Brands tackle an online foe: the meme

Janet Morrissey
Kendall Jenner stars in the new Pepsi Moments ad.
Source: Pepsi Global

Once the infamous Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad was released and roundly criticized last month, it was only a matter of time before the memes started.

One Twitter message featured a screen shot of the moment in the commercial when Ms. Jenner hands a can of Pepsi to a police officer who is responding to a protest. The caption: "Throw this away for me. I'm rich."

Another Twitter user posted a civil rights era photo of a black man on the ground while two police officers, one with a raised baton and a fistful of the man's shirt, loomed above him. The caption on that one was: "Kendall please! Give him a Pepsi!"

@_Zeets: "Kendall please! Give him a Pepsi!"

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Memes — those playful, satirical photographs with clever, sometimes biting captions under them — have long been used on the internet to ridicule the latest celebrity gaffe or highlight a political misstep. However, a surging number of disgruntled consumers are now using memes to target companies to complain about broken products, poor customer service and other negative experiences.

That has big brands scrambling for cover. After all, the viral nature of a meme can have a faster and farther-reaching impact than a single news article.

"The brand becomes a temporary punching bag for many, many people," said Jay Baer, the founder and president of Convince & Convert, a digital marketing advisory firm. "People will pile on even if they haven't actually been aggrieved."

When a Tesla Model S electric car erupted in flames in 2013, memes immediately popped up. One showed a young couple holding each other outside a burning Tesla car, with the caption "Keep warm on a cold night."

Tesla's chief executive, Elon Musk, quickly confronted the issue on the company's blog. He explained that the car had driven over a large metal object from a tractor-trailer, and he rattled off statistics that showed people were five times as likely to experience a fire in a gas-powered car as in a Tesla. The memes soon stopped.

It was the perfect response, said David Pachter, a co-founder of JumpCrew, a social marketing firm in Nashville. "But not every company has an Elon Musk," he said.

Samsung, the technology giant, faced a raft of memes last year when reports surfaced that the batteries in its Galaxy Note 7 phones were catching fire. One meme showed a bomb-defusing expert in full military gear getting ready to plug in his Samsung phone, with the caption "How to safely charge your Galaxy Note 7."

There wasn't much the company could do to stop the memes as phones continued to catch fire over many months, and the company ultimately pulled the device altogether.

"What are you going to say? 'Yep, they catch on fire. Almost all of them do. Sorry,'" Mr. Baer said. "There's just no good way to put that."

Last month, Samsung pushed the reset button when it unveiled its new Samsung Galaxy S8 phone and virtual reality headset — and simultaneously released a #DoWhatYouCant video, which became a hit online. The video features an ostrich that dreams of flying, thanks to the Samsung VR headset and phone. The bird stumbles, before ultimately soaring in the sky. The video had more than 1.3 million views on YouTube in its first 24 hours.

"They've packaged a brilliant ad with an inspirational message," said Monica G. Sakala, the founder of SOMA Strategies, a digital agency based in Washington. "They're successfully changing the story away from the fire memes and disaster of the last phone."

In general, experts recommend that companies try to address disgruntled customers directly — and the sooner, the better. They suggest that companies use "social listening" software to monitor mentions of their brands — not just on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but also on message boards, like Reddit and Tumblr, and other internet forums. If a meme shows up on a forum, it's easy to contact the person directly before it goes viral.

"When you reach out on a one-to-one level, it's amazing how frequently you can resolve that situation positively," Mr. Pachter said. "But if you let it go, it just breeds like a virus."

 If a meme does go viral, sometimes countering with another meme works.

When a Chevrolet executive nervously stepped up to the microphone after the decisive World Series game in 2014 to present a new Chevy Colorado to the most valuable player of the Series, he breathed heavily, fumbled with his notes and then went off script: "It combines class-winning and leading, ummm, you know, technology and stuff."

The awkward speech prompted a flood of memes that poked fun at "Chevy Guy" and "technology and stuff."

"Twitter just went crazy," said Melissa Schreiber, a senior vice president of social strategy at FleishmanHillard, whose team worked with Chevrolet. She and her team opted to embrace the trend by adding its own meme to the mix that night: "Truck yeah the 2015 #ChevyColorado has awesome #TechnologyAndStuff! You know you want a truck."

There was a surge in traffic to Chevy's website and more than $5 million in earned media exposure, Ms. Schreiber said.

"We didn't try to stop the conversation from happening," she said. "We just chose the direction that we wanted to shift the conversation."

Dos Equis, the beer maker, enjoyed one of the biggest boons from memes through its "The Most Interesting Man in the World" campaign. A screen shot of "the most interesting man" became a highly popular meme, with people replacing the character's catchphrase, "I don't always drink beer. But when I do, I prefer Dos Equis," with their own comments — like "I don't always say something stupid but when I do I keep talking to make it worse."

And each time they did it, there was a Dos Equis bottle front and center.

Some companies are creating their own memes to market products. In March, Gucci rolled out a collection of quirky memes to promote its new collection of watches. Some applauded the effort while others questioned why Gucci would be making memes to appeal to millennials, who most likely couldn't afford an $850 watch.

Even if millennials can't afford the watches today, the campaign is all about leaving a lasting impression, said Amanda Ford, a senior art director at Ready Set Rocket, a New York digital agency. "Even if it's years before they can buy something from Gucci, they may remember, 'Hey, this brand gets me.'"