50 years of the Smiley brand

How a simple line drawing of a smiley face became a global shorthand for brands to connect with people on an emotional level

When Franklin Loufrani trademarked the now iconic smiling face symbol in 1971, he coined the term ‘Smiley’. Over the following five decades, The Smiley Company has evolved into a global lifestyle licensing brand with a defiantly optimistic outlook.

A simple mantra launched the brand to the world: ‘Take the Time to Smile’. “Back then, this was meant in the most basic sense,” explains Nicolas Loufrani, who has steered the second half of The Smiley Company’s journey so far, having taken the helm from his father in the 90s. “It was about smiling because of light, fun stories.”

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Of course, the internet is now brimming with this kind of thing, and Smiley has found a deeper purpose behind its longstanding drive to share good news: “It’s a more complicated world, and the media’s full of negative stuff that polarises us,” reflects Loufrani. Alongside Smiley’s many brand licensing activities, the ‘Smiley Movement’ champions a different kind of story – real people making a meaningful difference in the not-for-profit space.

With the vaccine rollout laying the groundwork for a return to normality by 2022, Loufrani believes there’s no better time for Smiley to reinvigorate its founding mantra with a modern twist. “The whole world wants to smile again,” he says. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for brands to get this message across at this moment in history.”

As part of its 50-year plans, Smiley’s quest is to broker even more high-profile brand collaborations, and over the coming weeks, Creative Review will be collaborating with five diverse artists and illustrators to explore the creative potential to be found by putting Smiley at the heart of a campaign. Here’s the story of the Smiley brand so far…


Smiley appeared on the cover of France-Soir in 1972 as a symbol of good news

Towards the tail end of the Vietnam war, the global mood was sombre and bleak. The world needed an injection of positivity to counter dystopian visions of the future.

In 1972, Smiley made its debut as a brand to draw attention to good-news stories in France-Soir, the French paper where Franklin Loufrani worked. The ‘Take the Time to Smile’ campaign also spread across Europe to the Netherlands, Germany and Spain, bringing positive vibes to the pages of De Telegraaf, Blick and La Vanguardia respectively.

“At that time, everyone was wearing a three-piece suit and tie, and newspapers were pretty serious,” says Loufrani. “The yellow Smiley was the first time that France-Soir had ever put colour on the front: everything else was black and white.”

Smiley’s brand partnerships in the 1970s were simple, charming affairs – such as a series of ads for a supermarket that gave that week’s featured product a smile.


‘Beat Dis’ by Bomb the Bass features the blood-spattered Smiley from Watchmen

As Cold War tensions intensified and disgruntled workers protested, a new generation pulled together to shape subversive underground culture. Smiley’s influence grew in the rave scene in particular.

“In the early 80s, in the UK at least, going out was about finding a way to have a fight. There was a lot of hooligan violence,” recalls Loufrani. “House music changed the way people danced. It brought people back together on the dance floor.”

During this period, the Smiley logo became a ubiquitous symbol of happiness within music culture – seen on flyers, T-shirts, apparel, badges and more. That association with togetherness, joy and positivity built plenty of equity and goodwill into the brand.


The first ever appearance of Smiley on a mobile phone, licensed to Alcatel in 1996

In the relative calm of the pop-tinged 90s, Smiley had less of a foreboding atmosphere to rail against than the previous two decades. When Nicolas Loufrani took the helm of The Smiley Company, he reinvigorated the brand by taking it in a totally new direction.

“What I did went against the marketing handbook,” he says. “Nowadays, if you take over a brand you go back to its roots and stay authentic to its origin. I wanted to take it in a totally new direction by creating lots of logos – lots of Smileys – to explore different emotions.” In 1997, Smiley trademarked its own set of hugely influential graphic emoticons.

By adding accessories, Smiley’s emoticons expanded the brand into different categories, such as nature or sport, as well as representing different nations. By the late 90s, this newfound energy and versatility drew attention from a diverse mix of partners such as Deutsche Telekom, Fujifilm and 7-Eleven.


Smiley’s brand partnership with Renault promised your holidays will be “all smiles”

As digital connectivity evolved at a pace, the huge potential of emoticons as a communication tool became clear – and in 2001, Smiley played a key role in the growth of emoji culture by creating the Smiley Dictionary, which aimed to demonstrate how these playful icons could help us capture our emotions through text.

Smiley’s website at the time heralded the ‘birth of a universal language’. “We set out a vision of the future where the whole world communicates with Smileys,” says Loufrani. “It was wishful thinking at the time, but it became true.”

As instant messaging apps, email and then social media took hold, emojis were embraced and constantly reinterpreted by tech giants around the world. By the end of the decade, most of us had a smartphone in our pocket – and Loufrani’s vision of a truly universal language had come to pass.


Smiley featured in the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics

Having been thrust into the global spotlight with a billion-strong audience as part of the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, over the next decade Smiley found its feet as a lifestyle licensing brand. Its high-profile fashion collaborations range from streetwear brands like Chinatown Market to luxury boutiques such as Loewe and Moschino, but the brand can flex across many different sectors – as its diverse partnerships with Vittel, Lynx, Cadbury and McDonald’s demonstrate.

“We’ve been very careful about not putting it on everything,” adds Loufrani. “Whether it’s products, social campaigns, events or in-store activations, we’ve kept it creative, interesting and sophisticated. We want to be more than just a logo to slap on something.”

Loufrani describes Smiley as a ‘turnkey’ option for a partner to take advantage of its long-established brand equity, while adding a twist of positivity, optimism and emotional intelligence to a campaign. “Every collaboration starts with a blank sheet of paper,” he adds.

As part of the 50th anniversary in 2022, Smiley will reawaken its original mantra ‘Take the Time to Smile’ through a broad range of different brand collaborations – from exhibitions to custom music tracks to immersive experiences. “50 is a magic number,” concludes Loufrani. “There’s a real halo effect for a brand to benefit from.”

To discuss a potential brand partnership with Smiley, contact Matt on matt@smiley.com.
Find out more at smiley.com


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