How to Make Emoji Marketing Work for You

What Esperanto failed to do with words, emoji are rapidly succeeding in doing with pictures: creating a universal language of blink-and-you-get-it messaging.

A kiss is just a kiss, crooned Sam the piano man in Casablanca, and a smile is just a smile, but more important for global marketers: is an emoji just an emoji when using it across markets spread out over many countries and cultures?

But First, What Is an Emoji?

“Emoji” is Japanese for “picture letter.” You can think of the “emo” in the word as doing double duty, for both “emotion” and “mobility.” Emoji are the shortest of shorthands, and therefore ideally suited for that most ubiquitous of mobile devices, the smartphone. Considering that nearly 2 billion people worldwide now use a smartphone, emoji are not likely to disappear anytime soon.

Half of the messaging on Instagram these days is in the form of emoji. They can even be embedded into hashtags.

The use of pictures to convey words is not new. The ancient Egyptians chiseled ideographs onto their obelisks, images that often told the story of a deceased person of high rank. Beginning in the Middle Ages, the rebus took hold, both within heraldry (the name Bowes-Lyon, for instance, would be depicted with the bows of an arrow and a lion) and on the pages of books, where the rebus would substitute for the word, or part of the word. Here’s a rebus: the letter h and a picture of an eye. Put them together, and they spell hi.

In more recent times, emoticons have developed. They share a pictorial gene with emoji, but emoticons are essentially text-based, using punctuation marks and letters to simulate, say, a wink or an OMG. Emoji, by contrast, are little drawings that hew to the guidelines of the Unicode Consortium. No need to add letters or punctuation: the picture tells the whole story. What’s helped emoji explode into a preferred form of mobile communication is the availability of special emoji keyboards.

The Mojo of Emoji

Which companies are using emoji to connect with customers and hoped-for customers? Foot Locker, for one. Disney for another, with Star Wars emoji already generating excitement for the newest movie in the franchise that debuts in December 2015.

Burger King uses emoji, as do Comedy Central, Victoria’s Secret, and Sony Pictures Entertainment, according to MoBlog.

The Oreo cookie folks launched a hugely successful emoji marketing campaign in 2014 in mainland China. Its premise was stunningly simple: parents could electronically paste head shots of themselves and their kids into emoji. In less than three months, the campaign generated more than 99 million emoji.

The Oreo campaign demonstrates the cross-cultural mojo of emoji: nothing gets lost in translation. In fact, nothing needs to be translated, since words are (pardon the pun) not part of the picture.

From Russia, with Love

Even so, translation of a sort is needed. How do you turn a passel of verbal expressions in English into emoji? That’s much of what the Emoji Translation Project is busy doing, in the form of both a phrasebook and an emoji translation engine.

Once completed, it will be interesting to see whether all of the English expressions “translate” universally, even though they can be converted to emoji. It’s fair to say that emoji marketing campaigns are not the place for introducing nuance. Stick with the KISS—keep it simple, sweetheart.

And emoji do have certain cultural biases, at least as far as which emoji different countries reach for the most frequently. According to one study of a billion-plus emoji that speakers of 16 different languages used, Brazilians are partial to prayer hands and other religious images, while the British like to give a wink. Americans like birthday cakes. Both the French and the Russians inject their messages with lots of romance—the heart, the kiss mark.

The heart ranks high on Instagram as well, but the one you’re most likely to see there is the LOL emoji.

Pictures Worth Words—and Sales

Given the popularity of emoji, companies are likely to continue their use and find new ways to use them. Expedia is one of the companies that added emoji to its search tags—although the practice has both pros and cons.

Emoji are proving to companies that pictures can be worth not only a thousand words, but potentially thousands of dollars or more in sales. Given that most companies today reach across borders in their marketing—some more than others—having the universality of emoji can help break down barriers within those borders.

Even so, sustainable global marketing must adhere to the laws of localization. Companies that do so have something to 😀 about.