Putting brands in the picture Article icon

Putting Laura Stanley considers the use of emojis by brands as they seek to engage in a fun and interactive way

Chevrolet launched a new chapter in the heady world of press releases last June when the American car manufacturer sent out a missive comprised entirely of emojis. Not one word describing its new Chevrolet Cruze was written in English; instead the car’s attributes were encapsulated by a series of images and icons depicting luggage, red hearts, sporting items, cars and fashion accessories. The only part of the release that was not translated into emoji was the name and email address of Chevrolet’s press officer Annalisa Bluhm.

Bluhm, now urban mobility communications manager at General Motors, Chevrolet’s parent company, says that the idea for the release was sparked by the way other brands were using emojis. Domino’s Pizza, for example, was allowing its Twitter followers to order their takeaways using a pizza emoji. Emojis were no longer just for friendship groups: they had gone mainstream.

‘It started to permeate into the everyday,’ says Bluhm. ‘We thought No one has done a press release in emojis yet. It was a fun way to talk to our audience in a language they were already speaking.’ Perhaps most importantly, emojis aligned with the characteristics of the car Chevrolet was aiming to promote.

‘The Cruze is an expressive vehicle: young, useful and global. It is the number one passenger car Chevrolet offers across the globe,’ explains Bluhm. ‘And emojis are not only fun and expressive, they are global.’ The press release prompted conversations for Chevrolet, some that they did not expect.

‘It led to actual tangible calls and emails,’ explains Bluhm. ‘We had so many calls from academia, asking if we could be included in textbooks on mass communications. It resonated not just with potential customers, but with everyone. We wanted to transcend people who are interested in cars.’

By issuing a translation of the release later, Bluhm also notes that they managed to double their coverage. But using emojis could have been a gamble and getting senior management buy-in was not simple. ‘It took a lot of work from the team to help the leadership team understand,’ she explains. ‘It took a lot of education on our behalf on how this would reach our audience in salient ways.’

Bluhm and her team first asked their leadership team, who were unfamiliar with emojis, to talk to their children about them. It worked.

‘There’s an art to that conversation,’ says Bluhm. ‘We don’t want to offend anyone or be ageist. Everyone uses the smiley face but there was a certain level of education required. We had to explain why it was right for the vehicle and the brand.’ The release tied in with a series of partnerships with YouTube stars, including Julian Smith, Tyler Oakley and Eva Gutowski, who have more than 15.7 million subscribers between them, to make the campaign more relevant to millennials in particular.

‘The release could easily have stood on its own,’ says Bluhm, ‘but it felt so right. It was a natural extension. It resonated so well so why wouldn’t you capitalise on a good idea?’ ‘So many of us in the office already use [emojis] as an augmented language, that’s why it resonated so well. It didn’t feel fake.’

But whilst Bluhm is clear that millennials were the target of this multimedia campaign, she notes that it was not exclusive to that age bracket, only that the content may have been more relevant to them. Emoji, which is used by 92 per cent of the world’s online community, is the fastest growing language in the world. Usage has grown 777 per cent over the past year in marketing campaigns alone. Emojis have been admissible in court, admitted into the Oxford English Dictionary and are even set to feature in their own animated film produced by Sony.

They are viewed as the natural successor to emoticons, which are typographic displays of facial representation, such as the classic smiling face, with far more diverse usage, ranging from flags of the world to ‘smileys’ and even the infamous ‘pile of poo’ emoji, which some parents have mistaken for a mound of chocolate.

But while communicators are keen to embrace the new world, some have already fallen foul. House of Fraser, the department store chain, prompted a backlash from Twitter followers after it embarked on a series of emoji-littered  tweets, such as one including a picture of Kim Kardashian with a ripe peach strategically placed over her bottom.

John Brown, head of engagement at Hotwire, believes House of Fraser’s error was mistaking its brand identity. Indeed, such was the change in tone and content of its account, that many followers mistakenly believed the fashion retailer had been hacked.

‘It was ill-thought out. Just launching a creative campaign around emojis isn’t creative. It’s missing the point,’ says Brown.  ‘You wouldn’t expect House of Fraser to tweet a photo of Kim Kardashian’s bum with a peach emoji over it. It has to fit with the brand’s ethos.’ Anthony Hua, social media manager at TSB, agrees. 

‘Whether or not it is appropriate for corporate communicators from the financial services industry to use emojis is dependent on the company, what type of audience they are trying to reach and whether it adds anything to the communication,’ he says. ‘From a company’s perspective, they need to consider whether the use of emojis fits with their brand’s image and tone of voice.'

However, as the popularity of using emojis is relatively recent, determining whether they fit with the brand’s tone of voice can be easier said than done. So you need to also consider your audience and whether using emojis adds anything to the message you’re trying to get across. 

‘Languages and communications are continually evolving, and using emojis can be a useful way to add extra emotion and subtlety to a written message – something that can sometimes be hard in non-verbal communications.’

‘It’s a natural evolution of communications,’ Brown agrees. ‘It is a result of our continuous pursuit for stimulating face-to-face engagement. We as human beings are always looking for new ways of communicating, not only facts but sentiment.’

Understanding emojis could have a huge effect on determining sentiment. ‘Sentiment analysis for human written language is error-laden. It has a hard time detecting sarcasm or jokes,’ explains Travis Montaque, chief executive of emotional marketing platform Emogi. ‘Consumers provide additional clarity using emojis – it’s the same as an exclamation point, providing clarity as to the tone. 

More than 80 per cent of consumers use emojis to give feedback.’ Montaque notes that his data has found a correlation between the level of positivity in emoji usage and purchasing intention, meaning that the ability to translate emojis can have a tangible impact on a company’s bottom line.

‘Emotion drives behaviour,’ he says. ‘People who are happy will buy more. Angry people consume more content.’ Emogi’s Emotion Engine provides companies with sentimentbased retargeting, using various channels to activate a strategy in response to what consumers are saying online. 

For example, people who use a smiling emoji might receive offers or information on opening hours, whereas customers that are not so happy may be targeted with discounts. This strategy has been expanded outside of social, working on pop-up adverts and email communications, and research from email marketing firm MailJet suggests that Brits are 63 per cent more likely to open an email if a company includes an emoji in the subject line.

This increased to 95 per cent when the emoji was used to indicate sarcasm. Despite the amount of nuance in the world of emoji, strictly saying NO EMOJIS is not really a risk-free option either. ‘It’s called social media for a reason,’ says Chris Woods, head of digital at power company Drax. ‘It’s open. It’s engaging. It’s for people. It’s not sending a fax. If you say you’re not going to use emojis, what does that say about you as a brand? It says you’re not going to adapt ever to what your customer is doing or saying.’ Nor should brands view emojis as simply appealing to a younger generation.

The Emoji Report 2015, compiled by Emogi, found that 90 per cent of over-35 year olds used emojis, just five percentage points less than their counterparts aged 25 or younger.

‘It began very much with a generational ground swell, starting off with teenagers through to early twenties, but it’s certainly spilt over and become more pervasive,’ says Brown.  ‘It’s more of a stage than age thing.’ Woods believes emojis went mainstream through the likes of Facebook, who recently adopted emojiesque ‘Reactions’ into its business model.

‘Age is not a factor,’ adds Montaque. ‘Women use them a bit more, perhaps because they’re a bit more emotive with their responses.’

Women may be more frequent users of emojis, but research by Procter & Gamble’s sanitary towel brand Always found that more than half of young women thought that female emojis were stereotypical. Three in four agreed that they should not just portray typical feminine activities such as getting a manicure, but should include professional options as well.

Always seized upon this information, aligning it with their popular social media campaign, #LikeAGirl, which sought to turn the gender-based insult into an empowering message instead. ‘Let’s make emojis as unstoppable as the girls they represent,’ says the #LikeAGirl website. Google also recently submitted a proposal to the Unicode Consortium, the regulatory body that oversees the creation of new emojis, to create 13 new icons that show women in roles such as doctors, tech workers, mechanics, farmers, teachers and rock stars.

‘We believe this will empower young women (the heaviest emoji users), and better reflect the pivotal roles women play in the world,’ the proposal explains.

Meanwhile Durex has been campaigning for a condom emoji, asking supporters to call upon Unicode to create ‘an official safe sex emoji [that] will enable young people to overcome embarrassment around the discussion of safe sex’.

The Unicode website indicates that the formal process to introduce new emojis to the official keyboard can take up to two years, so it is hardly surprising that more than 250 brands have created their own emoji keyboards. It seems that everyone from Kim Kardashian to animal charity Dogs Trust now have their own set of emojis.

Native advertising platform Snaps, which creates custom emoji suites for brands, reports that 3.6 million emojis have been shared across the several branded keyboards it created for companies including Burger King and Dove. Emily Mayer, digital press officer, and Rebecca Eighteen, senior press officer, at Dogs Trust, helped the charity to create its own keyboard in order to respond to the growing online puppy trade, which has led to an increase in ‘fashionable handbag’ dogs being handed into rehoming centres once their owners have realised the work involved in owning a dog.

‘We wanted to find a way to bring our rescue dogs to life and reach a younger audience; especially the mobile first generation who would go online first to buy a dog,’ says Mayer. ‘These days it is as easy to buy a puppy online as it is clothes, or the weekly food shop.’

They chose to respond with an emoji keyboard to give dog lovers a fun way to talk about dogs while supporting the charity.

‘We were desperate to be able to use different [dog emojis],’ says Mayer, ‘especially ones that are more representative of the dog population, including everything from Staffordshire Bull Terriers to Crossbreeds. We wanted to make sure that we were always bringing this back to our rescue dogs, so by basing each emoji on a real life homeless hound, we highlighted the dogs that really need homes.

‘Our rehoming gallery was the second highest visited page on launch day, with an increase of over 48 per cent in visitors to our website. To date, we have had 41,800 downloads and we are absolutely thrilled that people are still using [the emojis] in their communications.’

Other more staid companies are being equally as creative with their emoji usage. General Electric launched Emoji Science in 2014, a programme which aims to ‘simplify science subjects key to GE’s technology innovation story, including industrial Internet, healthcare, transportation, and research and development’.

‘We want the next generation to think of GE as an accessible and relevant thought leader for millennial science and tech enthusiasts,’ says Sydney Williams, global digital and marketing at GE. ‘Our Emoji Science programme came to life when we saw the opportunity to leverage emoji in an interactive, informative and educational format by using them to make challenging scientific concepts more accessible and entertaining to millennials.’

The company joined forces with popular television presenter and scientist Bill Nye the Science Guy, who starred in a viral video amplifying the Emoji Table of Experiments, an interactive Snapchat campaign that allows users to choose emojis and find out the science story behind them. For example, choosing the world emoji reveals a video explaining global warming. The campaign became a year-long programme last year, leading to a collaboration with digital media website Mashable, which promoted a Bill Nye video series, and building an interactive Tumblr page.  GE also partnered with the National Science Foundation to create downloadable Emoji Science Lesson Plans for teachers, all while creating content with emoji across GE’s Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat channels during pop culture moments, such as #WorldEmojiDay and May the 4th (Star Wars Day).

‘During the Summer Solstice on 21 June, GE was one of the first brands to leverage Snapchat’s Sponsored Geofilter product with an Emoji Science filter driving awareness of GE’s commitment to renewable energy,’ says Williams. ‘For Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October 2015, we created an Emoji Science for Awareness video to educate the public about the complexity of breast density, its implications for breast cancer detection and GE’s new ABUS imaging technology. ‘To demonstrate the difficulty of finding cancer in women with dense breasts, we hid emoji messages in Instagram and Twitter content, prompting our social media followers to decipher the gamified content to reveal information about breast density. GE’s community managers proactively sent GE ABUS imaging technology locator links to women susceptible to breast cancer (aged 40 plus) so they could find the nearest ABUS Scanning facilities in their area.’ It has been a successful series to say the least. ‘Emoji Science content in 2015 achieved a 40 per cent higher engagement rate than the average GE content posted on Facebook and Twitter throughout the year,’ explains Williams. ‘We saw more than 3.5 million organic video views on the Bill Nye video series, generated GE’s most replied tweet in account history during #WorldEmojiDay and earned more than 35 million impressions across all Emoji Science social media content throughout 2015. The Emoji Science Snapchat Geofilter was used by over 4.8 million people, totalling more than 63 million views.’

While emojis are certainly popular, they can be over-used too. They can also be misinterpreted. One emoji hand gesture can mean entirely different things to different people, particularly across different countries. And they can suggest a far closer relationship between brands and consumers than is wholly appropriate. ‘When brands use them to suggest a closer relationship with consumers, this is when it jars a bit,’ says Woods. ‘If you stick emojis on everything, it becomes meaningless.’ ‘It takes a lot more depth than that,’ says Brown. ‘There are more important ways to foster that personal connection with consumers, like being transparent, being more direct in your communications.’

Ultimately, emojis are just another form of communication – using them depends on the situation and the audience. ‘It’s a tough area to navigate. You need to have good insight and good context,’ advises Brown. ‘If you have a cheeky post, it is okay to punctuate it with an emoticon.  It’s no good if you’re tweeting about redundancies and you include a ‘sadface’ – you look like less of a cheeky communicator and more of an arsehole. ‘All businesses can use them in the right way. It might be a stretch for a very serious government quango to use them, but on the flip side, if you want to develop a less formal tone, emojis can be good. If you’ve stepped out of your comfort zone, posts are likely to have more punch with an emoji.’ ‘Some people take themselves seriously,’ concludes Woods. ‘But there is a place for seriousness and there is a place for smileys.’

SAVING THE ANIMALS


WWF uses emoji to raise awareness

In May 2015, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) used emoji as part of a new campaign to raise awareness of endangered species.

The ongoing campaign, #EndangeredEmojis, drew on 17 pre-existing emojis – each one representing an endangered animal such as the Asian elephant or giant panda – and asked users to sign up and retweet to use emoji to ‘save real animals from extinction’.

WWF tracked the emoji usage of Twitter users who signed up and invited them to donate 10p for every endangered emoji they used. However, its primary focus was not on fundraising but rather on finding new followers and increasing long-term engagement.

‘It was more of a brand awareness campaign for us,’ says Sid Das, head of digital at WWF International. ‘In terms of reach and engagement, we had 1.1 million mentions over the last year since we started and more than 450,000 retweets. Most people engaged and followed WWF more. We saw high long-term engagement.’

Although there are plans to roll out the campaign onto other platforms, for now Endangered Emojis exist only on Twitter, where hashtags and emoji are most prevalent. Emoji was chosen due to its ability to transcend language boundaries. With WWF, what we aim to do is try to speak to audiences in new and different ways across the world. Emoji is probably the only global language right now,’ states Das.

‘The conversation about conservation needs to happen across the world. There’s no social media channel where people don’t use emojis.  There’s no smartphone in the world that doesn’t have emojis. It’s ubiquitous.’

‘As with everything we do, we want everyone to be part of the conversation. Using emojis helped with that. From a communications perspective, it’s an example of how NGOs can use new media. It’s about being aware of how people are communicating and jumping on the bandwagon at the right time.’