Exploring the fundamentals of meme marketing

Let me start by confessing that I did like CRED’s new ad campaign for Bidblast where they made use of The Times of India’s classified section.

It’s not a new idea, and other brands like Zomato have used it before.

But the way CRED went about it, both in terms of the copy, and the seeding (print to social media) was very clever.

The agency behind this disruptive idea is fittingly called ‘Youngun’, and even more fittingly, the agency’s slogan is, ‘Make Memes, Not Ads’!

But this post is not about Youngun’s CRED campaign.

Or, it is less about the CRED campaign and more about Youngun’s previous, hugely-viral campaign for Myntra and the interview of Youngun’s founder Saksham Jadon in Moneycontrol’s Storyboard18.

When I first stumbled on the ‘Vanshika’ viral video, I wasn’t even sure, like most other people, if it was initiated by Myntra at all given that the Myntra sale gets only a fleeting, throwaway mention in the entire video. In a way, it has been engineered to seem like an ‘organic’ viral meme.

Who shared it first? A Twitter handle named ‘hajarkagalwa’.

What does the tweet say?
“probably the funniest post-breakup crying session ??”

Now, let me quote Youngun’s founder from the Moneycontrol interview where he is referring to the CRED campaign:

“I would say that 30 percent of the push on social media platforms came from us. We seeded these ads online through meme channels but the rest of the conversations was all organic.”

So, transposing the CRED’s campaign’s seeding strategy (print-first; seed the print ads via digital influencers to engineer virality), it becomes obvious that the Twitter handle ‘hajarkagalwa’ is one such seeder of the Myntra ‘Vanshika’ campaign.

Meaning: ‘hajarkagalwa’ was roped in for a fee/by the agency (and Myntra) to seed their content/video towards promoting Myntra’s sale.

Do you notice any disclaimer in hajarkagalwa’s tweet that it was an ad, collab, or part of a paid promotion?


Does ASCI (The Advertising Standards Council of India) mandate a disclosure when social media influencers work with brands and agencies in advertising?


Here’s what ASCI says (PDF).

Now that we know for sure that the ‘Vanshika’ video was not some organic piece of content/meme and was initiated by Myntra, via the agency Youngun, shouldn’t hajarkagalwa add a clear disclosure that “probably the funniest post-breakup crying session ??” was advertising Myntra’s sale?

Or, take the example of another Youngun campaign, for Subway India.

Now that I have told you that it was not a natural tweet by Harshita but something initiated by Youngun on behalf of their client Subway India, wouldn’t you wonder if the tweet deserves a disclosure?

You could argue: “Oh c’mon! That lack of disclosure is the very point of meme marketing. Disclosure takes the edge off the content.”

Saksham concurs too, in the Moneycontrol interview: “Users do not wish to see brand initiated content. It’s boring. If the same newspaper classified campaign came from CRED’s own Instagram account it wouldn’t have become so viral.”

This is subterfuge, though.

The strategy is to create an impression about something being natural and organic and use that misdirection to propel virality.

To a lesser extent, the CRED campaign too used the same strategy – the ads did not look like conventional ads. There was no callout that they were advertising at all. But I’d give Youngun the benefit of doubt in the CRED campaign easily – you cannot get anything printed in a newspaper without paying money. Even though the CRED ads did not get placed inside the classified section, (they were always on the same page as Times Interact, the classified section) they were just above the ‘Times Interact’ banner, and this is probably intentional, to offer the illusion of a strange, stray classified ad that screams for attention. Youngun and CRED cleverly used a grey area within print advertising to cause confusion: “Is that really an ad?”.

CRED’s attempt was legitimate subterfuge. Myntra’s and Subway’s were not, and they flouted ASCI’s guidelines clearly. That such flouting is instrumental to the agency’s strategy of meme virality is a bit disturbing, though.

Saksham’s point about the Vim Black campaign in the Moneycontrol interview is a case in point:

“At times, consumer trust can get eroded if the brand is not cautious with its advertising strategy. For example, Vim can be called out if it creates a similar Vim Black campaign. A good strategy would have been Vim reacting to a viral video which is showing a product like Vim Black. This would have been less risky proposition for the brand because it is never came from brand’s own account. Brands need to safeguard themselves while launching such campaigns. There has to be a planned virality in which every stage of user reaction is estimated and counter actions are already planned if there’s a backlash. That’s where agencies like us come in picture because we understand internet really well. Once an event/campaign becomes a meme then no one takes it seriously and the chances of backlash is less. Brands gets visibility the minute memes start to surface; it also superimpose any negative chatter.”

Crux: Youngun actively advocates subterfuge. That is, brands are expected to hide their direct association with a piece of content (advertising) as a way to garner virality and visibility, and continue to do so if things go wrong. But brands could enjoy the association and reveal themselves if things go wonderfully right.

Example: Myntra’s official handle did not share the Vanshika video originally. Myntra quote-tweeted the tweet 2 days later almost as if they stumbled on it casually, which they did not – they WERE the ones who made it in the first place, via Youngun.

Subway reacted too in the same way – as if they had no clue all this was happening and they simply stumbled on viral gold by a stroke of luck!

This intentional subterfuge extends to other tactics online too, beyond original posts like the one by hajarkagalwa, without any disclosure.

Consider Youngun’s mid-2022 campaign for Pepsi India. To engineer virality, they got power-tweeters, who usually collaborate with agencies and brands for a fee, to respond to Pepsi’s original tweet. Considering how collaborations work, these influencers are usually paid to even reply (to make the brand’s content viral). I don’t think ASCI has considered replies as a mode of paid promotion yet since it is not even mentioned in their guidelines explicitly. A related grey area is a retweet by an influencer! For an influencer with 500,000+ followers, agencies would pay to simply retweet a brand tweet, with no additional context. ASCI wouldn’t even have considered such paid push for disclosure guidelines.

All this may seem like a prudent strategy depending on your age. If you are young, anything goes. You are likely to take more active risks. The agency is called ‘Youngun’, understandably.

But if you are a bit older, and have a bit more experience within the industry and the ways of the world, you may not advocate such a strategy in content dissemination.

There is enough precedence for this anyway.

Print publications like Times Group which has almost the entire city supplement for sale, add a small disclaimer under the masthead to make readers believe what they are seeing in the pages made it because they deserve to be there and not because they could afford being featured there for a fee.

The entire idea behind ‘Native advertising’ revolves around catching readers unaware that they are reading paid-for material.

The problem with this approach is that once the truth is revealed, there is a breakdown in trust, between the media vehicle and the audience, and the brand and the audience.

Ironically, Saksham himself calls this out when talking about the Vim Black campaign, but I doubt if he has thought through the ‘trust’ issue adequately before sharing his perspective: “consumer trust can get eroded if the brand is not cautious with its advertising strategy”.

There are other related issues as well with this dissemination strategy that relies on subterfuge.

The first is obvious: when something is floated as a ‘meme’ by intentionally hiding the brand’s association with the piece of content, even if the content goes viral and gets shared/discussed wildly online, the benefit for the brand that is paying for the effort is at best residual. At its worst, it has more people either not getting the brand connect at all or simply wondering if the brand was involved in this effort.

In other words, people are sharing the meme because they enjoy what they hear/see. That is a very different outcome from say, people sharing a Cadbury’s Dairy Milk advertisement.

You may say that this is the obvious difference between a meme and an advertisement. But therein lies the relative impact of both formats of content on the brand that bankrolls the effort.

So you may also wonder if it is impossible to make a brand-led meme where the brand association is not hidden intentionally and is kept rather open… one that can go viral openly as a branded meme.

Not at all. That’s absolutely possible.

Most of the viral content around Zomato that is initiated by the brand itself is a good example, including the recent Zomato + Blinkit’s ‘Doodh Maangoge, Doodh Denge’ & ‘Kheer Maangoge, Kheer Denge’ billboard-turned-meme that every brand has jumped into, and ordinary people too have jumped into, to create their own versions. But Zomato and Blinkit and clearly and officially part of all those. No one is wondering whether some brand is behind the original effort or not.

Zomato is also an old hand at this viral meme game but they usually do it openly and officially. Here’s one from 2019, for instance, that started with a simple tweet.

Also, it’s not as if mainstream ad agencies have not indulged in anonymous viral memes. Remember this 2013 video that made news all over India and the world including the US and Middle East?

It was eventually revealed that Cadbury’s India was behind the stunt concocted by Ogilvy India. The content and the dissemination strategy are very similar to the one adopted by Youngun for Myntra’s Vanshika campaign and Subway’s campaign, but with a major difference: the original video was not uploaded on an influencer’s channel – it was a non-entity/new handle on YouTube. Ogilvy spent time only seeding the video through people they knew.

Another subversive viral video example is what Lenovo did in 2009. Apple had launched the lightest laptop, MacBook Air in 2008. To rival that claim, and to prop the lightness credentials of Lenovo’s ThinkPad, the brand produced and seeded a video where honeybees are seen lifting a ThinkPad laptop!

This video too was uploaded by a handle that has just this video, till today, and nothing else!

Cadbury’s viral video is similar to Youngun’s Vanshika and Subway campaign idea, in terms of the brand connection – it is intentionally open-ended about that element.

Many of the comments under Cadbury’s video are instructive of this confusion – here’s one, for example:

Most online publications that wrote about the Vanshika video too were unsure of the Myntra connection given its throwaway style mention or had completely ignored Myntra assuming it to be not material to reporting about the video. Ditto for the Subway campaign.

That’s not very purposeful from a marketing point of view. It is wonderfully useful from a meme virality point of view, of course, but how it helps the brand is a different question altogether.

A very good example of a viral meme created and shared by a brand without an explicit mention or connection, but one that the brand owned later to great effect is the one by Volkswagen Australia, made by the agency DDB Sydney, in 2018.

What the agency did, in terms of sequencing, was really smart.

Step 1: They seeded a viral video through online publications like LADbible, and 9gag, among others (who did not call out that it was promotional, though; much like what Youngun did with Myntra Vanshika).

Step 2: After the video went hugely viral, Volkswagen seeded digital ads that referred to the viral video and owned it!

Here’s the case study by DDB Sydney:

In comparison, Youngun has let both CRED and Myntra own the campaigns in very hazy ways. CRED hasn’t owned the classified ads that went viral online at all, while Myntra’s official push for Vanshika was barely anything worth talking about.

The second consideration for meme marketing is what it is employed for.

Take the Myntra Vanshika and CRED classified examples, both by Youngun. This is what we call ‘surround sound’ – they float some buzz around specific, time-bound activities, in this case, Myntra’s sale and CRED’s Bidblast, both of which had a specific period of activation.

In comparison, Cadbury’s 2013 viral video was aimed at brand building at a larger level, to associate ‘not so sweet’ as a value proposition for the bitter chocolcate range under Bournville.

The Lenovo ThinkPad honeybees viral video was intended to assert the product’s lightness when Apple was making huge noise about that product feature.

And the best – Volkswagen’s viral video campaign was intended to highlight and demonstarte specific features like braking.

Youngun’s Pepsi campaign comes close to looking beyond surround sound marketing, and highlights a product feature (zero calories). I’d love to see the agency do more work with memes and virality that goes beyond surround sound and focuses on substantial brand building.

The other issue that brands would stumble upon in meme marketing is that the more distant the brand connect, the more the chances of rival brands taking a dump on the content with their own spin.

Myntra’s Vanshika referred to an Akash in her rant. This was on December 8th.

On December 10th, another video surfaced showcasing Akash’s side of the story and this one had a plug for Ajio, Myntra’s rival! This too went viral and started a second round of virality for the first video as well.

To be sure, this is a foundational feature of memes, much like hashtags – they are open to use by anyone and everyone, including other brands. So, its all the more reason why brands and agencies should assume that element as a basis and then work on their content. If the brand connect is really vague that people are either confused if what they are consuming in the form of a meme is branded content or they don’t even think on those lines while merely enjoying some content, then the brand risks the danger of getting further buried when others start floating variants.

The Zomato ‘Doodh’ billboard-turned-meme is a good example of meme marketing done right. The brands behind it are very clearly called out. Any further iterations by people or other brands are forced to cite the original in order to float their own variants, thereby giving Zomato and Blinkit enough visibility in subsequent viral cycles.

But in examples like Myntra Vanshika and CRED, most people were unaware of the brand connection, or it was so vague that they hardly noticed it as something remembering or considering.

That ends up as something the agency gets paid to go viral with content for content’s sake, not for the brand’s sake. If there is a brand paying an agency to do something, it should ideally be viral content for the brand’s sake and not viral content for viral’s sake (which is perfectly justified for an influencer/online content creator trying to rake up views and followers, though).

One could argue that ‘going viral’ is the goal of meme marketing, the brand is secondary.

Brand managers may agree or disagree depending on how old they are 🙂