The phantom menace: When Baby Yoda memes go bad

Beyond the repetitiveness of the content, meme marketing carries enormous risks for companies that hand over their brands to unknown creators, writes Veronica Sheppard.

Beyond the repetitiveness of the content, meme marketing carries enormous risks for companies and brands

This column is an opinion by Veronica Sheppard, a writer and marketing manager based in Toronto specializing in human-driven stories about culture, food and media. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

"You're telling me you're the only person on the internet who doesn't find Baby Yoda cute?"

This is a conversation I had with my brother on our way to dinner recently. I had told him, much to his dismay, that this was the case. My feed had been inundated with the same four memes from dozens of accounts, each one feeling more like a discount Disney billboard than the last.

"And it's working for them," he said.

In theory, he's right.

The robed, big-eyed creature deemed Baby Yoda from Disney's new series The Mandalorian, based in the Star Wars universe, has dominated online pop culture recently: memes, articles and even fan tattoos have sprung up in a matter of weeks.

'Baby Yoda' has become an internet sensation since its appearance in the premiere episode of the Disney+ series The Mandalorian. (Disney)

From a bird's-eye view, it's another successful wave of meme marketing.

But my grievance extends beyond the repetitiveness of the content; it's with the unmeasurable risks companies are taking by handing over their brands to unknown creators.

From a marketing perspective, it's smart at the surface level.

It's no coincidence that Baby Yoda's popularity is spiking during a monumental time for the brand. Disney+ is in its infancy and has been highly anticipated as a contender in the streaming world, a new Star Wars movie is in theatres, and the holidays are a busy time for merchandise sales.

Given the success of meme marketing as a tactic late last year with Netflix's Bird Box, Disney recognized that a few well-positioned still frames of their beloved new character could get them the extra attention needed to get subscriber numbers up.

What they might not have considered is the damage being done to the integrity of their brand.

Handing over the reins of a valuable pop-culture asset to a community of random creators is a double-edged sword.

It endangers loyalty with existing fans by potentially cheapening the Star Wars name, and begins to turn off people who feel oversaturated by the character.

The cracks have already begun to show in Disney's marketing method — they opened the floodgates and are now at the mercy of Instagrammers everywhere, and they should hope that they can regain control soon.

The danger extends beyond Instagram's already massive reach of more than 1 billion daily active users.

Many brands have fallen victim to bandwagoning on platforms they aren't equipped to own conversations on. Improper attempts to appeal to younger demographics through memes and slang have become so regular, it even spawned its own community on Reddit called r/FellowKids, where users publicly shame brands and their social media managers' poor attempts to stay relevant.

It's this kind of tone deafness that puts so many brands on the defensive.

Just this year, Sunny D was under fire for turning depression into a "cute brand joke," as one Twitter user put it, and Chase Bank caught major backlash for seemingly turning a blind eye to poverty.

Now beloved Baby Yoda is hitting the wrong nerve with some audiences, coming off as a tacky spin-off and showing up in a slew of NSFW (not safe for work) memes.

Attempting to go viral through social marketing is nothing new, but as more competitors join the streaming wars, I expect Instagram feeds will increasingly be laden with lazy, monotonous content from the big brands.

Apple, Hulu, HBO and other streaming goliaths are set to collectively spend dozens of billions on content development in 2020 alone, all of which will be aimed at similar audiences. I can only imagine that as the space becomes more crowded, we'll be inundated with quick, cookie-cutter content designed with memes in mind.

But at what cost?

Meme marketing means relinquishing control of a brand. And given how it can alienate the very audience meant to be reached in the first place, I'd say it's rarely worth it. It's time to cancel the Baby Yoda memes.

About the Author

Veronica Sheppard is a writer and marketing manager based in Toronto. She specializes in human-driven stories, but takes special interest in culture, food and media.


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