Organizational Memes

Posted on February 4, 2013 by


  • “Where’s the Beef?”
  • The hashtag “#”
  • “‘Theres’s an app for that”
  • Facebook “like”
  • Burberry Tartan Plaid
  • Nike Swoosh

These are examples of popular memes.  The phrase meme was initially coined and defined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 based on his work on Darwinism.  Dawkins determined that in much the same way Darwin defined the least unit of human existence, the meme reflected the least unit of cultural meaning that represents our values, beliefs or ideas (Dawkins, 1976).  He further argued that memes were self-replicating and self-propagating based on its success and advantage in relation to other memes.  The success of the meme at being self-replicating and self-propagating are based on the creator and the person replicating the meme.

Dawkins and others found that the creator of the meme must take into consideration the fit of the meme with its environment, it’s ability to be spread from person to person by various means of communication, and the ability of the meme to influence individual behavior.  Memes will automatically be successful based on the sheer variety in humans, as we act as both the creators and carriers of the meme.  We create memes based on organizational, brand, product or situational needs. Fitness of the meme to propagate is based on its place in the environment – in the case of a customer, it may be value for the money or sophisticated self-image; in the case of an organization, it may be bargaining power with suppliers, quality or larger market share. So, if the memes gives the sense of being “sophisticated”, the meme will likely be successful in propagating through imitation among those individuals who want to be perceived as sophisticated.  The meme can become “viral” and take on a life of its own, being redefined and reshaped to fit evolving needs or corrected as necessary to prevent a rogue meme from further evolving.

Organizations can use memes to communicate their vision, belief, values or product/brand promises to both the customers and the workforce.  “Organizational meme could be inspiring examples, unofficial dress codes, ways of organizing the work place, rites and rituals within the company, as well as stories and legends, etc” (Voelpel, Leibold & Streb, 2005, p.61).  Common quotes or famous sayings always referred to by leadership can be used to as memes to send messages to employees regarding safety, quality and the value of the customer.  Memes can be created and spread intentionally (“where’s the beef”) or accidentally (whistling a song that was hummed by others in passing).  Organizations must be vigilant, however, to ensure that the meme doesn’t become rogue and reflect a message that is counter to the one intended at inception.  So when looking for a means of creating a “common” message, consider a meme.

Dawkins, R. (1976).  The Selfish Game. Oxford University Press. New York, New York.

Voelpel, S., Leibold, M. & Streb, C.K. (2005).  The Innovation Meme: Managing Innovation Replicators for Organizational Fitness. Journal of Change  Management, 5(1), 57-69. DOI:10.1080/1469701105000036338