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Marketing Brand Strategy Social Media

Brands, read this before jumping on the latest meme trend

August 22, 2022 | 7 min read

In the past few weeks we’ve seen the return of ‘Hide The Pain Harold’ and the emergence of a new meme, ‘Girl Explaining’ (below), that’s quickly making its way around social. Here, Wunderman Thompson’s Rebecca Pinn explains how advertisers can get creative with meme culture without being cringey.

Girl Explaining meme

Will brands jump on the ‘Girl Explaining’ meme?

Just when you thought ‘Hide The Pain Harold’ had forced his last smile, he’s back – this time in a series of digital video ads for Vodafone Italia, where we learn that winning a brand new electric Mini has cheered him up. Almost.

‘Hide The Pain Harold’ is, for the uninitiated, a meme based on a series of stock photography shots of an older gent whose genial grin is never quite enough to mask the sadness in his eyes.

Well, he has made his way off stock image libraries, gone viral on social media and is now the face of numerous advertising campaigns – from a second-hand car dealership to a British student discount scheme to, appropriately, the Hungarian version of Samaritans (András Arató, the real Harold, lives in Budapest).

Spicing up your advertising game with meme content is not a new phenomenon, with ‘Success Kid’ turning up on billboards a decade ago telling us how thrilled he was about his *checks notes* parents accessing HD channels on Virgin Media at no extra cost.

Vodafone meme

(There are no points for guessing who changed his T-shirt from green to red.)

But as the volume and speed at which memes spread only increases, it’s likely that many marketers will be faced with a decision about whether memes are going to give them the hilarious/relatable/center of culture outcome they’re looking for. Or whether they will just make consumers cringe.

Let’s be honest. When brands get it right it works. But when they get it wrong – yikes. So let’s break it down by looking at the some of the highs and lows of memes in advertising, and what the success stories have in common.

Understanding the audience better, one meme at a time

To meme, memes have become human truths in an image. Their ability to distill complex emotional thoughts into one single message means they are almost the purest forms of insights.

Spotting wild memes in their natural habitat can give you more than a week-long focus group. Noticing patterns in how people are meme-ing (I checked, it’s an actual word) about a certain topic can act as strategic shortcuts, as well as providing inspiration to creative minds.

How far the brand delves into this live source of insights is up to them. Bumble tapped into the online rhetoric and meme-sharing around the often-unpredictable world of online dating, using it to inform a distinctive, relatable and playful tone of voice that went down a storm with its millennial users.

Unfortunately, just because your target base is using a meme doesn’t mean a brand should – an infamous casualty being the commoditization of Megan Thee Stallion’s ‘Hot Girl Summer’ trend butchered by brands including Wendy’s, Forever 21 and Maybelline.

I hate to break it to you, but your lemonade is not ‘the official drink of Hot Girl Summer’.

Making your brand a meme

A great social media team will naturally be immersed in all the news, controversies and jokes setting feeds alight at any given moment of the working week. Instead of constantly trying to start a conversation about your brand, piggy backing on what is already being said at just the right moment can take you from 10 likes to 10,000.

KitKat hero

Picture the scene. Kourtney Kardashian takes a huge bite out of a four finger KitKat. Just wrong. And thousands of people are in uproar on social media about the ‘right’ way to eat one. So, what does the brand do? It doesn’t shy away; it fuels the debate further.

Becoming a meme is, in theory, the kind of moment brand managers dream of – it speaks of hitting a critical mass in terms of talkability, iconicity of your brand and shows you’ve made an authentic connection with people.


You never know how far becoming a meme could take you. For KitKat, it was prime time breakfast TV. Yum.

Making memes mainstream in advertising

How the brand chooses to reflect memes in its creative output is a skillful balancing act. Get it right and you will do as memes were always intended, providing a moments entertainment – kudos to Sony Pictures for embracing the Spiderman pointing meme with a joke that delighted fans.

More elaborate than a simple social post, some brands might step it up, like Vodafone did with ‘Hide The Pain Harold’. I personally love it – regardless of whether you know of Harold or not, the facial expression that made him famous is the sentiment Vodafone is trying to convey.

However, I must question whether Vodafone has played it safe and therefore not been able to maintain originality – Harold first came on to the scene way back in 2011… Something currently popular might have had greater impact, but would come with higher risk that in two weeks’ time there will be a new meme-of-the-month. But most of the time, the worst outcome is the meme creative sinks without a trace.

In conclusion

Meme culture is brilliant, funny, easily digested and provides some surprising insights into how humans feel about life. Its meteoric rise to unavoidability on our social feeds can teach us advertisers a lot.

And it looks like it’s here to stay. So instead of lingering on ‘old-hat’ techniques out of fear of moving with the times, we should embrace it. The fire is fueling itself after all.

But approach with caution. There is the temptation, as memes are ever evolving, to react and use them without proper consideration for audience and long-term brand ambition. What might look like low-hanging viral fruit could fracture your brand and cause irreversible damage.

Yes, ‘let’s do a meme’ should never be the starting point of a conversation. But maybe a conversation could be started because of one.

Rebecca Pinn is a senior planner at Wunderman Thompson.

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