The Smiley Company has enjoyed a fascinating evolution. Over the past five decades, it has grown from a powerful symbol of happiness and optimism into a rich visual language that can build emotional connections between people all over the world.
As we discussed in our article exploring 50 years of the Smiley brand, this evolution began in the 1990s when Nicolas Loufrani took over The Smiley Company from his father. Loufrani’s decision to develop the iconic grin of the Original Smiley into the more nuanced, expressive world of emoticons was hugely influential for the ubiquitous emoji culture that followed, but it also unlocked exciting new potential for the brand in the emerging field of emotional intelligence (EQ).
“I only discovered the term ‘EQ’ fairly recently,” explains Loufrani. “Back then we were doing it intuitively. But I realise now that everything I did back then was about bringing emotional intelligence to written communication. Emoticons help you convey your emotions to engage with the person you’re talking to, instead of just sending black-and-white text.”
Over the coming weeks, Creative Review will be collaborating with five diverse artists and illustrators to explore how a partnership with Smiley can help a brand connect with consumers by putting emotional intelligence at the heart of a campaign. Here’s what that looks like in practice…
ADD EMOTIONAL NUANCE TO WRITTEN COMMS
Loufrani draws parallels between emoticons in written text and the gestures and facial expressions that add richness to our face-to-face conversations. “Some people are very talented with words, whether speaking or writing. But there are also lots of non-verbal cues – like tone of voice, what you do with your hands, and posture,” he points out.
“As soon as you start writing, unless you are very talented with your words, these nuances are not there,” Loufrani continues. “Emoticons bring non-verbal cues into the conversation. These little icons better convey what you want to say, when words alone aren’t enough.”
This mode of expression has become an integral part and parcel of emotional intelligence in the always-on, digital-first world we now live in. As the emotional counterbalance to the more intellectual ‘IQ’, EQ is a critical part of how we build and maintain healthy relationships with friends, family, colleagues and the rest of society – as well as how we understand and express our own thoughts and feelings.
GIVE YOUR BRAND AN EMOTIONAL EDGE
As Loufrani points out, this is as important for brands as it is for individuals on a personal level. “Brands must increasingly show how emotionally intelligent they are,” he explains. “Brands are personas, and as consumers, we often think about a brand’s tone of voice and who’s representing it. We develop a relationship with that brand.”
Successful brands know the importance of developing emotional relationships with their audiences, and this runs much deeper than an above-the-line campaign strategy. Day-to-day micro-interactions with people – when they’re waiting to be served, approaching the front desk, or using an app or website – are an opportunity to strengthen that emotional relationship. “It’s about doing everything to show you care,” remarks Loufrani.
Over the past decade in particular, brands have also shown the benefits of showing their caring side in a broader sense – so long as it comes from an authentic place. “Now, brands are showing they care about the planet, about their workers, and about things like their supply chain,” he continues. “It’s all part of developing this connection with consumers.”
BUILD STRONGER CONSUMER RELATIONSHIPS
Brands that forge genuine emotional connections with consumers have a psychological advantage over the competition. Loufrani references Simon Sinek’s seminal 2009 TED Talk ‘How great leaders inspire action’, which shows the benefit of a brands focussing on why they exist, rather than more prosaic matters such as what they do, or how they do it.
“Research has shown that millennials are not as passionate about brands as my generation was. They’re not as faithful,” adds Loufrani. “If brands want to change that, they need to create deeper, stronger connections with consumers. And to do that, they must show EQ.”
A Smiley partnership is fully bespoke, to find the route that best suits each brand. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution,” he continues. “2022 is our 50th year, and we’re planning lots of exciting ideas and projects to activate the brand. Whether it’s a bank, a retail store, a fast-food restaurant, an event or an on-pack promotion, we use creativity and sophistication to find the right way to convey emotional intelligence and empathy.”
UNLOCK YOUR BRAND’S FULL POTENTIAL
Many brand licensing partnerships, such as with major entertainment franchises, can draw on an established fanbase and distinctive IP – but they lack the depth and versatility to do something creative enough to connect with people on a deeper emotional level.
“It’s fantastic to align with a huge movie, but it’s a very restricted world,” says Loufrani. “You’re working with a style guide, and images from the movie. There’s one way to speak. One voice.” For Smiley, brand licensing is different: a two-way collaboration that starts with a blank sheet of paper.
“We think in a different way, creating exclusive icons and messages,” Loufrani explains. “We’re a brand that lives through our partnerships with other brands – and we’re excited to create something new each time.”
While braver brands will embrace this blank-sheet opportunity with open arms, Loufrani admits that for others, the lack of rules can be a turn-off. “It’s a very subjective thing. We’re looking for people who are as genuinely excited about this as we are,” he smiles. “It has to come from the heart.”