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The tears of joy face being named word of the year proves it's time for brands to think emoji

It might be easy to decry Oxford Dictionaries’ decision to name the ‘tears of joy’ emoji as its word of the year, but in fact it is a clarion call to marketers that we can no longer ignore the emoji. 

While linguists – and pedants – might debate counter that an emoji doesn’t really count as a word in itself, the point remains that the growth in the use of visual communication at the expense of its alphabetical rivals can’t be ignored.

In reality civilisation has been using hieroglyphs to tell stories since ancient Egypt, while the Paleolithic cave art that communicates stories and passes down a shared history from generation to generation extends back further still. Emojis show that this long-standing cultural tradition is resurgent.

Research has shown that with three quarters of the UK population now owning a smartphone, between 80 and 90 per cent of them use emojis to communicate. The 'Emoji IQ' study has shown that 72 per cent of those aged between 18-25 find it easier to express their emotions with emojis rather than words, with 40 per cent having sent text messages made up entirely of emoji. The most popular emoji is the ‘face of joy’, representing one-fifth of all emoji use, earning its place as the word of the year and also providing a surprisingly uplifting insight into the emotional state of the nation.

While emojis have been around since the late 90s, it was Apple’s decision to include an emoji keyboard on its iPhone that really spread their popularity. They quickly gained popularity among millennials – before spreading to a broader audience – and not only gained their attention but also reignited relevance in the fundamentals of the English language.

Some parts of the publishing sector have already realised this and literary classics including Moby Dick (which was renamed Emoji Dick) and Alice in Wonderland have been translated into emojis, while the author TR Richmond who used them in her book What She Left says they “have a place at the heart of our language”. As a way of exposing classic literature to a new audience and bringing to life the classic novel, it seems to have been a success.

With six billion emojis sent across the world every day, they have become a core part of how millennials communicate (and expect to be communicated with) so it’s imperative that marketers know how to use them. But brands (and individuals) that try to tap into popular culture, or a sub-culture that developed at a street level, need to be careful to do it credibly.

They need to demonstrate that they understand the nuances of the language and then deploy it in the best possible way – something that Hillary Clinton spectacularly failed to do when she sent a tweet asking students to describe student debt in three emojis. She was widely derided for being condescending in her attempts to connect with a youth audience, especially given the severity of the issue.

Brands need to remember this. Domino’s realised this with its Cannes Titanium-winning tweet-an-emoji pizza ordering system – a simple yet innovative way to tap into a generation where instant gratification and communication has become imperative.

Other brands including McDonald’s and Ikea have incorporated them into their advertising – with varying degrees of success – while an industry has grown up that creates personalised branded emojis. Given that people’s brains are now as adept at communicating in pictures as they are with words, if the industry doesn’t keep up, it’s in danger of being left behind. Sad face.

Stacey Neumann is a strategist at Wunderman UK

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