Creating Infectious Ideas

The world at large is starting to catch onto the idea of "memes"-ideas that jump from mind to mind with ease. Memes are what Geoff Ayling, in the book Rapid Response Advertising calls the "missing piece: of the marketing puzzle."

Great leaders, I have found, seem to be able to distill a corporate change in direction or strategy down into a sound bite that sweeps easily through the organization. Some leaders do the same thing but don't give enough thought to the sound bite-the meme - and end up with serious morale and implementation problems.

Several years ago when it became obvious that telecommunications, cable TV and computers were on a collision course, one of the phone companies decided that this would be a blend of information, communications, and entertainment-ICE. They started talking about the coming "ICE age." If you think metaphorically about an ice age, it gets very cold, food is in short supply, glaciers cover the earth, and everything slows down. I pointed this out to the leadership team and they stopped using "ice age" to describe the change.

The Seattle Mariners baseball team went to the World Series a few years back with the slogan "Refuse to Lose." They lost. This "away from" meme focused the team and city on losing, not winning. To win the series, a better meme might have been "Choose to Win."

These two examples suggest that memes affect our behavior far more subtly and profoundly than we might have guessed.

In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins suggests that for the last 3 billion years, genes have ruled the earth. Through the process of self-replication, genes are responsible for the bewildering diversity of life we see around us. From a selfish gene's point of view, living beings are simply a Xerox machine for genes. To be successful replicators genes needed three things:

  1. longevity - the ability to withstand the test of time and natural selection
  2. fecundity - fertility and the ability to reproduce abundantly
  3. fidelity - the ability to create accurate self-copies over an extended period of time.

Dawkins suggests that humans created a new kind of replicator that was not biological but mental: an idea that copies itself from jumping from mind to mind. Dawkins says: "a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet. It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it's achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind."

The mind is an incubator for memes. The meme is the mechanism which allows us to mentally import concepts such as honesty, compassion, or 'Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.' Memes also trigger people into action. They motivate as well as inform.

In the context of advertising, a meme is an idea or concept that has been refined, distilled, stripped down to its bare essentials and then super-simplified in such a way that anybody can grasp its meaning instantly and effortlessly, and convey it to others flawlessly. A meme operates by chunking a complex concept or idea down into a simple, easily communicable unit.

What is a meme? A meme is:

  1. a self-explanatory symbol that represents a complete idea
  2. the simplest, most elegant and contagious representation of the idea
  3. a symbol which can be words, pictures, sounds, actions, and imagery
  4. an idea that can dictate and orchestrate (i.e., motivate) patterns of human behavior
  5. a replicator which leaves copies of itself as it spreads from mind to mind
  6. a "mind virus" that is contagious to the extent that it is laced with emotion.

For a meme to become contagious it needs:

  • extreme simplicity in terms of the core message
  • emotional impact-the stronger the better
  • critical mass-enough people must be exposed to it

Why are memes important?

As a general rule, you have only a second or two in which to grab your prospect's attention and download a stream of information. "When you consider that in those seconds you have to convey a feeling of who you are, why someone should hire you and not someone else, trigger and emotional response, and generate a desire to hire you, the value of memes becomes immediately apparent. If you're presenting an idea to your boss, peers, or employees, you have only a few seconds to grab their attention and download the idea.

The simplicity of a meme makes rapid transmission of ideas and concepts possible. The goal is to get a clear but simple statement that transfers easily to the mind of the prospect and that they can repeat to others. Memes are emotional button pushers The big three emotional triggers are: fear, food, and sex. There are other kinds of hot button memes: aspirational, dream, greed, scarcity, authority, reciprocation, attraction, success, escape, gambling, popularity, pride, career, association, compulsion, achievement, distinction, sticky, solution, curiosity, status, guilt, strategy, sex, consensus, romance, maternal/paternal, paradigm, consistency, contrast, love, family, travel, fashion, thrill, excitement, responsibility, security, health, youth, fun, etc.

How do you create memes?

  1. Transplant-find a meme in an unrelated industry and copy it. Check out current business books and magazines.
  2. Enhance, upgrade, or adapt an existing meme. To upgrade a meme: " Identify the button the meme was designed to press (e.g., convenience) " Look for another button with higher emotional leverage (e.g., sex) " Look for the ultimate way to press that button
  3. Craft the meme from scratch

How to get better at understanding and using memes: Play "Spot the Meme" (e.g., Nike: Just do it). Notice what words, phrases or symbols catch your attention and then examine why they do. What's the meme? How can you modify or adapt the meme to your job or business? What are the memes your coworkers are using? Which ones work? Why? Which ones come with too much baggage like "ICE age?"

Exercise: Take an idea you're struggling to transmit to your team and spend a little time crafting it into a meme that is a simple and emotional call to action.

Rights to reprint this article in company periodicals is freely given with the inclusion of the following tag line: "© 2008-2024 Jay Arthur, the KnowWare® Man, 888-468-1537, ."