Here come the meme doctors
This paper acknowledges the power of the brand concept for marketing in particular and business in general. However, it suggest that we have so abused the idea that the term ‘brand’ is no longer of practical use. Thankfully the emergence of memetics and the idea of memes provides an ideal replacement and one that more adequately prepares us for a future in the meme laboratory.
The weaknesses of the brand concept
The brand is the single most powerful marketing idea.
As the collected attitudes towards and experiences of an organisation, product or service it represents the key to differentiation in today’s confused and overcrowded marketplace.
Our competitors can copy our product formulations, service innovations or structures and processes but they can’t nick our brand – those attitudes and experiences are not easily transferable. And if there is something that consumers want that we have and the competition doesn’t (and can’t easily copy) then we are well on the way to creating effective monopoly conditions – and the financial benefits this represents for any organization.
One of the best examples of this is Levi’s. For enough people in Europe the potency of the Levi’s brand means that other jeans cannot be substituted for Levi’s – they do not represent acceptable alternatives. As such Levi’s has created monopoly conditions in that marketplace and can proceed to push up prices and push down retailer margins. Indeed so powerful is their brand that they can also afford to put a brake on advertising expenditure creating a three way boost to profits.
What a wonderful thing the brand is whether you are a Marketing or Financial Director.
There is just one problem – its bankrupt currency. So weighed down with baggage is the term, and indeed the concept in general, that it has ceased to be of much practical use. Either the brand concept requires a radical repositioning or its time to replace it with something new.
What went wrong?
We confused and abused the brand through misunderstanding and short term gain.
Fundamentally we neglected the fact that brands do not belong to us and do not reside in the HQ’s of organizations but rather exist only in the minds of consumers. This has lead to a number of assumptions that are counter-productive and have effectively neutered the power of the brand.
We got confused about products and brands believing that they were one and the same thing. We forgot that brands are the perceptual halos around products, services and organisations not the products themselves. We used the term brand to apply to all the products in our portfolios even new products which self evidently can’t have brands since consumers have no understanding of them.
Crime of crimes we developed the idea of brand equity which we could ultimately apply a monetary value to and started to believe that this would allow us to trade brands – brands don’t belong to us and so it is ridiculous to believe that we can buy and sell them.
We developed long lists of what we called brand values which were entirely aspirational and bore no resemblance to the way people really felt about the products we sold.
We invented a strand of communications called brand advertising, which in claiming it alone had a bearing on brand perceptions marginalised the brand, alienating it from the real business concerns of most clients. Just mention the word ‘brand’ to many retailers, for instance, and they develop a nervous tick.
We also believed our own publicity, that the futures of the brands associated with our products are under our control rather than understanding that we only have the power to influence the development of brands.
We have lost sight of what a brand is and is not and what they can and can’t do for us. As a term it therefore means different things to different people – hence the reason it has ceased to be of real value.
This is not to say that the concept of the brand is redundant, just that the terminology with which it is associated no longer serves its purpose.
The preservation and growth of the brand concept into the future and the demands placed on those who seek to use it in the service of business demands an new vocabulary devoid of the baggage that currently weighs it down.
Fortunately there is already a such a concept that exists that is perfect for the task – the meme.
What is a meme?
The best way to understand the concept of a meme is to see it in the light of the function and behaviour of genes. Indeed it was a biologist, Richard Dawkins, who first coined the term in his 1976 book ‘the selfish gene’. Just as genes transmit biological information from one human to another, memes transmit ideas and beliefs from one human to another. So in short a meme is a unit of cultural transmission and memetics describes the process of cultural evolution.
And if the body is created from and in turn replicates genes, the mind is made from and replicates memes. This idea of replication is essential to the meme idea, or to be fair the meme meme. In Dawkins paper ‘the Viruses of the mind’ he takes this further seeing memes as behaving like viruses. He uses the concept to launch a stinging attack on his bete noir – religion – but it is also helpful to us. If memes behave virally that says something very clear about the mode of transmission, the way they infect the mind and the way that they poison the territory of the mind against other ideas or memes.
So how does this affect marketers and the cherished concept of the brand.
Any idea, belief or attitude is a meme. Consequently the halo of such attributes that we are used to calling the brand is essentially a meme. All products, services or organisations therefore have memes with some stronger than others and therefore better at transmission, replication and defence from competitive memes.
The key to success for any product is to launch into the world – and remember it is purely a world of minds – a powerful meme about itself. The initial catalyst may well be advertising but the measure of its power is that it becomes in large part self replicating, that consumers spread and augment it themselves.
Returning to jeans we can see that both Levi’s and their main mainstream competitor – Wrangler – have memes. Levi’s meme is about originality and to a certain extent accessible individuality, Wrangler’s is very much less clear but essentially its about authenticity. However, the Levi’s meme is considerably more potent than that of Wrangler. As such it is better at transmission from mind to mind and, critically, in making life tough for the Wrangler meme which finds minds vaccinated against it by the Levi’s meme. In a mind where the Levi’s meme has taken up residence any other jeans meme is either seen as irrelevant or as a blatant me too.
Why memes are better than brands
Notwithstanding that my contention was that the term brand was problematic rather than its concept, thinking about products having memes rather than brands has a number of clear advantages.
Its new terminology and as such has a reasonably clear set of definitions. We would all know what each other was talking about because we would all have learnt it from the same origin.
It makes it clear that the place these ideas reside is the human mind not the balance sheet or the marketing department
It better shows the nature of transmission of brands. That it is essentially viral and dependent on consumers not advertising or other forms of communications. These can provide meme catalysts and help shape its development but they are meme shepherds not the sheep themselves. It is clear that the catalyst for the Tesco meme was new stores and ads but its success has been in the way it has been self replicating in customers minds.
It helps us see that all communications add to the meme pool and that there aren’t specific channels that do this at the exclusion of others
But most important is what it says about the function of marketing departments and their agencies in the future.
Why we should all become meme doctors
If the world of genetics has doctors or scientists who manipulate genes to their own ends then on the world of memetics their should be a equivalent role. If we have given up the antiquated position of brand guardians or worse brands owners as I have argued, then this is a logical occupation to assume.
Meme doctors invent new memes or versions of existing memes believed to be more powerful and more successful that those at present. We might see the ‘very nice man’ meme for the AA as a once powerful meme that had lost its potency particularly in the face of the ‘new knights of the road’ meme from the RAC. A spot of reengineering by the meme doctors and the devastatingly successful 4th emergency service meme was released into the world.
Meme doctors also inject new attributes into existing memes so that they don’t loose their potency and also try to ensure that they are not corrupted by the very minds that they infect.
But meme doctors do not believe that they have the power of life or death over the memes they create and they know that the key to success is self replication not wacky ads or new packaging alone.