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February 20, 2019

Ideas do not spread just because they are good

Sometimes you look back and wonder at how you became connected with an idea or a person. The chances seem infinitesimally small.

Five months ago I met a security contractor in our shared office car park. He’s one of a growing band of serious, experienced men who once were military and now play a role securing strategic installations in Africa. Securing other people’s strategic installations, usually. Few of them seem to be owned by African businesses or governments.

He asked me if I had heard about applied memetics. I had not. So I had a poke about on the Internet and discovered that latterly the term has come to be applied to the spread of doctrine in post-conflict environments. Hence, the interest of the serious gentleman and his comrades.

Memetics, as a phrase, was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book ‘ The Selfish Gene’. It posits that ideas, or units of culture (memes) are very much like genes in the way they grow and succeed. Memes are hosted in the minds of individuals, and their success is measured by how well they jump from mind to mind. Dawkins also suggested that, as with genetics, a meme’s success may be due to its contribution to the success of its host.

If you are reading this with a hangover or the mid-week blues I do apologise. There is a point to this, and it is related to marketing. And we are approaching it now.

Marketing is about the spread of ideas, that lead to new habits, that in turn lead to commercial activity. People consider new stuff, try it and buy it, and in this way marketing-led economies develop.

But memetics is notable for sidestepping the traditional concern with the truth of ideas and beliefs. Instead, it is primarily interested in their success. So commercial marketers, with the power to influence millions, carry a certain responsibility. I hesitate to call it moral, as that might arouse a sleeping lobby group. But a responsibility to do the right thing by your brand. And by your consumer.

So professional marketers should be aware of a couple of points when spreading ideas. These come from Dan Zarella, the social media scientist I encountered at when I first went meme-hunting.

Firstly, even the most virulent of viral marketing campaigns can leave a brand or product right where it started. It takes hard work to seed the message in the right place. And it’s even harder to get the tonality right. Although we remain surrounded by people who believe in ‘ just say it and they will come’, smarter marketers understand that persuasion is stronger than promulgation.

Secondly, it is a myth that for an idea, piece of content, or branded product to spread or “go viral” it has to be great.  Sadly, human nature tends to attract us just as strongly to toxic memes. The list of virulently “adopted” bad ideas is endless, but here’s a small sample:

▪   Blood feuds

▪   Terrorism

▪   Suicide

▪   Drug abuse

▪   Antisemitism

▪   Pyramid schemes

▪   Cults


(Daniel Dennett gave a talk on harmful memes at TED in 2002, and it’s worth a view.)


Here in East Africa, I reckon there’s still too much jargon and mumbo jumbo surrounding the practice of Marketing. Too many lazy; half-formed or frankly toxic ideas have spread. Global best practice has been shared with too few of us. And the advertising community has ceased to play the developmental role it used to share with local Marketing bodies.


It’s time to create a forum where we can all share good, practical marketing ideas. Celebrate African brands, and multinational brands that are adapting for success in Africa. Highlight businesses where the whole culture is brand led, and where customers enjoy the benefits. And point out where brand experience is lacking. I invite you to continue this discussion and share your best marketing ideas on a new Facebook page – The Brand Inside Africa.

 Join Chris (and contributors from around the marketing world) in the latest discussions on branding in Africa, by liking The Brand Inside Africa on Facebook - today.




Chris Harrison has 30 years experience of marketing and advertising most of them spent in Africa. He leads the African operations of The Brand Inside, an international company that helps organisations to deliver their brands and strategies through their people.


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