit thread surmising whether there is connection between CeraVe and Michael Cera – and we saw the potential to create an entirely original ecosystem of content and engagement.

Laura Shephard, Senior Social Planner, The Kitchen (In-House Agency, Heinz)

In the UK, Heinz saw the online hype for Hailey Bieber’s Rhode lip gloss phone case as an opportunity to tap into the irrational love people have for their Ketchup. They produced a ketchup-coloured phone case with a perfectly sized pocket for your sauce sachet so people always have a supply to hand. The reaction was huge with people clamouring to get their hands on one. So what was the key to getting it right? 

  1. Trendspotting. Having the people and tools to spot trends early.

  2. Relevance. If there’s no link back to the brand purpose then it might not be the right trend for you.

  3. Agility. We had to find a partner who could prototype this in weeks, rather than the month it would normally take.

  4. Great clients. People who back ideas and then get out of their way to make great work happen. In the words of Alex Wade, Head of In-house Agency at Heinz “We’re all about creativity at the speed of culture… plus ketchup> lipgloss”.

Meg Anderson, Senior Social Strategist, BBH London

Buzzwords like 'trendjacking' are frequently thrown into decks, but thorough social listening and trend-watching will guide you to your audience’s motivations, anxieties and contradictions. The rise of TikTok means that brands have better visibility of cultural trends as they are still evolving, and some also have opportunities to show up playfully and more like how their audience behaves.

Jumping on trends is certainly not foolproof. Brands frequently misuse, overuse meme tropes which fall flat amongst audiences that are well versed in the trend already. More seriously, brands that haven’t done their due diligence to understand the context of the trend they are participating in risk causing offence. As a brand, inserting yourself into trending conversations is only beneficial if you are

a) welcome in that space and

b) have something to contribute.

Always read the room. 

However, being 'welcome in the space' doesn’t mean you can only show up where you're expected to be. Gucci feels far removed from trainspotting algorithms on TikTok, yet its partnership with trainspotter Francis Bourgeouis was the match we didn’t know we needed.

Bea Farmelo, Senior Strategist, AMV BBDO

When I first read this question, I was reminded of the cartoon ‘life of a meme’ by Alex Krokus. It shows a group of people together in some kind of celebration. At the centre stands a ‘trendsetter’, the Regina George, a pineapple proudly sat atop their head. People clap, they point, they laugh. Suddenly everyone is wearing a pineapple on their head. There are even pineapple-branded t-shirts. Word spreads online and this pineapple party is the place to be. The most coveted invite in this little cartoon world.

But you can guess what happens next. The brands turn up, muscling in on the conversation with a not-so-hot take. Suddenly, these brands are too interested in what each other are doing to notice their intended audience have left the building.

The learnings we should take are simple, and not mind-blowingly novel. If you need to apply intellectual gymnastics to justify your place at the party, you’re probably gate-crashing. If you have something relevant or meaningful to add, sometimes just a subtle, knowing nod to the trend feels smarter and is quicker. Because acting fast is a must. Unless you’re nimble, you’ll be speaking to an empty room at the metaphorical pineapple party.

Felicitas Olschewski, Chief Digital Officer EMEA, Edelman

With rising consumer demands and an ever-evolving marketing landscape, cultural agility in marketing efforts has become an area of focus for modern consumer brands. Being an active brand in culture – a brand that leverages conversations and trends to create content that excites - drives brand uplift, growth, and revenue. As part of this, Trend-baiting, or ‘-hijacking’ has become a recent tactic with increasing popularity that involves brands creating or participating in content that is related to a popular or emerging trend, mostly on social platforms like TikTok.   

By tapping into the cultural zeitgeist, brands can demonstrate that they are aware of what their consumers care about, and that they are willing to take risks and have fun. Being part of the right trends creates a sense of authenticity and trust, as consumers perceive brands as more human and relatable and generate organic exposure, as consumers are more likely to engage with content that is surprising, humorous, or controversial. Being part of the right conversation at the right times can create long-term brand fans. 

What are some dos and don'ts for trend-baiting and becoming more active in culture?  

Be conscientious. Know which trends align with your brand and social goals and how they benefit your target audiences. It’s not about any trend, it’s about the right trend. 

Be listening. Before jumping on a trend, make sure to understand its origin, meaning, context, and audience. Avoid trends that are inappropriate, irrelevant, or incompatible. 

Be authentic. Don't try to be something you're not, or pretend to care about something you don't. Be honest, transparent, and consistent with your brand voice and personality. Be mindful of the tone, language, and imagery you use. 

Be creative. Don't just copy or mimic what others are doing. Find a unique and original way to add value, insight, or humor to the trend, and make it relevant to your brand and products. 

Be nimble. Monitor and analyze the trends that are emerging and gaining traction, and act quickly and decisively. Don't wait too long or miss the window of opportunity. 

Be agile. Don't be afraid to experiment, test, and learn from your trend-baiting efforts. Be ready to adapt, modify or evolve your strategy based on measuring what works and what doesn’t. 


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