So. Emojis. Or rather, “Grinning face”! “Smiling Face With Open Mouth and Cold Sweat”. “Nerd Face” “Thinking Face” “Clapping Hands Sign”... As this is a piece about emojis, naturally enough you were expecting it to start like that. Rest assured it won’t continue in that way – hashtag thank goodness.
Of course you know all about emojis. They’re those… things that youngsters call up while spending their lives on their mobile devices, and then they put them in their InstaSnapBookTweets, right? Clearly they’re the first sign of the decline of civilisation, and very soon we won’t be writing in full sentences and paragraphs any more, and instead just send each other badly-drawn icons which look like the lovechildren of the cast of The Simpsons and Lego minifigures.
I exaggerate of course, though some people do actually feel that way. Jonathan Jones, art critic for The Guardian, opined that, “After millennia of painful improvement, from illiteracy to Shakespeare and beyond, humanity is rushing to throw it all away. We’re heading back to ancient Egyptian times, next stop the stone age, with a big yellow smiley grin on our faces.”
And while he complains a tad too much, he nevertheless articulates what has become a seductive narrative to some people: emojis are dumb, unable to capture and communicate the full, rich and diverse variety of human emotion that we want. And if you use them you’re shallow, incapable of deep thought and expression. This despite Moby-Dick being translated into emoji.
This idea has been in turn reinforced for some people, no doubt, by a number of the more high-profile instances where brands have used emojis – and the eyeball rolling reactions they’ve generated. Bud Light managed to turn the American flag into a complex series of firework explosions and beers for the 4th of July in 2014. Dominos got people who think about pizza and their mobile phones far too much (author’s note: guilty as charged) positively salivating with the notion that you can fill your face just by tweeting an emoji. (The hotel chain Aloft launched something similar for room service.) And perhaps most contentiously of all Chevrolet, that iconic car brand that stands for ingenuity, design and value, announced the release of a new model in a press release composed entirely in emoji. Reports suggest it will be fully deciphered by 2018.
It is, of course, very easy to take pot shots at brands trying new things out – and perhaps there’s a lesson there in that more agencies should be suggesting to their clients that they experiment publicly and quickly: failing faster is good. Of more interest, however, is to dig a bit deeper into why emojis have taken off so quickly, and then to see what that suggests as to how brands might approach adopting them into their communicative strategies.
It’s all in the thumbs
Now it is possible to try and analyse emojis through the lens of Marshall McLuhan’s theories of hot and cold media, maybe bringing into the mix a bit of Barthes’ Mythologies, naturally some Saussurean insight into the semiotic signification of them… perhaps even Dr Robert Langdon’s theories of ‘symbology’ could be brought into play. Ahem.
You might also need to go overboard on suggesting that the use of emojis is in someway unique to ‘Generation Z’ (whoever they might be) and with their desire for be connected, mobile and social – because no other generation has ever wanted these things before. Ahem, again.
Actually, we really don’t need to over-complicate things. It’s obvious that emoji’s explosion in popularity in use has come from, in the main, the rapid adoption of smartphones and mobile messaging applications. Rather in the same way that SMS took the world by surprise and storm, it’s clear that people want to communicate a lot – and make sure what they say has some deeper resonance – and do so quickly, on a platform that might not have been designed with that in mind. Hence the jumping on a rapid way you can get nuance into a message, just from a few presses of your thumb.
Now, it might not be the deepest of nuance – there was some debate over the launch of Facebook’s ‘Reactions’, its attempt to give users a wider palette of emotion than just the simple thumbs-up of ‘Like’, as to whether the suggested new icons skew towards being mostly positive, and minimising the idea that life can and is negative too – but it is clear that if you give people a means to express a complex emotion in a small space, they will take it.
A language, not a gimmick
What does this imply for brands that want to make use of emojis? Well, it doesn’t look like these modern hieroglyphics aren’t going to disappear – so if you’re writing or speaking on behalf of a brand, you’re going to need to start thinking a bit more deeply about how, where and why you’ll use them.
It’ll help if you think of emojis as a new language, not just a trend or bandwagon to be jumped on for a rapid hit of social media buzz. Do a thought experiment – if your company already has a distinct tone of voice in English, and was about to start doing business in France, you’d take the time to think about what aspects of your tone could be translated into French, what concepts, what key vocabulary might make sense, what needs to change. So why wouldn’t you undertake a similar exercise if you want to start communicating regularly in emoji?
Taking a strategic view of how your brand might start to use emojis opens up other possibilities. At one level, it should mean you can avoid obvious howlers – some people will always be emoji-phobic, and will not appreciate their use in any communication. And there will always be some contexts in which you should steer clear of them, whatever the age of your audience – no one is ever going to appreciate a final payment reminder notice accompanied by an angry face.
But there should be positive benefits too. A bit of thought should mean that your writers, your social media mavens, could start to get some distinctiveness in how they are used, going beyond the idea that they are gimmicky and ephemeral. And the process of learning the language should mean that you can get creative with them too – not least because of the ambiguity that is richly inherent with the characters.
And if you are brand which has a weightier purpose in the world, don’t think emojis can’t be used to communicate about and around more serious or significant issues. GE has had a lot of success with its ‘Emoji Science’ project, which unpacks scientific experiments in a brightly attractive way. And the World Wide Fund for Nature used #EndangeredEmoji as the hook into a recent fundraising campaign, where people were told how many animal emoji they’d used that month, and could then donate to protect them.
It’s not beyond the realms of possibility too that, soon, a brand’s mark could become a full-blown emoji. In the same way that to hoover and to google are now verbs and not just brand names, you can see how a monochrome apple missing a bite could become the very quick and easy way to say ‘cool’.
“Thumbs up” indeed for when that happens. Though we still do need an emoji for ‘emoji’.
Video Credit: @Shiseido