That has big brands scrambling for cover. After all, the viral nature of a meme can have a faster and farther-reaching impact than a single news article.
“The brand becomes a temporary punching bag for many, many people,” said Jay Baer, the founder and president of Convince & Convert, a digital marketing advisory firm. “People will pile on even if they haven’t actually been aggrieved.”
When a Tesla Model S electric car erupted in flames in 2013, memes immediately popped up. One showed a young couple holding each other outside a burning Tesla car, with the caption “Keep warm on a cold night.”
Tesla’s chief executive, Elon Musk, quickly confronted the issue on the company’s blog. He explained that the car had driven over a large metal object from a tractor-trailer, and he rattled off statistics that showed people were five times as likely to experience a fire in a gas-powered car as in a Tesla. The memes soon stopped.
It was the perfect response, said David Pachter, a co-founder of JumpCrew, a social marketing firm in Nashville. “But not every company has an Elon Musk,” he said.
Samsung, the technology giant, faced a raft of memes last year when reports surfaced that the batteries in its Galaxy Note 7 phones were catching fire. One meme showed a bomb-defusing expert in full military gear getting ready to plug in his Samsung phone, with the caption “How to safely charge your Galaxy Note 7.”
There wasn’t much the company could do to stop the memes as phones continued to catch fire over many months, and the company ultimately pulled the device altogether.
“What are you going to say? ‘Yep, they catch on fire. Almost all of them do. Sorry,’” Mr. Baer said. “There’s just no good way to put that.”
Last month, Samsung pushed the reset button when it unveiled its new Samsung Galaxy S8 phone and virtual reality headset — and simultaneously released a #DoWhatYouCant video, which became a hit online. The video features an ostrich that dreams of flying, thanks to the Samsung VR headset and phone. The bird stumbles, before ultimately soaring in the sky. The video had more than 1.3 million views on YouTube in its first 24 hours.
“They’ve packaged a brilliant ad with an inspirational message,” said Monica G. Sakala, the founder of SOMA Strategies, a digital agency based in Washington. “They’re successfully changing the story away from the fire memes and disaster of the last phone.”
In general, experts recommend that companies try to address disgruntled customers directly — and the sooner, the better. They suggest that companies use “social listening” software to monitor mentions of their brands — not just on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but also…