Emojis in marketing: Is it time for your brand to put on a smiley face?

As much as I love my mum, I can’t handle her approach to technology. She calls her iPod touch her “phone” and then wonders why she can’t make calls on it. She has a smartphone, but considering the functions she uses, it might as well be a Nokia 6410.

There are some brilliant and fun technologies available that would make her life better but she can’t, or won’t, invest the time it takes to get to grips with them. One of these is the emoji keyboard. Would it revolutionise her life? I doubt it. But without it, she’ll soon be in a tiny minority who will never learn to speak with the world’s first global language.

For me personally, emojis have evolved from something a little cringeworthy to use or receive a year or two ago to something I don’t think twice about sticking into digital conversations today. They date back the late ‘90s, ‘invented’ by Shigetaka Kurita for the purpose of making expressing emotion easier within new methods of communication.

Now, given that there are nearly 2 billion smartphone users worldwide, it’s no wonder that the symbols that make expression easier (and quicker) have flourished. Mitchell Stephens, a professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, said recently that “Emojis are doing what the tone of voice did on the telephone and what gestures, tones and facial expressions did in interpersonal communication.”

They’re now everywhere you look. Instagram has reported that the emoji is killing off internet slang, stating earlier this month that nearly half of all comments and captions on Instagram now contain emoji characters. In October 2011, Apple added the emoji keyboard to iOS as an international keyboard. And now, more and more brands have started to find creative ways to use this cartoon imagery within their marketing.

Both Ikea and Footlocker have developed their own emoji sets. Recently, Twitter teamed up with Disney and Lucasfilm to create special Star Wars emojis ahead of the release of Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens, generating plenty of Twitter – and press – conversation around the film.

However, many brands would find creating their own emojis problematic unless they own their own publishing platform; the emoji keyboard, which now comes standard on many smartphones, is comprised of various emojis approved by the Unicode Consortium. Working with a partner like Twitter, Kik or WhatsApp is one solution, but of course this will be out of reach of most budgets and influence.

What is perhaps more innovative, and creative, is those making the most of existing emojis to further communication and even drive business value.

Last week, WWF launched #EndangeredEmoji, a campaign which recognised that 17 animal emojis that people use every day depict endangered species. People can donate to the WWF by tweeting one of these emojis, agreeing to donate €0.10 for each one used. And later this week, Domino’s will be allowing US customers to order their pizza from Twitter using the pizza emoji.

So, given that everyone seems to be at it, have we hit ‘peak emoji’?

I don’t think so – I feel as though there’s more to come. The emoji itself is evolving: take for example the brilliantly personal Bitmoji that enables you to create your own (scarily accurate) avatar, which can then be used in a variety of situations. Expect more innovations like this.

I’m also excited about the social commerce potential that we’ve seen more of recently from brands like Domino’s and WWF. I expect to see emojis being used in a shorthand way of communicating with brands for this kind of purpose.

Ultimately, emojis are an amusing quirk of modern communication and exist playfully halfway between pictures and words; they're fun as opposed to representing any kind of meaningful shift in marketing culture. So we won’t be hiring a emoji strategist just yet; instead I’m off to write my mum a letter.

Tom Ollerton is marketing director at We Are Social. He tweets @mrtomollerton

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.

Come on in, it’s free.

This isn’t a paywall. It’s a freewall. We don’t want to get in the way of what you came here for, so this will only take a few seconds.