The Use of Emojis in Brand Messaging

Emojis are images which can support a brand’s message and help to communicate with an audience on a different level.

By Cat HowPosted in Ideas

A brand identity is made up of words and images. Initial research and branding consultancy informs written brand strategy, which in turn influences design and a visual, graphical output: a logo. The two are inextricably linked, but also have their own separate spaces. Visual identity includes image-based elements like a logo or typeface; whereas a brand’s written identity involves tone-of-voice and messaging, so the language used in content that makes a customer relate to a brand.

Recently, though, I’ve been thinking about what happens in between. There is a growing space where images are becoming incorporated more and more into written messaging - and how these images are used in a brand’s identity should be just as considered as everything else.

These images are emojis - or ideograms and smileys used on a brand’s social media platforms. They come mostly into effect on a brand’s social messaging, and have become increasingly more prevalent in written online content over the past few years. Used with care, these images can support a brand’s message, helping to communicate with an audience on a different level - outside of words, but still within a written language of sorts.

Of course, we’ve been flirting with images in text for a while now. The emoticon (short for “emotion icon”) is a pictorial representation of a facial expression using characters - usually punctuation marks, numbers and letters - to express feelings or a mood. The first emoticons - :-) and :-(, were written by Scott Fahlman in 1982. But the earliest documented reference for them was on the PLATO IV computer system back in 1972.

As texting and the internet became more widespread in the late 1990s, emoticons became increasingly popular as a way of communicating “tone” and feeling though tech. But it was only in 1999 that the first emoji was developed by Shigetaka Kurita in Japan.

Emojis are much like emoticons, but are actual pictures instead of typographics. They exist in various genres, including facial expressions, common objects, places and animals. Kurita looked at things pragmatically. He took inspiration from weather forecasts that used symbols to show weather, and from Manga that used stock symbols to express emotions, such as lightbulbs signifying inspiration.

A decade later, and emojis are a fundamental element of online communication. Because of this, the tone of these emojis is of great importance. It may seem pedantic, but what sort of smiley or hand icon you use - can have profound effects on the perception of your brand by your audience. Because they are images, many are steeped in potent symbolism. Take, for example, the recent debate about the ‘OK’ sign emoji being used as a symbol for ‘White Power.’ If your brand were to use a certain emoji - albeit unwittingly - you would have no idea of the number of people you might be offending, and what sort of message you might be putting out.

That is why we develop an emoji guideline set as part of a client’s brand identity. It always makes people smile when I tell them this. But this is because I believe a brand should have images for social messaging which ring true to its functional, emotional and value-based characteristics. So it’s an emoji asset pack of sorts.

Just like we, as individuals, have snapshots of ourselves in our ‘frequently used’ emoji board - you can see from mine in the corresponding image that I recently went to Web Summit in Portugal - so too does a brand. In fact, your brand should always be seen as a person - so it also needs a consistent emoji set which conveys what it stands for. If your primary brand colour is orange, for example, use an orange heart emoji in messaging to reinforce your brand. Think about skin tone. Think about humour. Think about restraint. Think about your brand’s personality - and use the appropriate emoji.

Too often, marketing managers use emojis that they use on their own personal channels, when posting about another brand. It’s important not to confuse this. It’s also important to use a restricted palette of emojis - we recommend no more than 10 to 15 - for brand consistency and clarity of tone-of-voice. Each one of these is a little coded message whose power you can harness to your brand’s advantage.

But who decides what these are? Who has the power to choose which of these little coded messages appear in our boards? One potentially controversial element to all this is the incorporation of emojis in Unicode - a computing industry standard for the consistent encoding, representation and handling of text in the world’s writing systems. The Unicode Consortium coordinates Unicodes development. Full members include Adobe, Apple, Google, IBM, Microsoft and Yahoo… so one could argue big business is now able to decide not only where we communicate, but how we communicate too. Emojis are vetted and either dropped or included in each round - which begs questions around censorship. For example, there has been debate about the Gun emoji of late - and how each tech giant has approached this is been interesting to note.

So where do we go from here? Will emojis encroach on messaging to such an extent that we drop words altogether? Think about how many messages you send which are simply an emoji, or series of them with no words. Yes. Probably quite a few. But despite this, I don’t think they will. I’m incredibly excited about images being used as substitutes for written language - even if these images are decided by the Unicode Consortium (for more insight on this Emojipedia is an excellent read).

This is not the death of language - it is an evolution which is ironically taking us back to the potency of the Egyptian hieroglyphs used thousands of years ago - where stylised pictures of objects were used to represent words, syllables or sounds. Today, with nearly 1,800 in use (with more being added all the time), emoji are an increasingly complex companion to written language. They are powerful manifestations of the capacity of design to alter human behaviour - and as a creative director I welcome that with open arms. Just as the design of a chair dictates our posture, so too are the designs of various formats of electronic communications now shaping our voice.

An image can speak a thousand words. If we have the opportunity to combine images and words in the same space, we should 👍this unequivocally.

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