Smiley’s CEO wants to turn the emoji’s godfather from a licensing biz into a global brand

There’s a brand behind the fluorescent smiley face that dominated the 90s rave scene, prudently named The Smiley Company. Now, after decades of running it as a licensing and merchandising company, its founder’s son and self-styled ‘beloved leader’ has set his sights on greater things for the company.

Rich in both heritage and purpose, the Smiley story is one most brands would kill for. 45 years ago Franklin Loufrani developed a promotion on a French newspaper France Soir to highlight positive news by putting a little smiley face next to the print title’s happier stories. He went on to trademark the icon and form The Smiley Company to handle its licensing and merchandising opportunities.

These operations pottered on until the 90s when Loufrani’s son Nicholas officially joined the business with a mind to shake things up. Arguably he started this process with his job title, which in full reads: creative mastermind, spiritual guide, beloved leader and commander-in-chief of the happiness forces.

It’s a joke, of course, designed to raise a smile.

“My idea was to bring more life to that logo,” he told The Drum. “I was fed up of it – I had seen it since I was born and I wanted to create something new. I started creating a 3D rendering of that flat logo, and from that 3D rendering I started developing lots of different emotions.

“The Smiley started winking, poking the tongue out, laughing out loud, and I also started developing lots of different categories. Smiley became a character to identify different countries for instance. These Smileys became new properties for us. I realised my Smileys should replace these text emoticons and that they should be the new universal language that everybody could recognise.”

Loufrani’s recollections sound altogether like an eerie prediction of what would later become the Unicode emoji keyboard. But at the time, toying with the original Smiley logo was a big risk to take.

“I could say maybe I was visionary – maybe I foresaw the need for Smileys,” he said. “Maybe it was because I was just wanted to have fun and maybe I was completely stupid.

“Back in the day my father thought I was really stupid, we had a big argument in our office – he said: ‘You’re crazy, it’s a trademark, you can’t touch it’.”

Luckily for Nicholas, the Loufranis at this point had decades of success behind them: the original logo – by now close to reaching iconic status – was still very much still available to those who wanted it, and so the new family of emoticons only extended the brand’s appeal. Smiley continued to operate under a licensing proposition, and does to this day.

“It’s very rare that people come to us,” Loufrani admitted. “We’re very proactive in building our brand. Whatever the category or country, we have a strategy: we identify the partners we would like to work with based on what they do and our concept is one of co-creation.

“We try to co-create a very strong range of products, marketing strategies, distribution strategies … we don’t manufacture anything ourselves – we just create products and co-develop them with our partners, who are manufacturers or big retail chains."

In 2007, Loufrani again decided to change the pace of Smiley and move it towards ambitious new territories: lifestyle and luxury.

“We decided to … start developing things with more style, with better design,” he said. “I started developing the Smiley Studio with lots of different talents coming from fashion, home décor, gifting and marketing and really positioning Smiley as a cool brand rather than a mass market brand.”

Amazingly, this bold strategy paid dividends while still functioning under the licensing model. Smiley continues to work with grocers and high street retailers but can now count the likes of Fendi, Dior and Adidas by Stella McCartney as clients. This success is partially a testament to the brand’s sales team but, Loufrani believes, high-profile clients such as these come to Smiley looking for a kindred spirit.

“I would say you have two types of luxury brands – luxury brands that take themselves very seriously, which are about excluding people, and luxury brands that are about being fun, colourful and happy,” he said. “These are the brands we work with. Moschino, Anya Hindmarch – they just don’t take things too seriously. For a brand like this, working with Smiley is a statement."

He added: “They also want to work with us because of the partnership. We would rent [Anya Hindmarch] exclusivity rights – the exclusivity to use Smiley on luxury bags. She would never get that from Disney or from Hello Kitty.”

Although he’s sitting on a £285m business, Loufrani has itchy feet again. He wants to make sure Smiley is seen as a true brand in its own right by consumers, who up until now could have been forgiven for thinking the yellow smiley face was as much a trademarked logo as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s peace symbol.

“I need the public to know there is a company and values behind the Smiley brand,” he said. “I need people to know our story because it’s a fun story, it’s an interesting story, and we want people to really understand what we stand for."

Loufrani currently has his sights set on the entertainment business, in particular he loves the idea of “Smiley characters on television, even a Smiley movie in cinemas”. He also has designs on developing a video or smartphone game.

This all sounds familiar: it's a path about to be trodden by Unicode’s own set of smiley faces – the emojis, who will star in their first eponymous film later this year. Loufrani, who happily admits “emojis are derived from Smileys”, is surprisingly nonplussed by the rival pictorial alphabet. In fact, he’s practically supportive of it.

“In 2001 … I foresaw Smileys being used as a universal language,” he said. “This has happened thanks to emoji and I’m really happy about that.

“But what’s really great for us is these emoji are generic. They are not owned by anyone. But they are different enough from Smiley for Smiley to retain its identity – you can really tell what is a Smiley and what is an emoji.”

He added: “In a way, it has enabled us to really retain our ownership of the original Smiley without cannibalising it, or without making it cheap.”

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