by James Watson-Krips
June 17th, 2016

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Emoji.

Those little smiley faces and their friends can represent feelings, people, and events. They can even represent countries.

With a single stylised icon, one can charm, enrage, or just confuse. They have become a new language, and as an emblem of 21st century communication, emoji are sometimes as polarising as they are colourful.

According to statistics, six billion emoticons or stickers are sent per day. Research has also shown that emoji have even led to new patterns of brain activity. They have allowed us to make pictographic associations that have never before existed, and offer a bridge between the alpha-numeric and the verbal.

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, emoji have become a part of our conversation not just with friends and family, but also with brands, which are increasingly seeking an emotional connection with customers. Citing data from CRM developer Appboy, the number of campaigns using emojis has grown 777% year-on-year on just their software alone. All over the Internet, we now see companies exploring ways to weave emoji into their branded content. We see emoji keyboards, branded stickers, and even smiley-faces and pizza symbols capable of ordering dinner. It’s clearly a golden age for brand-driven emoji, and one that shows no signs of slowing down.

Interestingly, it’s here in the Asia-Pacific region that the phenomenon was born. How have they fared since that late 90’s arrival? Well, as with many things in APAC, there is no simple answer.

On the one hand, it’s clear that emoji are just as popular here as they are in other parts of the world. They are practically ubiquitous across many of the region’s private messaging platforms, and form a core part of the user experience. They also function as a key revenue stream, with major players such as WeChat and Line offering a vast array of paid sticker sets featuring celebrities and other famous cultural icons.

On the other hand, however, it’s also clear that the landscape here is much more segmented. The APAC region is home to considerable diversity, and digital preferences vary from market to market. It’s been said Japanese users like vague yet cute emoji, while Chinese netizens are partial to fun yet quirky stickers featuring some form of cultural resonance or celebrity flair. And then there’s Australia, which was singled out by keyboard developer SwiftKey for its love affair with alcohol-themed icons.

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And that’s just the beginning.

Because of this variance, developers and social platforms have had to reassess how they create and leverage new emoji at a regional level, and instead adopt a market-centric approach. This has not only led to an assortment of new emoji, but also novel and unique interactions with the colourful icons.

One such example is with Line, the Korean-owned Japanese messaging platform that now enjoys a considerable following in the region. As noted in a recent Bloomberg spotlight, the company dedicates considerable time and effort to researching new stickers and emoji, and its developers are given the green light to experiment with new ways to attract local users and local brands. This has helped the company cultivate loyal followers of its emoji characters, and monetise an otherwise free platform with paid sticker sets from both Line and its various partner brands.

Yet perhaps most interesting is how the company has found new ways to bring its emoji to life in a way that leverages Japan’s famed affinity for pop culture cuteness. Line now operates 45 stores in 11 countries throughout Asia, where it lets emoji-crazed users purchase branded products and toys featuring its various icons. Literally bridging the gap between communication and commerce, it is a true interplay of local tastes and digital ingenuity.

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But despite Line’s success, it’s important to remember that just like any weapon in a communications arsenal, emoji should be used both properly and strategically. This means brands should avoid emoji for emoji’s sake, and instead employ them when appropriate to the situation at hand, and the company’s own identity. At the same time, brands must be clear as to what each emoji means. While often fun and quirky, emoji don’t always mean the same thing to everyone viewing them. The same icon can be understood differently by diverse cultures, and can also be represented differently across phone operating systems, leading to bemusement in the most benign of cases, and anger at the most extreme.

In other words, brands must do their homework, and ensure that when they play with the fire emoji, they don’t get burned.

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