We, the people of the internet, love emoji. We use them to joke. We express how we feel. We chide. And the ways we use those emoji—which ones, when, why, how—say a lot about us. As such, our beloved emoji have become a new universal language. So of course, brands want to get in on the fun.
Last year, body-care company Dove discovered that all of the Unicode Consortium-approved emoji have straight hair. So Dove created a custom branded emoji keyboard with their own curly-haired faces. Voilà! By downloading the keyboard and tweaking your settings, you could now use a whole bunch of curly-haired people in texts on your phone.
Dove is far from alone. Burger King launched a chicken fries emoji keyboard to celebrate bringing back a fan favorite food. Ford made ones with cars. Kim Kardashian released her infamous Kimoji; Ariana Grande, Amber Rose, and Wiz Khalifa have their own. Comedy Central has one with Broad City-specific emoji and GIFs.The Cleveland Cavs have one with their players. There are emoji keyboards for Deadpool, Coke, Starbucks, the LA Kings, Portlandia, Sour Patch Kids, and VH1. In the past year, seemingly every major brand (and some not so major ones) has released an emoji keyboard—or has plans to do so soon.
These emoji could actually capture our attention in a way that we want—and in a place that could become central to the future of advertising.
“Everyone will have their own emoji,” says Oliver Camilo, the founder and CEO of Moji Inc., which creates custom keyboards like the one his company made for Wiz Khalifa. “It’s the next thing in mobile.”
The idea here is pretty simple: Mobile advertising is really hard. Grabbing your attention inside your mobile messages is even harder. So instead of creating, say, a series of pop-up shampoo ads that drive you crazy, Dove wants to give you the chance to share a curly-haired smiling face if you want to. And, if you do, you may think of Dove and its products when you share that emoji.
Brands, celebrities, and marketers know that we spend so much of our time on our phones. But traditional pop-ups and banner ads don’t work well on those small screens. Emoji, however, increasingly rule our digital interactions. Sure, we, the people, have to choose to download and use a corporation or celebrity’s emoji, stickers, or GIF keyboards. But once we do, brands have a direct connection into our private messages, the place on our phones where we pay the most attention.
These kinds of emoji keyboards could actually capture our attention in a way that we want—and in a place that could become central to the future of advertising. And yet, for it to work, we have to want to play along.
If you do want to text a smiling bag of chicken fries to a friend, Burger King needs to make it pretty easy for you to do so. (Because, well seriously, why would you?) The problem is that, at least for now, the tech isn’t exactly seamless.
The first time you want to use a custom emoji it takes a lot of steps to set up. You have to know the specific custom keyboard exists, search for it, download it, change your settings to allow it to work, and then, finally, actually use one of the new emoji. Even when you have it, though, it’s not as simple as just pressing a button. With most, you essentially have to cut and paste them into your message. All of which seems like an awful lot of work for a branded sticker.
Plus, if you want to switch from a Broad City emoji to a Dove one to a Burger King one, that takes an additional step. “At the end of the day, no one is going to have 17 keyboards on their phone,” says Jason Stein, the founder and CEO of social media agency Laundry Service. “It’s a terrible experience.”
For marketers, the key, Teddy Lynn, chief creative officer of content and social at Ogilvy & Mather, says, is to give us something we actually want. People chatted excitedly about Burger King’s chicken fries on social media, he explains, so it made a lot of sense for the company to follow with its chicken fries emoji (at least for a few days). People love to love (and to hate) Kim Kardashian, so it’s little surprise people love (and love to hate) her custom emoji app.
To work, Lynn argues that marketers will need to offer their emoji as a part of the conversation when that conversation is happening. For marketers tasked with making these campaigns, he says, “it makes everything more immediate.”
So what do we want? And why would we even want branded stuff at all? Like in so much of life, we want what we don’t have, and we want to have fun. Stein, for example, hasn’t been able to resist the Kimoji keyboard. “It’s fun to send video GIFs in Snapchat messenger of Kim doing funny things,” he says. For him, the Kimoji GIFs are more fun and interactive than what Snapchat alone offers him.
And yet others think these emoji keyboards are a passing fad. “Everyone jumps on the bandwagon,” says Chris Tuff, the executive vice president and director of business development and partnerships at digital agency 22squared. “The customized thing is a flash in the pan.”
What Comes Next
But we do use emoji, stickers, and GIFS when we chat on our phones. We want to be witty, charming, smart—and sometimes we all need a little help.
“When you look, like an advertiser, at other things in mobile, none of them are that compelling,” says Christian Brucculeri, CEO of Snaps Media Inc., the tech company that worked with Dove, Burger King, and, yes, Kim Kardashian to release their custom emoji keyboard apps.
For Brucculeri, the future looks a whole lot more like Dove’s emoji campaign than the ads you might see on TV. It can be challenging for advertisers to catch our attention on our smallest screens, especially within our messaging apps. With emoji, Brucculeri argues marketers can easily do just that. “It’s opt-in. It’s entertaining. [Marketers] can deliver it at scale,” he says.
‘When there’s a new way people communicate, brands explore it.’ Teddy Lynn
Snaps, and other companies like it, are eyeing a similar space as tech giants like Snapchat and Facebook: messaging. As we spend more time talking to each other in apps like WhatsApp, Messenger, WeChat, and beyond, advertisers want to find ways to reach us there. Customized emoji and GIF keyboards, Brucculeri argues, is one effective way.
Social media companies have already taken note of our love for emoji. Twitter sells branded hashtags (mini emoji included, of course). Snaps works closely with messaging app partners like Kik and Kanvas. It doesn’t seem too hard to imagine Messenger or Snapchat doing the same. If branded emoji are incorporated into the very apps we already use, we’ll probably be a lot more likely to use them.
Whether these branded emoji stick around, these experiments mark the beginning of a new kind of native advertising—one that will find their way to us, even in our most private, personal places. Because as the way we use our phones changes, so will the way advertisers try to reach us.
“When there’s a new way people communicate, brands explore it,” Lynn says. Unlike pop-ups and banners of the past, what advertisers hope is that we like what comes next. Even if we never asked for it.