“Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain, via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.” – Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene
How would you know you were in a country music bar if you couldn’t hear? Let’s look around for clues. You can see they serve beer on draft. There’s an American flag hanging above the bar. You’re sitting on a wooden bar stool. The bartenders are wearing cowboy boots, hats and jeans. Suddenly you regain your hearing. There’s music playing – it’s Nelly’s 2002 smash hit “Hot in Herre”... Are you surprised? If you’re a die-hard Willie Nelson fan you may even walk out disappointed. Those clues were supposed to mean something. The music you heard didn’t match the expectations you formed from the visual cues you observed.
The jarring experience of seeing country music but hearing hip hop makes the bar unappealing to fans of both genres. A businesses that gets the combination wrong, fails to attract the right customers, and disappoints the wrong ones. There’s value in making sure you’re communicating the right things. Cowboys would ‘brand’ their cattle by burning a mark into their hides, so everyone knew who the owner was. Modern brands burn associations into our brains through advertising, so we know what it’ll mean to experience their product. Consistent branding breeds familiarity. Familiarity breeds trust. Trust makes decisions easy. You’re in the right place, buying the right thing, from the right people. Whatever you’re doing is ok. You are ok.
Everything we listed about the country music bar were examples of ‘memes’ – not internet memes – I’m using original meaning of the word. The term meme was coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist. A meme is an idea, behavior, or style that spreads through imitation from brain to brain. Dawkins invented memes as the information equivalent of biological genes. A way to explain how we evolve in ways not attributable to our genetics. Nurture vs nature. Cowboys don’t wear jeans because of their genes. There’s no instructions in our DNA for making country music. Nothing in our biology dictates whether we’d be a fan of one music genre or another – that comes from our culture and upbringing. We sort country and hip hop into different categories based on their memes – copied and modified from song to song.
Slow Nelly’s masterpiece down from 107 beats per minute to 88 (typical for a country song), change the key from D to G, play it on an acoustic guitar and sing it with a southern twang. Unsuspecting country fans will no longer object, and may even tap their feet and sign along. If you want to hear what this sounds like, search “chance the rapper hot in here” – it’s surprisingly catchy. By taking common memes from a category, and using them to strategically modify the product, you can transform it into something that better resonates with what the audience expects. That’s memetic engineering, which is what you’ll learn how to do in this book.
But first, a history lesson. Though most scientific advancement has been in genetics, it’s nurture that beats nature hands down. Memes evolve much faster than genes. Our brains still work the same as they did 10,000 years ago. Bringing a caveman to our time would blow his mind. But not if he grew up here. It’s our memes that make all the difference. Memes are responsible for all human progress and civilization. Ways of building arches, making clay pots, ploughing fields. The wheel. The printing press. Sliced bread. If we forgot how to do these things, we’d be back in the stone age.
Our paleo-lithic brains may not change, but technology is accelerating exponentially. We started using stone tools 2.5 million years ago. It took 2.4 million years until we were able to talk to each other about it. No longer reliant on pointing and grunting, progress accelerated. Drawing came 58,000 years later. Writing 34,000 years after that. We no longer had to rely on memory alone – memes could be recorded for posterity. The phrase “an eye for an eye” has outlived Hammurabi by 3,700 years because he had it engraved in stone. One thousand years later, Jesus reputedly offered the counter meme “turn the other cheek” in his ‘Sermon on the Mount’ speech. Inclusion in the most printed book of all time – the Christian Bible – does a great deal to guarantee a memes survival.
Dawkins compared the spread of a meme to the spread of a virus. Songs can be ‘catchy’. Ideas can ‘go viral’. Being ‘infected’ with the wrong beliefs will kill you. Memes we find useful tend to get actively recorded and copied, spreading through the ‘noosphere’ – the collective human consciousness – until it reaches saturation. Though like viruses, they don’t need to be beneficial to the host to thrive. Memes that successfully agitate their hosts into spreading them will survive; regardless of value or morality. Most information is forgotten. Winning combinations of memes – memeplexes – are remembered and shared through stories, books, and computers. Unlike genes which mutate randomly, we deliberately alter our memes through human creativity.
Each new invention builds on what came before, so progress accelerates exponentially. Perhaps 6,000 people heard Jesus’s speech in person. By the middle ages about 15% of the population could read his words in the Bible, though copies of books were expensive to make. The Printing Press (1450) brought down the cost of copying, and literacy exploded. Radio (1895) let us hear speeches for ourselves. TV (1927) added moving images to trick our brain into feeling like we’re actually there. The Internet (1991) democratized all this information, making it essentially free. Deep Learning (2007) partially replicated the structure of the human brain with artificial neurons, resulting in computers that could “see” objects in images and approximate the “meaning” of words. Fast forward to present day, and we have OpenAI’s GPT-3 model (2020) producing human-level text, and DALL-E (2022) turning words into art. Now machines can create memes too.
If we were magically transported back through time, would we manage to reinvent everything? A long list of inventions, including the telegraph, light bulb, and steam engine, were all discovered multiple times independently. Every “Great Man” in history, stood on the shoulders of many uncredited people – a wider ecosystem of academics, artists, investors, inventors, and influencers. Nothing is truly original. Apple stole from Xerox. Led Zeppelin riffed on Willie Dixon. Star Wars copied samurai films and old westerns. There are limited ways to stimulate our stone age brains. The best memes continually resurface again and again. Eventually the sources become obscure enough to avoid accusations of plagiarism, and an idea’s time has come again.
Did you notice that whenever the movie goes back in time, the sky is yellow? Or how in space everything is tinted blue? These memes arose from the use of sepia to preserve old film, and the shift to blue with digital editing – in our minds yellow means old and blue means new. It’s not just visual elements that get copied from movie to movie. Tell me if you’ve seen this one: a young male protagonist meets a mysterious stranger; enters a supernatural world; struggles with setbacks; finds their inner strength; defeats the bad guy; the end. Film school students will recognize this as Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”, a plot shared by blockbuster films such as Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, and The Lion King.
Hollywood isn’t the only institution actively learning what our brain wants. Memetic engineering is being studied and applied within terrorist groups, religious cults, fraudulent companies, political parties, even military forces. The campaigns for Donald Trump and Brexit used memetic principles to win shock victories with wide-ranging implications. The U.S. Military is studying Memetics as a result of ISIS’s success in using social media for recruiting, and Russia’s investment in ‘troll farms’ to interfere in Western elections and wage war in Eastern Europe. Disinformation, censorship and tribalism are being weaponized to manipulate people into acting against their own interest, or the interests of others. A war is being fought for our attention, and most of us aren’t aware of the danger or don’t have the tools to do something about it.
Marketers are in the business of manipulating memes. Brands are memeplexes that we carefully curate in order to build the most advantageous associations in consumer’s brains, for when they’re ready to buy. If you don’t think memetically you’ll struggle to engineer the right outcomes for your business. You need to study the memes in your industry to understand what works (or doesn’t). Ideally you’ll study the history of your industry and contemporary trends in other industries. What we call innovation is often just copying winning combinations of memes from sources that are obscure to your competitors. Fail to apply memetics and you’ll be limited by experience: you can only try what worked for you before, or what you heard worked elsewhere. You’ll either get lucky, or you’ll get it wrong. Memetics is a system for making your own luck.
If you continue reading this book, I’ll assume you’re an aspiring Memeticist, and teach you everything I learned about the topic that helped me build a 50 person marketing agency, working with over 200 early stage start-ups and Fortune 500 companies. You’ll learn what memes are, how they evolved and how they have been used. You’ll see how memes have become weaponized and used against you, as well as what can be done to protect yourself from malicious memes. Memetics isn’t yet a mainstream science, but I’ll explain what it needs to become a more rigorous discipline. Most importantly I’ll teach you how to use Memetics to achieve your goals. Doing marketing this way greatly reduces complexity: find the right combination of memes, and you win.
It works like this:
1) Collect a swipe file of campaigns
2) Break them down into their component parts
3) Identify what patterns work best
4) Generate new ideas by copying old ones
5) Systematically test new combinations
Actively collect samples of campaigns to expose yourself to more memes than the marketers you’re competing against. Reverse engineer successful campaigns by breaking them down into their component parts, so you can see what’s really driving performance. When planning your marketing strategy, think “what memes am I using?” Conduct memetic analysis to identify strategic opportunities for your brand to evolve. Optimize your memes for memory retention and virality to ensure your campaign’s success. Be strategic about the associations you build in consumer’s brains so they’re primed and ready to buy. Finally, always be testing and learning what combinations of memes perform – attention is limited and brain space is valuable.
A note from the author: I hope you enjoyed reading that introduction as much as I enjoyed writing it. This particular meme has been with me almost 7 years, so it feels good to get it on paper. At the time it first occurred to me it was like a bolt of lightening. Immediately the limited success I was having with my agency made sense as part of a cohesive framework. Unfortunately I was far too busy running a business to write, so instead I applied memetic engineering in growing the agency, keeping notes as I went. Fully recovered from agency ownership I decided to do something more creatively fulfilling, and that’s why you’re reading this book. My aim is to turn you into an aspiring Memeticist (further spreading the meme of memetics), and confer to you the same advantages this meme has given me. – Michael Taylor, Author of Marketing Memetics
Read what I’ve written so far: