Emojis: What are they Good For?

Millennial marketeers rejoice! Behold, the emoji: the key to the hearts of Millennials globally. Yes, by simply pressing pizza, dancing girl, martini, thumbs up, you too can find yourself the darling of your target demographic. Everyone’s using them - heck, some are even creating them. We’ve seen Mentos, Coca-Cola and Ikea get in on the act – even waffles and stout are having a good go. Burn your brand guidelines, fire your copywriters. This 1620-strong cartoon army is all you need to conquer that elusive and lucrative generation.

This is, of course, nonsense. However, the rise of the emoji has been phenomenally fast and predominately played out on the Gen Y stage. In 2014, the heart emoji was the most used word in the English language, ahead of, you know, actual words. And where a trend goes, naturally a brand follows. Some have triumphed and others have struggled to do anything more sophisticated than say “we are using emojis in our adverts.” But what these differing successes tell us is that, like with any language, you’ve got to do a fair bit of legwork to get it right. In order to crack into what the rise of emoji means for brands, we’re going to need to dig a little deeper. What are they? Why have they become so prolific? And what, if anything, can brands learn from their ascent to power?

Emojis decoded.

Emoji translates from Japanese as picture letter (or character). Descended from dingbats (typographical ornaments), they have been around since the late 1990s although they were not optimised for smartphone usage until 2011. They are 12x12 pixel glyphs - a set of symbols that represent objects, thoughts and ideas - and are a close cousin of the Eygyptian hieroglyphs. In fact, if you go back far enough you’ll see that all major global alphabets find their routes in pictures.

It’s estimated we’re sending over 6 million of these guys a day. What on earth for when we already have a perfectly acceptable way of communicating? When asked, most will say “a picture tells a thousand words”. But this is too simplistic, to my knowledge there’s no major global trend of 20-somethings communicating with their friends by using a string of well-known paintings, for example. I couldn’t send The Mona Lisa and expect my friend to respond “Camden Town at 9?” The power of the emoji has to be something more specific than simply the desire to communicate visually.

Since we are dealing with a language, we need to turn to linguistics, and more specifically, semiotics. Bear with. All emojis have literal meanings, and those meanings are fixed (the face with a water drop is always a face with a water drop because of its shape and colour). However, used in different contexts they can take on utterly different meanings (face with water drop can denote a person crying or a person sweating). The joy of Emojis is that they are slippery little creatures whose meanings extend far beyond the literal.

Feeling Emojinal

When the official emoji definitions were published, the emoji community was shocked. It transpired that lots of emojis weren’t being used “correctly,” in fact, there was often a large gap between their literal definition and what they had evolved to mean. The horn, for example, means Postal Service; the sassy girl with her hand up, means information desk girl (easy mistake to make).

It is this flexibility of meaning that has made emoji so popular - the language contains within it signs that are pliable enough for the user to create their own meanings. There’s great fun to be had in the pursuit of the perfect emoji and similar joy in decoding the message on the receiving end. There’s also the fact that, like with many things in life, the emoji game gets better the more you know a person. I could send the skull to somebody I knew and it could be interpreted not as a death threat, but a sign that I was feeling unwell or hungover, and they’d probably reply with an emoji to clarify they’ve understood. It’s the language of friendship.

Emojis can also bridge gaps that words can’t quite span. So much of how we interact with one another is non-verbal and when written, words can often feel too loaded with meaning and are easily misunderstood. When someone asks if they can “have it in writing” you know they mean business, because to write is to commit to what you are saying. Emojis lighten this load. They can be used to clarify tone, sidle out of being too emotional, soften matter-of-factness and create a killer punchline.

Brand Stratemoji

So let’s apply the brand layer now. We know what emojis are, we know why they’re powerful. What should or shouldn’t brands be doing with them? I spoke to the Social Media Manager at Beyond Retro about how they use emojis: “We often use emojis to reply to a customer on social. It’s relatable, our audience are responding to their friends in this way. However, since it is a form of language, brands nowadays do need to consider whether they fit in with their tone of voice before throwing aubergines at their consumers.”

As I mentioned earlier, with emojis, we’re in the territory of conversations, so brands that aren’t conversational in tone should be avoiding them. The White House had to shamefacedly remove the emojis they’d put in a report when Millennials called them out on the blatant attempt to get on their radar. Woe betide brands who forget that this demographic don’t react well to being cozied up to; if you’re going to appropriate their language, you had better do it convincingly.

So who is shining bright amongst the smog of branded emoji usage? For me, the best in class have to be Dominos who created an emoji ordering system. Super simple. Rather than saying “we are using emojis because we know you like them” it said “we are a brand who are all about making things easy for you through innovation, there is a pizza emoji and by simply sending one to us, you have ordered your pizza. Our fast food can cater for your fast-paced lifestyle.” They managed to imprint into the pizza emoji their entire brand DNA.


The language of emoji is being created and evolved in front of our eyes. Brands who’ve got strong emoji game can really fly but beyond “to emoji, or not to emoji,” what can brands learn? Their popularity uncovers a gaping hole in written language, highlighting the fact that so much of our interaction is non-verbal. Often words just aren’t sufficient and brands need to be considering their non-verbal presence. Their popularity also uncovers a real human need to have fun with language, to be creative and to use this creativity to reach out to people. Finally, and crucially, the rise of emoji shows us that even in the tiniest of spaces, you can create a truly innovative brand experience.