The Future of Conversation

The dream of a universal language is almost as old as the act of communication. A seamless transfer of ideas across cultures and borders has remained an impossible ideal for hundreds of years. But, what was previously an unsolvable problem has found a possible fix in the most unlikely of places: your text app.

Emoji—those pixelated icons that dot the landscape of modern chat—are emerging as a shared visual lexicon, rooted in human emotion, with the potential to share thoughts across cultures and borders. After all, a smile is always a smile, regardless of whether you’re in Kentucky or Kyoto.

Over 90 percent of the world’s 3.2 billion Internet users regularly send these “picture characters,” with over 5 billion being transmitted every day on Facebook’s Messenger app alone.  Cognitive linguist Vyvyan Evans writes in his book The Emoji Code that emoji reflect and reinforce “fundamental elements of communication; and in turn, this all shines a light on what it means to be human”. On Instagram, says Evans, smileys have taken the place of abbreviations with similar meanings, like “lol”. The reason can be traced back to our being highly connected: abbreviations are often language-specific, but emoji are instantly recognizable worldwide.

Brands, especially those with a passionate following, have the potential to get carried away by a new mode of expression, forgetting about their messaging framework.  To wit: The Houston Rockets were about to clinch a win in a 2015 playoff game against the Dallas Mavericks when they sent out a tweet from the Rockets' Twitter account before the end of the game. The tweet read, "Shhhhh. Just close your eyes. It will all be over soon," accompanied by a picture of the horse emoji and a gun emoji pointed toward it. The Dallas Mavericks (whose mascot is a horse) replied with a tweet of their own, questioning the Rocket’s sportsmanship.

If your sports brand is for serious athletes, you might want to shy away from, say, eggplant and peach emoji (because, yes, even emoji have euphemisms). In the long term, that kind of communication can negatively affect the positioning of your brand. The opportunity is to use literal or simple emojis as the context allows for it. Emoji do some jobs better than others, and understanding where their power comes from is key in determining how they can best be implemented; that’s the difference between increased marketing ROI and being the latest rider on a results-challenged bandwagon.

A number of brands have created their own emoji keyboards.  The most successful are emoji that serve to refine communications between passionate members of an established group. Doing that right means leveraging points of shared interest, as in the case of Bauer’s emoji set striking a chord with young hockey enthusiasts.

For Bauer, their approach included the creation of a series of original hockey themed emojis that gave their passionate players and fans a new way to communicate using a shared, personal language. The set was downloaded 40 thousand times in the first week alone—an integral piece of the efforts that took Bauer from number four to number one in the category.

There exists a larger opportunity for brands (and especially sports brands) to enliven digital communications with dedicated use of emoji that already enjoy a shared understanding. The most tangible benefit of emoji is the added efficiency of effectively delivering the non-verbal component of messages, and with 84% of females and 75% of males believing that emoji express feelings better than words, these tiny digital icons are reshaping how people across the globe interpret written communication.

Thanks to emoji, the future of conversation is paved with emotion and empathy, and sports brands will have to make a choice as to whether these icons have a place in their messaging. For those brands that choose to wholly embrace this empathetic leap forward, there are some use cases in which emoji make the most sense:

Humanity – When your message needs an added human feel, emoji can bridge that gap by infusing a message with emotion.

Clarity – Emoji are extremely useful for showing instantaneously the spirit in which a message was intended.

Immediacy – Because we process emoji as a human face, a message can have layers of complexity that can still be understood immediately.

Authenticity – Emoji are deeply rooted in core human feelings, and their usage can instill a sense of truth and relatability to messages.

As emoji expand in both range and depth along the spectrum of interpersonal communication, it’s inevitable that their deployment in marketing will expand in kind. The brands that are able to understand the best cases for using emoji and how the lexicon is evolving within cultures (and subcultures) will reap the rewards of increased effectiveness, engagement, and affinity.

To learn more, feel free to contact the author, Ian Traas, Senior Writer,
or the editor, Rick Shaughnessy, Group SVP, Innovation, ICF Olson,