Trying to demystify memes? Don’t.

Brands may long for the success achieved on social by memes. But while they can learn from their magic, trying to replicate them is a step too far, says Ayoade Zahrah Bamgboye, strategic planner at Grey London

My lifelong dream is to become a meme, preferably frozen in a look of acute stress at a Champion’s League game at Stamford Bridge. I’ve given up on figuring out how to successfully create one. But I’m always interested in what makes them so powerful, and so effective in their ability to replicate and propagate in ways that we, as advertisers can only dream of.

I never thought I’d be quoting Richard Dawkins, but we owe the existence of the word ‘meme’ to him. He coined it in his 1976 bestseller The Selfish Gene. A meme is something that mutates and evolves. It spreads from one person to another; the smallest unit of shared experience that becomes almost impossible to trace to the originator.

Despite the link with Dawkins, there is no real science to their virality. Memes are genuinely diverse and take many forms. They might be snippets of real-life events that become so apt in describing many other scenarios that they take on a life of their own. They could be rip-offs of popular headlines like the recent obsession with the environment restoring itself now that we’re all distancing from one another and avoiding unnecessary journeys. They are born from life itself, but also from film, TV, music, news and all the myriad spaces in between.