Cultural touchpoints
4 tips for creating memorable memes
By Esther J. Cepeda

Marketers, if you haven’t already, it’s time to get your memes on.

For the uninitiated, memes are images — still or moving, in Graphics Interchange Format or GIF — that harness the popularity of cultural touchpoints, creating a shorthand visual to communicate the message.
One of my favorites making the rounds right now depends on knowing a little bit about the animated television series “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

In SpongeBob’s town, Bikini Bottom, there are two restaurants, the Krusty Krab, run by loveable skinflint Mr. Krabs, and the Chum Bucket, owned by the villainous Sheldon J. Plankton.
People take side-by-side images and place items they love over the Krusty Krab sign and something inferior over the Chum Bucket sign. For instance: “Seinfeld versus Friends,” “Costco Wholesale versus Sam’s Club,” “Black Panther versus Tomb Raider,” “In-N-Out Burger versus McDonald’s” and so on.

For a certain subset of social media users, this meme instantaneously communicates that something is great, and its competitor is awful. Users of the Snapchat multimedia messaging app expressed their disappointment about its recent redesign with the “Snapchat 2015 versus Snapchat 2018” SpongeBob meme.

Memes can provide a change of pace, elicit a smile or piggyback on a popular, attention-grabbing bandwagon. Here are a few guidelines:

Use some common sense. Don’t use crass imagery or something potentially offensive. Keep things light and fun, unless you know for sure that dark memes such as those referencing the fantasy drama television series “Game of Thrones” or the character Morpheus from the science-fiction-action films in “The Matrix” franchise — “What if I told you … vaccines don’t cause autism?” — will be a hit with your followers.

Stay on-brand. Deploy memes by listening in on your target audience’s social chatter over time. A corporation should have a good feel about when to use a “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” movie meme. A nonprofit should know when to deploy a meme for “The Oprah Winfrey Show” giveaway; I saw one that read: “We need your donation for the Red Cross … And your donation … Everybody donates to the Red Cross!”

Put it out to your “crowd.” Have a meme contest and ask your followers/friends to create memes for you. Your most devoted fans will probably have a million on-brand ideas that can create short bursts of energy and, hopefully, meaningful engagement.

Use sparingly. Memes are an accent, a touch of color that can add a dose of variety to a consistent and crystal-clear messaging strategy. I worked with an organization trying to communicate a lot of serious and even technical social media messaging — not a ton of lighthearted content. Every once in a while, we’d use a meme generator tool like Imgur or Quickmeme to create something on-brand just to elicit a smile and a repost. It was an effective — but not an everyday — part of the long-term social presence.

Using memes in your social media presence can offer an additional way to delight your followers by demonstrating that you understand what makes them laugh or what’s important to them. A list of meme generator tools can be found at
3486457. Do your homework, and your efforts will likelier be a Krusty Krab instead of a Chum Bucket.

Esther J. Cepeda is president of EeJayCee Inc., a marketing and communications consultancy that focuses on corporate storytelling, and author of a nationally syndicated twice-weekly column for The Washington Post Writers Group. She can be contacted at