The hot lips of The Rolling Stones, the lightning bolt of AC/DC. The world of rock revels in symbolism. It’s a medium where the visual speaks almost as loud as the lyrics and the same is increasingly true of social media, where the emoji rules. Decode them and they’re an untapped well of digital marketing, writes Gareth May. But get it wrong and you’re up ????creek. 

The music industry is no stranger to emblems and images, whether that’s an iconic album cover or a universal concert gesture (we’re looking at you ‘hand horn’), bands will use various ways to get a message across to its audience. When Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable ‘Love Symbol’ in 1993—a coupling of the two classic gender pictograms for man and woman—he said in a statement that he was thinking in “new ways”. In the digital age marketers are finding new ways too.

Enter emojis. Fast becoming the language of the 21st century they’re not actually that new. The cartoon faces and quirky icons started life as a series of emoticons built in text, with smiley and sad faces appearing in digital and textual conversations as early as the 1980s. It wasn’t until the advent of smartphones (and, later, when Apple introduced an emoji keyboard in 2011) that they truly took off, however, culminating with the term ‘emoji’ being named by Oxford Dictionaries as Word of the Year 2015. Since then, they’ve become the go-to voice of a generation and skyrocketed into unchartered cultural relevance. 

Today, there are more than 2,800 emojis to choose from and, boy, do we love to send them. 92% of online consumers use emojis and 30% use them several times a day. That’s a huge market to tap into especially when we consider that up to 40% of consumers create messages composed entirely of emojis. Yet it’s the younger generations for whom emojis really count. In a survey conducted by Harris Poll and commissioned by GIF platform Tenor, 68% of millennials stated that they were “more comfortable” expressing emotions through emojis than through the written word.

68% of millennials are “more comfortable” expressing emotions through emojis than through the written word.

Harris Poll survey

Used correctly and these quirky little icons are a gift for brands to connect with consumers in a unique way, letting them tell stories creatively, informally, and humorously. At least that’s the idea. If emojis are the new language, how do marketers learn to speak it?

Symbols and songs

As Oxford University Press wrote: “Emojis are no longer the preserve of texting teens—they have been embraced as a nuanced form of expression, and one which can cross language barriers.” Marketers have already spotted the opportunity. According to Business Insider, an analysis of marketing campaigns across iOS and Android platforms revealed the use of emojis in mobile marketing grew by 775% in 2016, as brands started to use them in ads and social media posts in the hope of reaching consumers by jumping on the winking face, heart-shaped eyes bandwagon. 

If a brand wants to ‘talk’ like Gen Z, they need to embrace this new visual communication. In a survey by cross-channel marketing firm Braze of mobile-phone users in the UK and US most users aged 14 and older held a positive view of brands utilizing emojis in messages. 39% said the idea was fun. Where brands fell short was in their choice of emojis. Eye-catching emojis (i.e. fire, money, gold star, and shamrock), for example led to consumer fatigue, whereas facial emojis hit gold (crying eyes, blushing, wry smile, winky face). 

Research from customer messaging platform Intercom goes one step further, revealing that emojis can add real value to a campaign, with a branded message featuring an emoji four times more likely to get a response from a consumer. 

Des Traynor, co-founder and chief strategy officer at Intercom says it’s “not cool or hip” to use emojis without a purpose, but that it is authentic to use them the way they would be used in a “normal conversation” concluding that “if a brand is really trying to look authentic and connect, then businesses should consider using more emotive and human emojis.” Even so, once you’ve cracked the code, you’ve still got to make sure that you’re having the right conversations.

“Emojis are no longer the preserve of texting teens—they have been embraced as a nuanced form of expression, and one which can cross language barriers.”

Oxford University Press

Know your audience

Whilst a great opportunity for brands, speaking in emojis is tricky business. They’re a bit like the banjo. In the wrong hands they can be painful and off-putting. In the right hands, fascinating and fun.

When 20th Century Fox marketed the movie Deadpool with a billboard featuring a skull, a poo emoji and the letter L in Los Angeles they could’ve been accused of being overly clever. The abstract marketing technique worked because it fundamentally played to fans of Deadpool, a character known for breaking the fourth wall and communicating in out-of-the-box ways (this is the superhero film with a music video with Céline Dion). It makes sense for marketers to use emojis to market Deadpool; it’s something he’d approve of.

Emojis are also great for campaigns that wish to speak the unspoken. When Durex created a promotional campaign and an initiative on to ask for a condom emoji they did so because research found that 60% of young people are uncomfortable discussing safe sex, and that 72% find it easier to express emotions using emojis. Other times they’re the perfect way to let consumers share something about themselves without pretence or persuasion. Dove, for example, created a whole keyboard of emojis for people with curly hair and WWF created a successful campaign about animals that are in danger of extinction, with 17 emojis of endangered animals created to be shared. 

Brands that use emojis correctly recognize that they’re shorthand for expressions; another way of translating our emotions and beliefs to each other without using words (the idea of using visual input communication isn’t all that strange when we consider the power of body language). Psychological studies are already concluding that the use of emojis is closely linked to personality and identity.

So when brands jump on-board for the wrong reason it’s entirely obvious. When Chevrolet promoted the launch of the 2016 Cruze in a press release made up exclusively of emojis they had to release videos in order to explain what it meant. Sometimes it’s best to keep it simple: when Bud Light celebrated the 4th of July in 2014, they tweeted the American flag made with emojis. The post led to 142,477 retweets. 

Don’t interrupt

It’s not only static emojis brands need to keep an eye on: GIFs, customizable avatars, and AR-powered emoji stickers and animations all enhance mobile messaging. Last year, people sent 2.8 trillion emoji, stickers, and GIFS (collectively known as ‘visuals’) compared to the 1.8 trillion YouTube videos watched or 1.6 trillion Google searches. If folk music can come back from the dead, it seems cave art and hieroglyphs can too. 

Emogi is a technology platform and content engine that creates curated emojis for brands, letting them leverage cartoon faces and digital symbols in unique ways. Founder Travis Montaque argues that the modern consumer no longer wants a generic emoji, such as a glass of beer, they now want to be able to message about their relationship with beer in that moment. Let’s consider the example of pizza. When a message includes the pizza emoji there’s no context. Is that person sending the message expressing that they’re eating pizza, they want pizza, or they’re bored of pizza? Branded emojis or stickers let users zero in on what they’re trying to say; it gives them the power of individual expression to a universal audience. 

“Research reveals that branded emojis or stickers are up to 300% more engaging than static emojis.”

So how does a brand tap into this? Montaque says the key is to “join” the conversation not “interrupt” it. Emogi do this by tapping into data to understand the context and emotional content of a conversation, using geolocation and user information and predictive technology to give users something they want the moment that they want it, based on what they’re actually chatting about via a bespoke keyboard on their preferred messenger i.e. iMessage, Facebook Messenger, Twitch etc. (this differs from communication companies in the same space, such as Giphy and Tenor, that rely on a huge database of searchable content).

Thus far Emogi has worked with McDonald’s, Tide, Ikea, and Bose. But it’s the company’s work with medi-brand Mucinex that’s most impressive. During the 2017 cold and flu season Emogi created relevant content for people off work, depicting the brand’s mascot, Mr. Mucus, as feeling ‘tired’, ‘sick’ and ‘cold’ to users messaging with matching language. For example, if someone sent a message to a friend saying they felt sick, the option to send a Mr. Mucus character instead popped up on their smartphone. The campaign led to the animated images being four times more popular than written expression and other emojis. Indeed, Emogi’s research reveals that branded emojis or stickers are up to 300% more engaging than static emojis.

Say it with words

We’re only at the start of a journey into these new visuals and marketers should be aware that competition is on its way with the iPhone X offering animojis (custom 3D animated emojis based on your own facial expressions), and the GIF space booming with Google acquiring platform Tenor. In fact, emojis are already old-school; invading the physical space with eco-friendly brand Lush launching emoji-shaped bath bombs earlier this year.

As for Prince, or should that be the Artist Formerly Known As Prince, the real reason for his reinvention as a symbol was a rebellion against record label, Warner Bros., demanding he released not-ready songs due to a contract and even went as far as performing with SLAVE written on his cheek. Sometimes, words are all you need. 

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