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  • When is it okay for a brand to use emojis?
  • When is it okay for a brand to use emojis?
    Kevin Grieve (2018) ©

πŸ”¬πŸ“±πŸ€”? The science of emoji marketing

Emojis have become ubiquitous in digital communications, but their use in marketing campaigns hasn’t always been successful. Canvas8 spoke to Dr. Sara Kim, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong, to learn how people interpret and react to brands that use these symbols.

Location Global

On World Emoji Day in July 2018, Apple unveiled 70 new emojis to join its collection of more than 2,666, with the latest additions including bald, ginger-haired, and curly-haired characters, as well as kangaroos and cupcakes. These symbols have changed the nature of online communications, and with research from 2016 finding that 92% of the online population uses them, it’s a language that’s been adopted in almost every context – from The White House’s economic reports to the Oxford Dictionary’s ‘Word of the Year’.

Their growing importance in digital conversations has inevitably caught the eye of many marketers, though attempts to harness them have been hit-and-miss. “Domino’s has benefited from using emoticons for its pizza delivery service via Twitter,” explains Dr. Sara Kim, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Hong Kong. “On the other hand, other uses of emoticons by the company have been criticized.”

With emojis now considered lingua franca for the digital age, they’re making their way into various parts of business operations, from advertising campaigns to customer service. But what do they mean for brand-consumer interactions? Canvas8 spoke to Kim, who co-authored the study ‘Service with Emoticons: How Customers Interpret Employee Use of Emoticons in Online Service Encounters’, to understand how people evaluate and react to companies that use emojis in their communications.


What did you want to find out?
We started this study because we realised that there’s very little research on the role of emoticons in commercial relationships, especially relationships between consumers and service employees. We looked at some real-world examples of this and there are a lot of companies using emoticons to communicate already. But they don’t seem to clearly understand when and how they should use them, so we decided to look deeper into when the use of emoticons can be helpful.

We adopted a framework from the psychological literature to look at how people evaluate the use of emoticons. We know that people tend to judge others on two dimensions – warmth (i.e. how good or bad the person is) and competence. People only take about three to five seconds to judge these two dimensions in a person.

Emojis make marketing messages feel more familiar Emojis make marketing messages feel more familiar
Monzo (2018) ©

How did you test your hypothesis?
We ran an experiment looking at consumer-seller relationships on Taobao, which is a platform connecting small shops to consumers. Sellers often have several online service representatives who directly talk to consumers via an instant messenger on Taobao – it’s rare not to have any conversation with the seller. This field experiment gave us a lot of chances to directly examine the conversation on instant messenger between a consumer and online service employees.

In our study, we asked service representatives to either use emoticons or not to do so during online conversations. We then recorded when they sent emoticons, whether customers bought something or not, and how much they spent. After the interaction, we asked the customers to complete a survey about their experience. In this survey, we showed them the conversation they had with the service employee and asked them how they perceived the interaction based on the two dimensions, warmth and competence.

A touch of personality may not be entirely beneficial for a brand A touch of personality may not be entirely beneficial for a brand
Three (2018) ©

What did you find out?
We found that consumers perceive service employees who use emoticons as kinder or nicer – they had a positive impact on their warmth dimension. This was especially true for when service employees provided so-called ‘extra role services’, like information about a specific promotion or about safety issues related to the products, or some kind of extra information the customer didn’t even ask for but found useful. However, emoticons had a negative impact on the competence dimension. Service employees appeared less professional, less capable, and less competent when they used emoticons in the conversation with the customer.

The question for us was ‘when will customers focus more on valuing warmth than competence?’ We found that the customer relationship orientation determines this and we know that there are two types of relationship in this context. For example, consumers can either have a communal relationship orientation with employees, which is more like a friendship, or they have an exchange relationship orientation, which refers to relationships strictly for business.

When people want to be more like a friend with the service employee, then they tend to focus on evaluating others on the warmth dimension, hence why emoticons can have a positive effect. Meanwhile, when people want a strictly professional relationship, they focus more on evaluating competence. In this case, using emoticons can be bad.

People expect brands to act in-line with their perceptions People expect brands to act in-line with their perceptions
McDonald’s (2018) ©

How can these findings be applied?

  • The mass popularity of emojis may be attributed to how they help strengthen the communal relationship orientation between friends. Research has found that as well as helping to add context to a message, people feel that emojis enable them to better communicate how they’re feeling to others. Over three-quarters of Americans say that their friends better understand visual expressions, like emojis, GIFs, or stickers, than words alone when interpreting feelings or thoughts, while 69% say that emojis help them feel more connected to people they message.
  • When it comes to brand interactions, Kim’s research suggests that companies would do well to establish a communal relationship as opposed to an exchange relationship before using emojis in customer interactions. This is a shift that’s already underway. From HP’s ad acknowledging cultural polarisation in the US to promote the deeper commonalities that bring us together to Star Alliance’s ad challenging stereotypical representations of older women, brands are making their values heard in the hope of building closer relationships with consumers.
  • According to research carried out by Return Path, emojis used in email subject lines can boost engagement, but there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy. For example, around Valentine’s Day, the ‘lips’ emoji boosted email read rates by four percentage points compared to those that used text alone (24% and 20% respectively). However, brands that used the ‘champagne’ emoji in New Year’s emails actually saw lower read rates. So, while these symbols are certainly capable of grabbing people’s attention, their nuanced interpretations (affected by brand perceptions and consumer relationships) make them difficult for marketers to wield.
  • A brand’s perception is important to its success in using emojis. Take Domino’s as an example. The brand benefited from implementing emoticons in its pizza delivery service via Twitter because the emoji worked as a natural extension of the brand’s warmth-oriented personality. Similarly, digital banking service Monzo integrates emojis into different aspects of its service, from user reactions to service notifications. While this communication may seem counterintuitive as it’s a banking app, Monzo’s position as a challenger brand – one that puts an emphasis on the consumer’s needs – helps positions it well in this space. On the other hand, when Goldman Sachs used emoticons to promote its ‘Millennials, Coming of Age’ data story, the tweet was criticised by the company’s followers.


Sara Kim is an associate professor of marketing at the Faculty of Business and Economics at the University of Hong Kong. Her research focuses on consumer and managerial decision making and its implications for marketing management.