News & Views

Opinion / The Emoji Conversation

by Emily Hare



Emoji are rife – in text messages, on Twitter, even in Major League Baseball, where each team that makes the playoffs will get its own emoji.

Current estimates (April 2015) are that 6 billion emoji are sent every day. And, as the cute images and icons have become increasingly commonplace in digital conversations, brands are starting to help them move from the screen to the real world. But how can marketers best use these visuals to communicate in engaging and appropriate ways?



Early examples include McDonald’s outdoor ads depicting a series of irritating situations – such as shoe shopping or roadworks, with the pain eased by a burger. The conclusion was a smiley emoji face, until the poster was covered in graffiti and the face started vomiting instead.



Chevy created a press release entirely from emoji to intrigue people around the launch of the new Chevrolet Cruize. It later released a translated version for those intrigued enough to check how many of the car’s vital stats they managed to correctly interpret.

I was lucky enough to speak to Dr. Bernie Hogan of the Oxford Internet Institute about this topic – one of his specialist areas of research. He warns that emoji should not be viewed as an entire language in their own right. Instead, they are best used to add nuance such as warmth, humour and personality to conversations.

Hogan says: ‘I’m seeing a lot of campaigns trying too hard to signify emoji as language. I’m thinking of McDonald’s billboard and Chevrolet’s press release. We’ve established that emoji is not language-like, it’s expression. It was tedious to get them, we weren’t decoding anything in a puzzle way.’

In particular, Dr. Hogan cautions that brands should tread carefully, ensuring that they are adding to the conversation, rather than providing something that demands translation but is not particularly rewarding for those willing to spend time with it.



Singaporean telco Singtel created an intriguing emoji-based game with the help of Ogilvy & Mather, Singapore to promote its paid-for TV service, mio TV. The game challenged people to guess which blockbuster films had been rendered as emoji. Fans who guessed a title such as Gravity correctly (a spaceship, Planet Earth, a man and a woman surrounded by black squares) were given the chance to watch the film on their phone for free. The campaign generated a 43% increase in video-on-demand viewership.

This playful style is far more intriguing than seeing brands demand translations for little reward, or even trying to use emoji in a more codified way. Hogan says: ‘Trying to use emoji in a cheeky way or with insider meanings is going to come off as confusing because the people who have those insider meanings won’t like it when brands are using them, and people who don’t have those insider meanings won’t understand why an eggplant is there, or whatever. So you’re literally pleasing nobody because the people who are being creative with emoji will not want them appropriated, the people who aren’t using emoji that creatively won’t get it.’

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