Are Brands Taking Emojis Too Far?

By Tessa Wegert July 20th, 2015

When a brand launches a new product, the release is usually all about clarity: the who, what, where, when, and why. But when a brand launches a new product for millennials, you get this:

 Are Brands Taking Emojis Too Far?

The media release for Chevrolet’s 2016 Cruze generated a lot of buzz last month, but the automaker is hardly the only brand to push the limits of emojis, the Japanese pictographs the Internet has come to adore. Friday was even named World Emoji Day, purportedly because it’s the date featured on the calendar emoji, and the Smithsonian Institution, Nissan, and Victoria’s Secret, among others, took part in the informal event with a slew of posts and tweets.

That’s not all. Taco Bell’s high-profile petition asking the Unicode Consortium to introduce a taco emoji was recently approved, while Burger King promoted the return of its Chicken Fries with an emoji keyboard and emoji-based content on Twitter and Kik. And thanks to brands like Domino’s, Comedy Central, and Miracle-Gro, you can now use emojis to order pizza on Twitter, get jazzed about the new season of a TV show, and celebrate the first day of spring.

In the case of Chevrolet, the emojis were clearly an attempt to speak what it perceived as the language of America’s youth. Even though there was an accompanying YouTube series in which comedian Norm Macdonald goes to Emoji Academy to help decode the release, many people seemed to be confused by the announcement. As Wired‘s Megan Logan put it: “While it’s an admittedly clever gimmick, it seems that perhaps we are not ready for the all-emoji press release.”

The campaign got us wondering: Are brands taking emojis too far?

Emoji explosion

Emojis have been widely accessible in America since 2011, when Apple incorporated them into iOS 5, but their level of popularity is at an all-time high. BuzzFeed News recently reported that predictive keyboard app SwiftKey has joined the Unicode Consortium—the group that oversees Unicode standards—to help assess the role of emojis in digital communication. SwiftKey is also expected to influence the introduction of new emojis, which the UC is presently adding at a rate of 50 to 100 symbols per year.

Meanwhile, Google launched an extended collection of emojis for Gmail, giving consumers even more ways to visually communicate. After all, the little guys are in big demand. A poll conducted by AYTM Market Research in February found that nearly 50 percent of U.S. Internet users 18 and older now use emojis on social media or in their texts.

Understanding why consumers use emojis is an important part of knowing how to apply them to marketing. Research shows that looking at a smiley face online is akin to looking at a happy face in real life. The capacity of emojis to humanize messaging is one of the reasons consumers incorporate them into social media posts and texts. Way back in 2008, when instant messaging was really ramping up, researchers discovered that using emoticons—typographic representations of facial expressions, like ;-)—had a “positive effect on enjoyment, personal interaction, perceived information richness, and perceived usefulness.”

Facial representations were deemed a “valuable addition” to digital communications. Interestingly, the AYTM Market Research poll found that 58 percent of consumers currently use five or fewer emojis on a regular basis, which could suggest they’re being used as much for functionality as for fun.

Keeping these data points in mind is important for marketers so that they can avoid blindly hopping on a trend. Some brands have incorporated emojis into campaigns organically, while other efforts feel forced. Let’s take a look at the most common strategies that have emerged when it comes to branded emojis.

Targeting millennials

It’s long been assumed that emojis are the playthings of millennials; one study estimates 64 percent of them use emojis on a regular basis. Brands, therefore, sometimes go emoji to connect with young consumers. The White House incorporated emojis into an infographic as part of a report on the impact of millennials. Interestingly, they were later removed after some millennials allegedly took offense to the gimmick.

Investment banking firm Goldman Sachs took a similar course by including them in a tweet promoting its “Millennials Coming of Age” report. Feedback on the decision was hot and cold.

 Are Brands Taking Emojis Too Far?

Do politics, finance, and emojis mix? The fact that the brands are perceived as erudite and relied upon for serious data and insight certainly influenced people’s reactions. In both cases consumer trust is paramount to success, and the White House and Goldman Sachs may have lost some of that by deviating too far from the authoritative voice we’ve come to expect.

Purposeful emojis

In some of the examples above, it seems like brands are using emojis just for the sake of using emojis. But there are brands tapping emojis not for show, but for utility. World Wide Fund for Nature, for example, worked the symbols into a Twitter fundraising campaign that encouraged consumers who routinely use emojis of endangered animals to donate to its conservation efforts. A user could sign up with WWF, and when the organization sent them a report of how many animal emojis that person used per month, they could opt to give to the campaign.

In the case of Domino’s Emoji Ordering, the functionality is crystal clear. Consumers can bypass the traditional ordering process by tweeting a pizza slice emoji to the restaurant chain. The concept, developed by Crispin Porter + Bogusky, just won a Grand Prix award at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, in part because of its potential to “impact a big advertiser’s business model.”

It’s a simple idea, but it elevates the emoji from window dressing and gives it meaning. Rather than employing every emoji known to man (we’re looking at you, Chevrolet), Domino’s zeroed in on the one that embodies its brand and made it pertinent to the customer-product experience.

Educational emojis

Because of their visual format, emojis are also well-suited to education. Using the hashtag #emojiresearch, researchers and academics have been helping the masses interpret complex work.

General Electric’s EmojiScience, launched last December, used emojis on Tumblr, Twitter, and Snapchat to encourage young consumers and students to expand their knowledge of science through a series of experiments. The brand has kept the campaign going with a web series featuring popular science educator Bill Nye.

There’s a lesson to be gleaned from GE’s approach. Millennials are far from the only audience interested in emojis, and opportunities exist for brands to use the pictographs to enhance their visual marketing. Rather than confusing consumers with emoji-heavy messages, GE supplements its existing messaging to make it that much more delightful.

Weighing the risks

Emoji marketing success hinges on more than just concept and execution. Incorporating the language into your campaign is, all said, a judgement call based on knowing your audience and respecting your customer. Use emojis to enhance an admirable or entertaining message, and you may be rewarded. Use them to pander to millennials, and you should prepare for a possible backlash.

Brands are also learning the hard way that using emojis can paint a target on their backs. Recently, McDonald’s erected a billboard near London that used emojis to suggest that the solution to gridlock is a pitstop for some fries. A graffiti artist made a modification that torpedoed the message in viral fashion, leaving the fast food giant with an egg on its face.

 Are Brands Taking Emojis Too Far?

As is the case with every new language, it’s easy to make mistakes. But brands don’t need to enroll in Chevy’s Emoji Academy if they listen to their ❤️ and use their 👩.

Image by CoolKengzz
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