In 2022, the Smiley brand turns 50. Over that time, the iconic smiling face and its many emoticon descendants have brought an attitude of ‘defiant optimism’ to a dizzying array of different partnerships, spanning almost every sector imaginable.
According to CEO Nicolas Loufrani, the secret of licensing the brand’s IP so extensively without diluting its impact is simple: creativity. “It’s at the heart of everything we do,” he says. “Some partners may just want something recognisable, like the classic Smiley in basic yellow. But we’ll always push them to develop something original.”
Within the fashion industry, for instance, Smiley often draws on its heritage in electronic music culture to create a stylistic fusion – with recent collaborators including Loewe, Chinatown Market, Ellesse and Pull&Bear.
The brand has also run activations in shopping malls all around the world, drawing on its creative database of over 3,500 unique Smiley emoticons to create fun, positive brand experiences for browsing shoppers.
At the other end of the spectrum, Smiley has also brought positive vibes to FMCG products from nappies to frozen food, plus electrical goods, household appliances and more. “We enjoy bringing a ‘lifestyle brand’ ethos to products that are often seen as uncool,” explains Loufrani. “It reminds people to smile, be positive and enjoy life.”
It’s often in those less-expected partnerships that the Smiley brand can make the most positive impact. Recent collaborators include French hypermarket chains Leclerc and Casino, while Iceland even has its own range of Smiley-shaped chicken nuggets. “Private labels aren’t seen as a ‘sexy option’ for most young people,” he continues. “We can help pimp them up by telling a nice story and bringing some fun and joy to the packaging.”
To mark Smiley’s half-century, Creative Review and Smiley have teamed up to commission five exclusive artworks. The brief: create concept brands from the past five decades, using Smiley assets to add emotional intelligence to a creative campaign for that brand. Here are the results…
1970S: CRAVING MUSTARD
Our first illustrator, Noelia Lozano, jumped at the chance to immerse herself in advertising from the 1970s – the decade when the Smiley brand was born.
Lozano created ‘Craving Mustard’, using Smiley’s lip-licking emoticon as the perfect visual shorthand for the condiment’s desirability after a stressful day. “It gave my imagination freedom to fly,” she explains. “By expressing our emotions visually, it makes everything faster and easier to understand.”
Her painstakingly crafted papercraft set is packed with nostalgic details, from the wavy lampshades seen in 70s dining rooms to the classic chequered tablecloth and vintage wallpaper -style background pattern.
She followed the typical 70s format of a hero image of the product being served, supported by a simple, bold claim. “As well as featuring the emoticon in the brand itself, I also created a playful set composition that worked it into the sandwich itself,” continues Lozano. “When you taste this mustard, you’re instantly craving more.”
1980S: SUNNY SOUNDS
Frieda Ruh chose to explore the power of music to influence our emotions in her campaign for upbeat 80s radio station ‘Sunny Sounds’. “As a child, I used to listen to the radio for ages until they played my favourite song,” she recalls.
While her campaign has the look and feel of classic 80s Hip Hop, Ruh packed her artwork with other 80s music references, from Madonna’s gloves to Bowie’s lightning bolt. “Roller-skates were also quite typical, as well as those ice creams that came in a sort of paper tube. And everybody put stickers on everything,” she adds.
As well as lending a cheeky, joyful charm to the station’s logo, Smiley emoticons play a key role in communicating the transformative effect that music can have on how we feel – turning our frowns upside down, as the tagline says.
“It was so much fun to use them as stickers on the radio, figuring out which ones would best show an overall mood change,” she explains. “The moodier ones on the left-hand side become increasingly happy as you move to the right.”
1990S: DA BOMB
Daryl Rainbow created 90s fashion/lifestyle brand ‘Da Bomb’ as the go-to place for young people to find on-trend fashion, accessories, and technology.
Da Bomb, Rainbow explains, curates the season’s most exciting and relevant brands, whilst forging its own unique collaborations too. “It ranges from high-waisted jeans and streetwear to grunge fashion trends, as well as the exciting gadgets of the decade – from Tamagotchis to Game Boys to chunky mobile phones,” he says.
Rainbow reached for the winking face emoticon, which Smiley describes as ‘aesthetic appreciation’. “Da Bomb is effectively giving the young generation that stamp of approval,” he explains. “The wink adds playfulness and fun, making the brand very approachable.”
2000S: BYE BYE BUGABOO
Harriet Noble conceived ‘Bye Bye Bugaboo’, a unique service to combat an issue that preoccupied many at the turn of the millennium. “You can’t think of the Year 2000 and not think of the Millennium Bug,” she smiles. “There was a lot of fear around. Bugaboo means a fear or annoyance, so it was a perfect marriage of that emotion with the ‘bug’ concept.”
Smiley’s fear emoticon helped Noble express that overriding feeling on the computer screen, as her exterminators dash to catch the pixelated bugs. “Usually, you have to work hard to suggest emotion through symbolic visual metaphors,” she points out. “I found that emoticons could instantly amplify the message and emotion I was trying to communicate.”
Noble had plenty of childhood memories to draw on for her campaign idea. “Back then, TVs, CD players and computers were still bulky, boxy, thick and plasticky,” she recalls. “I have fond memories of quirks of technology like dial-up tones and character limits on texting.”
2010S: HAPPINESS DELIVERED
“The 2010s were the age of online shopping, apps, ‘gamification’ and having anything you want delivered,” says Gem D’Souza. Her brand concept is ‘Happiness, Delivered’ – a vast network of services, retail, and food outlets.
Through her busy, colourful cityscape, D’Souza set out to represent the hustle and bustle of modern life – and how the technology that links us together can influence our emotions.
“We’ve been using Smileys as a simple way to convey emotions for years, especially in the modern day where so much communication is online,” she reflects. “I chose to express how people’s moods can change at the press of a button.”
2020S: 50 YEARS AND COUNTING
“I love the sophistication and variety in all these graphics,” is Loufrani’s take on our five-artist collaboration. “They’ve all brought their unique cache, talent and style to the brief, and that’s a very important element in everything we do.”
As Loufrani points out, most big entertainment licenses come in waves – around a particular movie or game, for instance – and exhaust the market with identikit merchandise that’s all produced under the same strict guidelines. “There’s usually a jack-of-all-trades who’ll deal with everything, with no specific category expertise,” he explains.
Instead, Smiley’s in-house studio is split into several specialist divisions – including fashion and accessories, home decor and gifts, FMCG, marketing and promotions – each with its own dedicated team. Creative assets are versatile enough to flex across categories and industries, and to appeal to everyone from snack-loving kids to discerning fashionistas.
“We must ensure we don’t exhaust the market with the same look and feel on everything,” continues Loufrani. “That’s how you kill a brand.” Creative uses of the iconic Original Smiley tend to be reserved for top-tier collaborations, but the graphic is constantly reinterpreted, expanded and evolved. Smiley releases over 20 fresh style-guides every season, and even invites world-famous artists to put their own unique spin on the brand.
With its 50th fast approaching, Smiley has its most ambitious such partnership yet lined up: working with graffiti legend André to produce an exclusive collection of artworks for auction, and a bespoke Smiley style-guide that has already inspired more than 60 major brands to create a limited-edition collectable product for the anniversary.
Spanning the luxury, technology, fashion, beauty, food sectors and more, they will be sold in exclusive pop-up shops and flagship stores globally. “It’s going to create an incredible halo, and spread a lot of happiness,” concludes Loufrani.