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Should Your Brand Speak Emoji?

Forget Spanish or Chinese. It would seem one of the most important “languages” to become fluent in today is Emoji.

Yes, calling emoji a language is a stretch, seeing as how it doesn’t have any words, and no one can actually speak it. On the other hand, you’ll never need to worry about taking lessons or studying — if you can understand a picture you can “read” an emoji.

It’s been around longer than you may think

Originating in Japan in the 1990s, the word emoji means “picture” (e) + “character” (moji). Emoji are used similarly to emoticons but can be more expansive, illustrating a variety of concepts, ideas, animals, plants, and people. Emoji also are, more importantly, actual encoded characters in a standardized global computing system maintained by the Unicode Consortium, whereas emoticons can range from a short string of punctuation (:-D) to branded images and virtual stickers.


For many years emoji were limited to Japan, where mobile carriers developed their own signature character sets that came built into their phones. In 2010, however, some sets were incorporated into Unicode, which finally allowed outside companies like Apple and Android to adopt their own versions. So if emoji feels “new” to you, this is probably why — it’s only been around as we know it for roughly five years!

Is there an emoji for “popularity explosion?”

Today, emoji are so widely used that it’s common to see Facebook and Instagram posts with no words, just pictograms. For example, a shared photograph of a beach may simply include . Scroll down to the comments and you’ll likely see , , , or posted in response. People are truly using emoji in place of written language!

Brands jumping on the emoji bandwagon

You know that if people are doing it, brands are too. Over the last year especially we’ve seen a surge in brands incorporating emoji or emoticons into their marketing — some a little more successfully than others. Bud Lite celebrated last year’s Fourth of July with an emoji American flag that generated over 100,000 favorites and nearly 150,000 retweets. Chevrolet, on the other hand, created a media release written almost entirely in emoji that generated a lot of confused looks.


There’s risk in trying new things, to be sure. So before you dive into incorporating emoji or emoticons in your own brand marketing, run through this checklist and make sure your strategy ticks all the boxes:

☑️ Does it fit your brand persona?

What’s a brand persona? Imagine your brand as a person — what would that person be like? What would that person like to do, what would that person like to wear? And more importantly: can you see that person using emoji? If not, back away slowly. If so, proceed with a good dose of caution.

“We didn’t want to do [emojis] just to be doing them. We wanted to have utility and to be able to use them in conversations, like regular emojis …. We really put a lot of thought into ‘How would I use this in a text message conversation?’ We didn’t want to do it just to do it or because it’s novel right now.” – Michael Scogin, vice president at NBC Entertainment Digital, in an interview with Momentology about a Saturday Night Live-based emoji keyboard

☑️ Are you including everyone in the conversation?

Millennials may have embraced emoji but they certainly aren’t the only ones. Be wary of trying too hard to reach the youth of today, as the White House did when they incorporated emoji into an economic report on Millennials. The emoji were later stripped from the report but they remain in an accompanying infographic on the topic.

The reason the attempt rang false was that people weren’t prepared to hear such a drastic deviation in tone. It felt a little bit like your straightlaced, serious history professor suddenly sprinkling his lectures with popular slang in an attempt to fit in with his students. In this instance the White House should have stuck closer to its brand persona!

☑️ Does it serve a real purpose?

Earlier this year Burger King released an app with a set of branded emoticons to promote the addition of “chicken fries” to the regular menu. It’s a cute idea but a limited one, as it’s tied to a specific food item that will eventually seem no more special or remarkable than a plain hamburger. Additionally, it requires users to adapt their behavior and “learn” a new set of characters.


Taco Bell took the opposite approach when they successfully lobbied the Unicode Consortium to add a taco emoji with the support of over 30,000 signatures on “We didn’t go create our own app because people use the emojis natively already,” said Taco Bell rep Ashley Sioson in an interview with AdWeek. “We want it to be a natural tie-in to how the user already uses emojis.”

Sounds like a page out of the marketing book of Domino’s, which in May rolled out a new system allowing users with an existing Easy Order account to place an order by simply tweeting a pizza emoji. It’s a move aligned with user behavior that also has the potential to significantly impact their business model.


The bottom line is that people know a gimmick when they see one, and they’ll respond accordingly. Why waste your time and marketing dollars on something forgettable?

Go to your customers — don’t make them come to you

So think carefully about whether or not emojis and emoticons are right for your unique brand, and if they are, start brainstorming around how your customers currently use them.

Soon you just might have everybody speaking your language!

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