Meme magic – what you must know to succeed beyond 2009

In about 1997 I first became interested in memes, after reading Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene.”   Now I think they will determine success or failure in marketing and branding.

What’s a meme I hear you ask?  Well, I am not a scientist but here is the gist…

Basically as you know GENES are the chunks of DNA information which program all life on earth.  “MEMES” are information packets which follow the same replication patterns as genes.  Just like genes, memes transmit between individuals, replicate and mutate over time.  The difference is that their influence is cultural and on the “software” of the human mind, wheras genes influence an embryo and various physiological outcomes.

Why do certain tunes “catch on” and others don’t?  Why do fashion fads which serve no apparent purpose (jeans worn low to show off boxer shorts) yet spread rapidly?  Why do some brands become a status symbol and others never make it?   The emerging science of memes is beginning to put together a framework to allow us to explain these cultural phenomena.


In some cases, the operations of the memes are very sophisticated and can spread the transmission of the meme – for example, a meme that “contraception is bad” is  likely to influence the potential number of hosts for the same meme, aiding future transmission.

And just like a virus, memes can be easy or hard to catch, and they can have a superficial impact or a devastating one on the host.

  • Easy to catch:   Wearing low slung jeans shows you are cool
  • Hard to catch:  Believing that scientology is acurate despite it being written by a science-fiction writer
  • Superficial impact:  Unable to get “Dancing Queen” out of your head for a day
  • Devastating impact:  Unwilling to donate organs due to bad vibes

So why will an understanding of memes be critical to success in marketing in the next decade?  Because the explosion in digital media means that the transmission rate of memes will explode.  There will be a rapidly growing contest for ideas and this will be right across the word.  And some of these memes will compete to determine the future of the planet:

  • Meme 1:  Global warming is a danger to all mankind; the evidence is clear and the clock is ticking
  • Meme 2:  Global warming is a left-wing conspiracy with no proven science

Other memes will compete on a far less important territory (unless you happen to be employed in branding or marketing):

  • Meme 1:  Airline Q is rapidly losing its safety standards
  • Meme 2:  Airline Q is the safest airline in the world

Just like genes, memes have to compete in the environment they find themselves.  And just like genes, memes will win or lose over time to become either a powerful cultural influence on our future lives or – more likely – an interesting but irrelevant footnote in history.

With social media just popping up on every marketer’s radar screen, now is the time to become with the tested theories of memetics.  They will determine your success as a marketer in the next 20, 30 or even 100 years!

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