Memes and Marketing: Beware the Dangling Meme

In the course of doing 200+ mapping projects over the last 8 years, where my colleagues at Scientific Intelligence and I discovered brand DNA, organizational DNA, and category insights for clients in over 50 industry sectors, there’s a phenomenon we’ve encountered that’s worth talking about: the dangling meme.

More and more people are becoming familiar with the more formal, thoughtful definition of a meme, as a “self-replicating and self-perpetuating sequence of ideas”. Ideas that repeat and disseminate easily, whether it’s a video on YouTube, a fashion trend, or something bigger and more sustainable, such as the meme(s) of a major cultural icons like Apple or Star Wars. But occasionally we discover a meme that is a black hole, or a trap door, like a small vortex that lures you in, but goes nowhere. Something to be treated with great caution, as it can become addictive, and ultimately, to use business language, “an escalating commitment to a losing course of action.”

For example, for a major children’s hospital, we did a mapping on their fundraising drivers, and a dangling meme appeared that consisted of “tragedy” and “heroism” in an endless loop. Dangling memes pop up in our mapping sessions like a widow or an orphan system, disconnected from other ideas, like they’re hanging in mid-air with no entry point or exit. Imagine the two concepts of “tragedy” and “heroism” like a binary star system, caught in an endless dance with each other, oblivious to the rest of the universe. I explained to the president of the hospital foundation, an extremely intuitive man, what a dangling meme is – a temptation to be avoided – and he immediately understood. He said, “Tragedy and heroism of course happen every day in our line of work. But marketing ourselves against those occurrences is not only inappropriate, it’s a slippery slope…”

Another, more readily understood example of a dangling meme emerged when we did a now famous study on “successful leadership in the 21st century”. In the viable meme system, emotional drivers associated with people skills, imagination/inspiration, and nurturing qualities appeared. But there was a dangling meme that consisted of “likeability” and “fame”. Again, our client immediately understood what the map was saying, and noted: “It’s the likeability/fame trap. As a leader, I need to be in service to my constituents. Going after likeability and fame as ends in and of themselves – is the beginning of the end.” Nice way to put it. Couldn’t agree more.

So the next time you’re in a meeting, or hanging out with friends, or watching TV or surfing YouTube, you may start to notice that there are certain pursuits, or trends, or tendencies that, while being very seductive, seem to go nowhere. Like canoeing down a river and seeing little ‘eddies’ and swirls by the wayside, that amount to nothing. They’re just mirages, temporary and meaningless phenomena. Knowing the difference between a dangling meme, and one that will really transport you somewhere – is key.