Great Marketers Steal: Solve The Blank Canvas Problem With ‘Meme-Jacking’
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Great Marketers Steal: Solve The Blank Canvas Problem With ‘Meme-Jacking’


July 28, 2022

"I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple's $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong. I'm going to destroy Android, because it's a stolen product. I'm willing to go thermonuclear war on this” – Steve Jobs
“Good artists copy; great artists steal” – also Steve Jobs

Creative geniuses like Jobs sure hated being copied, but that didn’t stop them from stealing ideas from others when it suited them. Why take the risk of making something new, when you can use an idea that’s already proven to work? You can’t copy something obvious, because we have laws and social norms against plagiarism. However most creators have obscure interests: they just look innovative to us, because they out-marketed their sources.

What if the way we create is all wrong? Instead of staring at a blank canvas, hoping to dream up something original, we started by explicitly copying instead? Knowing that our sources passed through several popularity filters before we replicated them, takes the risk out of the problems we’re trying to solve. Building on a proven idea instead of starting from scratch – ‘Meme-Jacking’ – can make creativity more accessible and affordable.

In this post we’ll first take a tour of popular culture, showing how little of it is actually original. We’ll discuss why that might be, explaining how units of cultural information – memes – are evolutionarily outpacing our genes, but are still constrained by our prehistoric brains. Finally we’ll walk through an example of Meme-Jacking, showing how to use it to fill up your content pipeline for posting on social media.

Nothing Is Original

In late 1979 Jobs’ visited the Xerox Parc research lab, and was shown prototypes of a graphical user interface, with a computer mouse, windows, and icons, before they mysteriously made their way into Apple products. When Jobs later accused Bill Gates of stealing Windows from Apple, Bill replied “I think it's more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it”. 

The copying didn’t stop there. Apple’s iconic design was ‘inspired’ by a Cuisinart food processor Jobs saw in Macy’s (itself a copy of a higher priced French product), because he was looking for examples where people felt comfortable with technology in their homes. When Jobs unveiled the iPad in 2010, the latest Star Trek movie was displayed on the screen, a nod to the ‘Personal Access Display Device (PADD)’ featured in the show. 

One of the 3 people Jobs chose to work on the iPhone, Tony Fadell, had interned at General Magic, a Silicon Valley firm that introduced a “personal digital assistant”, complete with apps and a touch screen, in 1994, 13 years before the release of the iPhone.

General Magic’s personal digital assistant concept

Jobs is noteworthy in many respects, but not this one: all of the most prolific artists had a penchant for plagiarism. Led Zeppelin were a global phenomenon, but they played fast and loose with copying beats, chords, and lyrics from obscure blues songs. There are at least 10 cases where the band retroactively had to assign songwriting credits. “I always tried to bring something fresh to anything that I used,” guitarist Page claimed, “Robert was supposed to change the lyrics, and he didn’t always do that”.

Most of our popular culture is copied from less popular culture. It only feels authentic if you don’t know the original. George Lucas initially set out to license Flash Gordon before creating Star Wars, leaving the basic plot unchanged. An evil galactic empire holds a princess hostage to quell a rebellion. Two heroes disguised in soldier’s uniforms sneak into the Emperor's fortress to rescue her. There are metallic robots, lazer guns, dogfighting spaceships, and a big hairy animal-like ally. Of course Lucas didn’t just copy from Flash Gordon, the movies also incorporated elements, characters, sometimes entire scenes, from samurai films, old westerns, and historical events.

Flash Gordon and Star Wars opening credits

Central to Lucas’ vision was Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey”, the same story told thousands of times, from Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings to every Pixar and Marvel movie. A young male protagonist encounters a mysterious stranger who introduces a supernatural world. Our hero makes friends and enemies, and falls in love with someone he wasn’t supposed to. Just when you think they’re not going to make it, they discover the power to succeed was inside them all along. Now you can blame Hollywood for unoriginality, but so long as this story remains commercially successful, people will keep telling it. Divert from the winning formula at your peril.

Evolution of Memes

We shouldn’t be so hard on Steve Jobs for stealing ideas from Xerox, because it wasn’t their idea to steal. Most everything they demoed for Jobs that fateful day in 1979, had already been demonstrated by Douglas Engelbart in the ‘Mother of all demos’ circa 1968! Of course none of these concepts were entirely new even then. 

Almost nothing we create is original. Nor should it be. It would be impractical to reinvent everything from first principles. If we had to reinvent the wheel every time we designed a new car, we’d never get anything done. Every scientist, artists, and inventor is the product of their influences, experiences, and culture. To some extent we’re always building on what came before – “standing on the shoulders of giants” as Newton put it – so if something looks innovative to you, it’s likely because you aren’t aware of the prior work. As Nolan Bushell says, “creativity is the art of concealing your sources” …or was it Albert Einstein that said it? E. M. Joad? Coco Chanel?

The provenance of an idea is the wrong thing to focus on. Most world-changing ideas are worthless without world-class execution and economically viable distribution channels. In keeping with Apple, almost none of the most valuable companies today started with an original idea. Google wasn’t the first search engine. Amazon wasn’t the first ecommerce company. Facebook wasn’t the first social network. This is just how innovation works: you take something interesting and try to contribute to making it more useful.

If the ‘Great Man’ theory – that the course of history is altered by extraordinary individuals – were really true, then we couldn’t explain why an astonishing amount of innovation happens in tiny geographic locations. Whether it’s the Silicon Valley of Steve Jobs era, Northern England during the Industrial Revolution, or Renaissance Florence, being in the right time and place seems to be important. The work of innovation takes more than one ‘great’ man, it takes a whole cluster of talented men and women – artists, academics, scientists, engineers, influencers – to lay the groundwork necessary to make the next leap forward possible. There are even surprising occurrences throughout history of simultaneous multiple invention – the same thing being invented independently by different people – like Newton and Leibniz independently discovering Calculus, Darwin and Wallace independently proposing the Theory of Evolution, and Salk and Sabin independently inventing the Polio Vaccine.  It’s true what Carl Jung said, that "people don't have ideas; ideas have people". When an idea’s time has come, it’s often whoever has the best marketing that wins.

From all the possible things you create, there will only ever be a short list of things that work. This is partly down to the laws of Physics and Economics, but it’s also because our brains work essentially the same as they did 200,000 years ago. They were fine-tuned over millions of years of Evolution to respond to specific stimuli that haven’t changed since the Stone Age. The difference between you and a Cave Man is not nature, it’s nurture. The only thing that explains our relative wealth compared to prehistory is the evolution of our ideas, or ‘memes’, the units of cultural information that spread from person to person across generations.

The term meme doesn’t just refer to funny images on the internet overlaid with white text: it was coined by a British biologist, Richard Dawkins, in his popular book “The Selfish Gene”, to describe how our ideas evolve. Anything that gets passed on by imitation is a meme – a catchy song, a memorable story, instructions for building a fence – getting forgotten is the same for a meme as extinction is for your genes. Memetics, analogous to Genetics, is the study of how memes spread, why they get remembered, and what impact they have on society.

Like many memes that have been with us a long time, Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey still works as a memetic pattern, because it serves a function. Since before recorded history that format of story has served as an operating manual, teaching us how to evolve and grow as people and societies. Stories are more memorable to us than other formats of information transmission, and stories that follow certain patterns are more pleasing than others. Some ideas just work, and therefore will keep being reinvented or rediscovered for each new modern age, even if the latest generation isn’t aware of its provenance or ancestry. 

Meme-Jacking: How To Guide

If everything is a remix and nothing is original, then the way most of us try to create is all wrong. We sit there and stare at a blank page, hoping for words or images to spill out. But inspiration never comes, and we go back to checking email. As Van Gogh lamented, “You don’t know how paralyzing that is, that stare of a blank canvas, which says to the painter, ‘You can’t do a thing’.”

The blank canvas represents unconstrained potential, which overwhelms and paralyzes us. When you can create anything, what do you decide to create? It’s hard to know where to start, because making your first mark commits you to a path that might turn out to be a dead end. Or worse, you might stumble into a goldmine, only for the opportunity to slip away, because you’re not talented enough to do it justice. Even if against all the odds you do succeed, you know deep down it won’t be enough to make you happy.

What if instead of staring at a blank canvas and trying to come up with an original thought, we started by explicitly copying instead? Rather than starting from scratch, we have a solid foundation to build on. We can “stand on the shoulders of giants” as Newton said, and focus our energy on improving and adapting memes that are already proven. Great artists may steal, but as T.S. Eliot elaborated, they “make it into something better, or at least something different”.

To show how Meme-Jacking works, let’s use the example of filling up a social media content pipeline, so you always have something good to post. We’re going to do this for the travel industry, but it works the same way whatever your category. Before embarking on this journey you should have your marketing strategy in place. Knowing who your audience is will give you better intuition for what memes will resonate with them. Understanding the problem you’re trying to solve for that audience – for example in Steve Jobs’ case it was making people comfortable with computers in their homes – you’ll be better equipped to go through this exercise.

1. Choose Your Source

The key stage of Meme-Jacking is the first one, choosing your sources. It really is a case of garbage in, garbage out. If you choose an existing creative work that isn’t any good, the memes won’t be pre-validated, and will bomb when you try to iterate on them. For choosing a source, you want to think about how many popularity filters the idea would have passed through to get to you. Let’s take the example of Goodreads, a book review website which also has quotes.

The J.R.R. Tolkien quote at the top immediately jumps out at me, because I’ve actually heard of it without realizing it came from Lord of the Rings. If we do a quick Google search we can see it used in relation to wedding speeches, personalized jewelry, and those motivational quotes you see on social media overlaid on inspiring travel images. Likely many of the people who enjoy this quote aren’t ardent Lord of the Rings Fans – the meme has transcended the book – which is a good sign that it can be repackaged to serve your purposes.

Think about the journey this idea had to go through to get to the top of Goodreads for travel quotes. It had to occur to J.R.R. Tolkien, a great writer, who would have dismissed it if it wasn’t any good. The editor hired by Tolkien’s publisher thought it was good enough to keep in. Then it spread as part of the Lord of the Rings memeplex – a mutually beneficial cluster of memes – to a wider audience, who in turn took the quote to use in their weddings, jewelry, and social media posts. Finally, enough people had to like the quote on Goodreads, over 20,000, to push it to the top of the page. To make it through that many popularity filters, something about this meme must really resonate with people.

2. Make It Personal

Now you might be tempted to slap this quote on a stock photo of Machu Picchu, post it on your Instagram, and call it a day. That’s not what Meme-Jacking is all about. Sure you’ll get some engagement from the post, but engagement does not drive sales. The goal of marketing is for potential customers to remember you when it’s time to buy. The best way of doing that is to form an authentic emotional connection, if only for a moment. You have to get personal.

Think about what the core essence of the idea is. “Not all those who wander are lost” is taken to mean just because you are not committed to any one place, does not necessarily mean you are without purpose. It’s treated as an affirmation by people who literally do a lot of traveling, to dispel any perceived negative connotations that they’re wasting their lives. Or applied less literally, it can mean that a couple who took a lot of time to find each other can still be destined to be together. In either meaning, it’s taking a perceived weakness and claiming it as a strength.

Now comes the ‘creative’ part: the step that elevates Meme-Jacking from mere plagiarism. You have to think from experience how this quote could be true to you, or your business, then rewrite it in your own words, while still capturing the essence. For example, a travel blogger could post a story of how one of their most valuable connections came from a seemingly random trip they took. An airline could post about a couple who met on one of their flights. A hotel could show a picture of a hipster by the pool, revealing he’s actually there writing his Master’s thesis. It’s far easier to take this concept and run with it, than it is to stare at a blank page and hope for genius.

Travel Blogger Example

There’s no such thing as a wasted trip! On this rainy day in Kauai 2 years ago I met my bestie @moniqueontour and we’ve been on 4 amazing adventures together since.

Airline Example

Jan and Elsa had both booked spur of the moment getaways after pandemic restrictions were lifted. Serendipity brought them together on Flight 951 to Bangkok. Shared interests sparked a romantic connection and we’re excited to hear they’re getting married this year!

Hotel Example 

Meet Jon, he’s been here over a month already, and he doesn’t know when he’s leaving. Particle Physics, which is the topic of Jon’s Masters Thesis, can be unpredictable (so we’re told). That’s ok Jon, you worry about the Physics; leave the rest to us.

3. Iterate and Optimize

In all cases the examples we provided adhere to this concept of travel having a non-obvious purpose in a way that’s unique and authentic to the person posting it. There are thousands of potential variations on this concept, and we know that it’s built on the solid foundation of the original meme. You are stealing this idea, but if you rewrote them from a place of authenticity, based on personal experience, you’ll never get caught copying. You’ve still benefiting from the nugget of gold which is “Not all those who wander are lost”, so you’ve taken a lot of the risk out of the equation: you know that idea resonates. You’re just putting your own spin on it.

However within that overall concept, there are many different themes, like the three we explored in the previous section. Each will perform differently depending on the audience segment you’re targeting, and what your brand is already associated with. Therefore it takes some testing, iteration and optimization to find the most performant version. Start from the top down, generating different theme ideas to test until you see what works best. Then double down on that theme, coming with  different variations with smaller differences, for example a different customer profile, story, image, wording, until that idea is saturated.

When you run out of themes and variations to try and the audience gets fatigued with the concept, then zoom back out to your source and find a new concept. The key is knowing when to double down or zoom out, depending on whether your performance is on target. If nothing’s working, try out a few new concepts. If you’re on track, stick with your current strategy by producing more variations. 

Whether you take “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” by Robert Frost, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” by St. Augustine, or one of the other 29,000 travel quotes on Goodreads, you have an infinite amount of proven ideas at your fingertips. Meme-Jacking isn’t complicated, it’s just a perspective shift that means you’ll always be starting with something. From there it’s up to you when you change course. As Franklin D. Roosevelt put it, “Do something. If it works, do more of it. If it doesn't, do something else”.

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