Emojis. You know, those little pictures that have taken over the internet, and are prevalent in communication between millennials. There’s practically one for everything, and the official emojipedia (yes, that’s a thing) continues to grow. There’s even an official Unicode Emoji Subcommittee, which is responsible for compiling and approving the standardized code for these little doodads across all platforms.

There are positions on both ends of the spectrum on whether emojis are actually improving language or are actually a sign of the decline of written language. (I personally lean toward agreement with this rather scathing editorial in The Guardian that they’re dragging us back to the dark ages. In fact, research has shown that using emojis makes people think you are incompetent. But I digress.)

Whether you love them, loathe them, or are somewhere in between depending on context, reality is that emoji is literally the fastest growing language.

Naturally, when something starts to catch on among the masses, brands start to take notice, embracing popular trends and inserting themselves into the pop culture zeitgeist. They start incorporating the latest trends into their marketing, whether anybody actually wanted them to or not.

Some major brands have had success with using emoji, such as World Wildlife Fund, who made a set of their own emojis of endangered animals and donated money each time one of them was retweeted. Taco Bell claims to have had a hand in creating a demand for a taco emoji and continues to successfully incorporate it into their marketing. (Frankly, as fast as emojis were being created at the time, a taco was likely inevitable, anyway. If I were in charge of Taco Bell’s marketing, I’d be putting heavy emphasis on a chihuahua emoji for nostalgic reasons.)

I only put this picture here because I’ve always loved the chihuahua.

Some big brands have totally missed the mark, like Chevrolet and Juicy Fruit.

The world is still trying to figure this one out.

Of course, since there seem to be more successes than fails from the big name brands, now there’s no shortage of agencies online offering guides on how to use emojis in your brand’s marketing. Just do a simple search and you’ll find plenty (that I won’t be linking to here).

But before you jump on the emoji train ?, there are some important things you need to consider.

Questions to ask yourself before hopping on the emoji bandwagon ?? in your marketing 

(I couldn’t resist.)

Who is my audience, and will they “get it”?

I mentioned above that millennials, by far, use emoji the most. While that’s true, the age range of the “millennial” generation is murky in and of itself, and even going by the most widely-accepted numbers, the term is a very wide swath that does not take into consideration other demographic information such as gender, socioeconomic status, cultural identity, and so on.

This billboard is a widely-cited example of brilliant marketing using emojis:

It’s advertising the movie Deadpool.

When I first saw it, I thought to myself, “Skull crapple? What does that even mean?” Many people who were the target audience for the movie “got it,” but many didn’t. I certainly didn’t. (But am I the target demo for the movie? Though my age and other factors might point to yes, I had no interest in seeing it. Yet it was forced on me like broccoli on a little kid and I hated it. But that’s another story for another time.)

Will my audience understand what I’m trying to convey?

Along similar lines as the above, if you don’t know which emojis mean what or how to say what you’re trying to say, chances are your audience will be confused too. Don’t try to use them if you’re not 100% sure what they actually construe. While emoji is generally regarded as a language without borders, certain pictures are interpreted differently to different cultures, and many are easily misunderstood. For example, this ? allegedly means “dizzy” and not “shooting star;” this ? is apparently a Japanese ogre and not intended to indicate anger. (I once heard that the ever-popular ? was supposed to mean chocolate ice cream, but who are we kidding?)

What is my brand’s voice really like?

A common argument that is used to encourage businesses to use emoji in their marketing is that it will “loosen up” the brand voice and make them seem more fun and personable. But depending on who you are and what you do, that might not be the best idea. A funeral director would hardly want to come across as fun and jovial when marketing their services, even if there is a coffin emoji ⚰️. Nor would a law firm who specializes in criminal defense, even though there are emojis like this: ☠️??‍♂️??⚖️

Do I want to use them because other brands are, or because it actually reflects my brand?

Not only can they make your brand seem unprofessional, they can also imply that you’re simply trying too hard. Personally, I think any company using them actively in their marketing looks unprofessional and it’s a real turnoff for me.

Can this possibly backfire?

Practically anything can. Just ask Hillary Clinton’s social media team:

The bottom line

While some companies are successfully using emojis in their marketing, it may not be the right thing for you. Emoji may be the “fastest growing language” and a hot trend in digital marketing right now, but you know what else was a popular trend? Popup ads. Sure, they still exist, but nobody likes them and you probably have a browser option to block them altogether.  

To be clear, I’m not anti-emoji—they’re cute and fun in small doses. But so are puppies and children. If you don’t watch them carefully, they’ll make a mess.  And you should never rely on them to speak for you. 

Substituting a cartoon picture for a word or implied sentiment is no excuse for not being able to convey your brand’s message accurately. Never underestimate the power of the written word. That’s why you hire a professional writer.

Stacy Lukasavitz Steele, Principal of Text on Fire Communications™

Stacy Lukasavitz Steele is the multi-disciplined writer behind Text on Fire Communications™. Formerly known online as “that damned redhead,” this seasoned digital strategist and analyst has been setting fire to the interwebs for over 20 years in one capacity or another. She takes the English language much more seriously than she takes herself, but must warn you that the stereotypes about redheads are true. She is passionate about helping brands find their voice and delivering the right messages to the right people. If you’re a cool company looking for some hot copy, you’re in the right place. Drop her a line via the contact form