AUX Blog

The Agony and Ecstasy of Memes

February 24, 2022

By Alicia Disantis, Brand Manager

A picture is worth a thousand words, but a meme is worth a thousand pictures. Hi, it’s Alicia, Certified Millennial™, here to tell you about the importance of memes in your marketing. By now, you should know a meme when you see one. They are everywhere. You probably experience dozens of memes a day. But what are they actually? Well, I don’t know, myself. All I know is that they are impactful, brilliant, and terrifying in their power to persuade and connect. I recently attempted to describe memes to my mother, a former medical receptionist and Certified Baby Boomer™. I failed miserably.

“It’s like a cartoon, sometimes with words.”

“But it can also be a photo.”

“It has social and political contexts.”

“But other people can change the cartoon whenever they want.”

“And then it becomes another meme.”

By the time I finally threw in the towel trying to explain, I too was wholly confused by memes and my mom was disappointed in me (again).

So, what is a meme?

Here’s what Oxford says about memes: a humorous image, video, piece of text, etc., that is copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly by internet users. Here’s another by Merriam-Webster: an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from one person to another in a culture, 2: an amusing or interesting picture, video, etc., that is spread widely through the Internet.

Here’s a few memes you may have seen before.

1: Dancing Baby Meme

2: Woman Yelling at Cat Meme

3: But That’s None of My Business Meme

4: Grumpy Cat Meme

In the purest form, memes have been around since 3 BC, when culturally cheeky mosaics were discovered in modern day Turkey. Our concept of the “modern meme” dates back to the Y2K era, a time of pixelated images, rudimentary computer effects, and bizarre looping GIFs. The birth of YouTube in 2005 provided a channel to share video memes, and viral memes such as the “Harlem Shake” – remember that one? – exploded. Once the floodgates opened in the early 2000s and meme culture was released, there was no going back. Quickly growing digital platforms like social media (Facebook, Twitter) forums (Reddit, 4Chan), and online comics added fuel to an endless desire for memes in culture. And with each iteration of a meme, each person who adds on their own context and message, memes transform and warp into something completely different from the original context over time (we’ll get into this more later).

And now, decades later, countless memes exist – some of course more mainstream than others. Check out a comprehensive list of memes at’s meme database. Memes been used in major advertising campaigns like Superbowl ads, political campaigns, featured in music and movies, and written about in novels. They touch every facet of life, from sports fanatics to knitting groups, from Gen Y to Boomers, from inner city Black culture to Hong Kong activism.

Why should you care as a marketing professional?

Memes aren’t just funny cat videos and esoteric contexts. Memes can be instrumental in organizations’ marketing strategies, and we’ll discuss how credit unions can especially benefit. They have proven, over the course of several decades now, to be hugely popular, engaging, compelling, community-building. They are cheap to make and royalty-free. They cater to a digital age. “The Internet has proven to be a platform where memes spread like wildfire,” writes Psychology Today. “This is because information becomes more believable when:

  • accompanied by an image
  • seen repeatedly
  • consumers aren’t engaged in critical thinking

All three of these factors come into play when coming across new memes on social media.” [1]

Great, but why exactly do we love memes so much? What evidence is there to support running a marketing campaign around memes to my CEO? Check out this fascinating study I found in The Psychologist:[2] In a 2014 study, Kate Miltner argues that this ‘widespread form of vernacular communication’ is so popular because it succumbs to our desire for ‘participatory culture’ in online activity. There are surprisingly vast links here to some meaty psychological issues, including social inclusivity, constructs of identity, and online power dynamics.

And this lengthy 2021 study, conducted by the US National Library of Medicine, validates that sharing of memes were part of the Puerto Rican community’s collective coping during COVID-19.[3]

How credit unions can benefit

Memes support a sense of community, voice and belonging, and incorporating them into your marketing strategies is a tremendous opportunity to connect with your members. How? Credit unions pride themselves on being a different breed from banks, being customer-focused, and community-centric. They strive to give the citizens a voice and ownership of their financial institution. And in the same hand, memes are so popular because they provide a voice for the people, a way for them to share their perspective, and create a sense of shared experiences and challenges (collective coping). Wouldn’t it make sense that meme use would fit very well into credit unions’ marketing and branding strategy?

There is a level of tribalism, of tongue-in-cheek wit, of marching-to-your-own drum scrappiness that exists among credit unions and their members. Many credit unions still have links back to labor unions and specific companies or industries. Use memes to lean into this beautiful sense of community. Use memes to explore inside jokes only credit unions members within your field of membership will understand. The opportunities are endless. Here are a few of my favorites.

CU 2.0

Your Money Further

Your Money Further

Your Money Further

Take a look at Your Money Further’s Facebook page for a great example of memes used for industry-specific marketing.

Risky business

With all reward comes risk. Yes, memes can be polarizing, and their context can change on a dime. Due to the “community-brained” nature of memes, they can be subject to hijacking by fringe groups. Take the sad decline of Pepe the Frog, for example, who has morphed into a disgusting symbol of white supremacy and alt-right ideas, so much so that he has been listed as a hate symbol. This fascinating video by Dan Stiles, from the Adobe Max 2020 Conference, explains the role memes play in spreading disinformation.

Like any powerful (and successful) ad campaign, memes can be subject to strong responses from customers. Some folks even feel that memes have no place in corporate marketing. Fun fact: Here’s an article from Kearly & Company dissuading credit unions from using memes. And guess what? They included a meme I created over 5 years ago (I still love that Napoleon Dynamite meme)! Small world, indeed.

I reached out to my old friend Kristina Pascaru, now wildly accomplished Director of Corporate Digital Communications & Analytics at Sherwin Williams, for some insight. “Memes make sense in marketing when they align with the existing voice and tone of the brand. If your brand is fun and playful in nature, memes can work well. For more conservative brands however, memes can quickly look overly kitschy, off-brand and even unprofessional. At the end of the day, ask yourself a few questions. What’s the message you need to convey, who’s your audience and would a meme resonate with them? And— if you laid all your marketing materials and collateral out on a table including the proposed meme, does the meme look like it belongs or does it stick out like a sore thumb?

One last side note… if your audience includes a large number of individuals still pronouncing meme as “meh meh,” you’re probably headed in the wrong direction by using one!”

But don’t think meme popularity is only for the young. Reader’s Digest just came out with a “Best memes of 2022” article. Yes, Reader’s Digest. Their median readership age is 55. The average American credit union member’s age is 47. You’d be remiss to let your average membership age scare you away from using memes; they can be quite popular among generations born pre-1980.

How to mitigate risk

If you are considering incorporating memes into your marketing strategy, or are currently using them, there are simple ways to make your efforts less risky. Proclaiming that “all meme use” is equally dangerous is downright incorrect. There are memes that are much gentler, well-known, and less subject to alternative meanings. You just have to do your research.

1. Visit’s comprehensive, and neutral, index of memes to understand the history of the meme you are using.

2. Reverse image search the meme you want to use by utilizing TinEye, a search database of all the places an image exists on the web. If you start to see a pattern of concerning use, stay away.

3. Start slow and gauge your membership’s response. Dabble in a couple of current event memes, like these hilarious ones:

4. Get other opinions. Unsure about the meme you are using? Ask coworkers from different generations and walks of life what they think. Do they “get it”? Is it appropriate? The beauty of the credit union industry is that we have such a strong pulse on our membership. A discussion from various team members will likely prove the worth of the meme, and it’s a fine internal brand building exercise, too! Once you get a feel for your membership’s response to your memes, it will become easier to gauge their success.

I hope the article was helpful to you and your team. Memes can be risky and slippery, yes, but they have potential to engage your audience in ways you could never have expected and create cost-effective, quick wins to your credit union’s daily marketing strategy. Go ahead, dip your toe in.




Alicia Disantis

About the Author

Alicia is responsible for strengthening and growing the Aux brand and spreading the word on the extraordinary benefits of collaboration and shared services. Working alongside the Business Development team and product managers, she manages the corporate brand, including writing, graphic design, advertising, and social media. Alicia has seen Aux grow from a regional shared branching support CUSO to a powerhouse in innovation and R&D. A typical industry “wearer of many hats,” she loves working in such a caring and compassionate industry as credit unions.

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