How is a simplified emoji landscape ultimately better for brand communication?

By Simi Nijher

Brand communication: the rise of emoji marketing

Since early civilization, we have communicated through pictures and symbols, reducing complex concepts and emotions into simple universal visuals.

Having moved on from the more primitive emoticons initially created by computer scientist Scott Fahlman back in the early 1980s, emojis are our modern day equivalent of hieroglyphics and cave drawings. They not only replace words, but are used in combination to create meaning and even tell a pictographic story as sophisticated and nuanced as: dancing girl, praise hands, celebration horn, smiley poo (experience has taught me smiley poo can paint a thousand words).

Emoji marketing: make it simple and smart!

The simplicity of emojis is unique and has become synonymous with how we communicate online, introducing accessibility, democracy and self-expression in a way that verbal language is far too complex and nuanced to achieve in this truncated sphere.

However, some brands are inevitably complicating the simplicity of this online communication with an improper use of emoji marketing, and it has implications for digital language. Last month Apple launched its new iOS 8.3 update, providing a new keyboard that offers ethnically diverse emojis for the first time. The default has become a Simpson-esque yellow skin tone with a further 5 skin tone options spanning the Fitzpatrick scale, universally recognized by dermatologists.

Now, on the surface (and it really is a surface matter here) this feels progressive; after all there have been many appeals and even petitions calling for wider diversity and representation in this emoji world, which is controlled and approved by the Unicode Consortium.

But there is a salient point here worth drawing out: the emoji world is not our world. It doesn’t aim to reflect reality, and nor should it. Emojis provide a simple version of profoundly human concepts that are effective, light hearted and universal. Through introducing a choice of skin tone, implying a choice in ethnicity, Apple and other smartphone brands are introducing a complex racial narrative into digital conversations that doesn’t need to exist in that context.

Digital conversations

There is a place for those conversations, of course. But arguably instead of feeling morerepresentative, the inadequate range of 5 generic skin tones feels more ostracizing for all, with the result being users avoiding these emojis altogether for fear of mishandling the new complexity. The digital language of symbols should be simple and easy to understand- rather than expanding, they should be looking to reduce ‘real-life’ complexities that feel out of context and trivialized in the neutral world of emoji.

There is a brand lesson to be learnt here. In the digital world, simplicity of brand communication is key and to connect with a digital audience the message needs to be clear and effective. In the same way that hashtags, character limits and captioning are used as short-hand methods of self-expression and self-branding, some brands are beginning to tap into this trend and successfully engage in digital conversations.

Peta’s 2014 “Beyond Words” campaign conceptualizes animal cruelty by using emojis to tell the story rather than words. The universality and simplicity of this message hits home effectually and the call to action is equally simple and in line with current practices — send a single emoji heart to contribute to the charity’s most urgent animal needs.

Brand communication: yes to emojis!

Emojis can be used in brand communications to cut-through with simple and effective messages. But with this benefit comes a unique sacrifice of genuine complexity and debate that we’re so accustomed to having the luxury of in other arenas of digital language (there are hundreds of blogs dedicated to the finer discussion points around Cara Delavigne’s eyebrows, for example).

If brands are to employ this emoji marketing tool successfully, and I believe there is every opportunity and imperative to do so, then they must first realize this sacrifice and then learn to work to the benefits of this brave new emoji world.

Simi Nihjer is a DAS Accelerate Graduate, completing a fellowship with Siegel+Gale.

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