How emojis became the modern world’s status symbols – and how they’ve crossed from messaging apps to real life

Emojis are crucial in getting your meaning across in text messages, and now they’re everywhere, from stationery to pyjamas. The next advance? Personalised symbols and stickers that match local cultures and customs

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 April, 2017, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 April, 2017, 12:00am

Emojis are an inescapable part of modern life. The explosion in their use led one British university to name emoji the world’s fastest growing new language in 2015. Since then the yellow faces, along with other digital icons such as stickers and GIFs, have become not only quintessential elements of everyday digital communication but also a multimillion dollar business.

Emojis – which evolved from emoticons, those faces made up of punctuation marks – are part of the unicode and available on every major digital platform. According to Emojitracker, a project created by hacker Matthew Rothenberg that tracks emoji usage in real time, roughly 18.5 billion emojis were used on Twitter from 2013 to the end of last month – and it’s still counting.

The first set of emojis, designed by Shigetaka Kurita, appeared in the late 1990s when Japanese phone company NTT DoCoMo added them to its handsets (which had black and white screens then) to entice users. Fast forward almost two decades, and the original 176 icons have become part of MoMA’s permanent collection. Emojis in the unicode grow in numbers, variety and racial/gender diversity with each update.

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Emojipedia has also just confirmed 239 new emojis – taking genders and skin colours into account – that are scheduled for release in June. Currently, depending on the platform you’re using, up to 1,851 emojis are available.

Marco Hüsges, chief executive of the Emoji company, attributes emojis’ popularity to the ease of sending them and their ability to transcend language and cultural barriers – much like fast food.

“It’s just like fast communication. We know that pictures can say more than a thousand words. It’s a very convenient and easy way in times when people have less time and get lazy,” says Hüsges, who anticipated the popularity of the icons and set up a business that specialises in emoji merchandise.

He was recently in Hong Kong to participate in a charity campaign with shopping mall operator Link Reit.

But convenience alone cannot fully account for the prevalence of these digital symbols, which do more than just speed up conversations.

Naotomo Watanabe is a senior manager at messaging app Line, which has successfully exploited and encouraged the spread of digital icons. Unlike other messaging apps, Line profits from the sale of digital stickers that you can add to your messages, and Watanabe oversees stickers strategy and analysis as well as the firm’s global expansion. He says: “Stickers let you communicate using imageries to deliver detailed nuance. For example, when you want to convey that you’re feeling happy […] adding an image that expresses happiness lets your message resonate on a deeper emotional level.”

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Text messages are efficient but not necessarily effective. Stripped of emotions, body language and facial expressions, texts – especially given their brevity – can be ambiguous and at times even interpreted wrongly, say emoji users and sticker fans. The same way tone and diction help people convey their meaning in a spoken conversation, emojis and stickers facilitate digital communication.

In March last year, according to figures issued for the company’s IPO last July, Line’s users sent an average of 389 million stickers per day. The total number of sticker sets rose from 351 in 2013 to 259,499 last year.

The astounding variety of stickers in Line means there is one for every situation. Take the simple act of saying sorry. Even just within the Line Friends collection created by in-house designers, there are more than a dozen representing different degrees of apology, most of them featuring the two most popular characters, Cony and Brown. There’s a slightly embarrassed Cony, a tearful Cony begging for forgiveness, Brown doing the Japanese 90-degree bow and a Cony kneeling overnight.

In 2014, Line launched the Creator’s Market, inviting users to upload stickers and sell them in the app. “Some characters that were originally released in the Creator’s Market, like Usamaru and Kanahei, have become so popular that they found new life offline – being used for convenience store advertisements, made into stuffed toys and turned into character-themed cafes,” says Watanabe.

Line itself now has 45 physical stores worldwide – in Korea, Malaysia and Singapore as well as one due to open in June at Times Square in New York – where an array of Line Friends products such as stationery, pyjamas and phone cases is sold.

While Line reaps profit from spin-off merchandise, Hüsges’ story is a classic case of a successful licensing strategy.

A former video game designer, Hüsges spotted the potential of emojis not in terms of digital communication, but in sales and merchandising.

He trademarked the word “emoji” as well as versions of many icons which look very similar to those in the unicode. Today, his company owns more than 600 trademarks, and collaborates with fashion brands as well as huge corporations such as Nikon, Pepsi and Walmart.

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“Everyone is trying to find what they can do to capitalise on digital [things],” says Hüsges. “Our motto, which is kind of funny, is from digital to physical. We want to use that expressive power [of emojis] from the digital world and transport it to the world of retail.”

So what’s next after giving emojis and digital stickers tangible form? Both Hüsges and Watanabe point to personalised emojis and stickers.

“People are now asking for individualised emojis. We have a customisation strategy” says Hüsges. His company recently created a series of Oktoberfest icons – such as a dirndl, pretzels and sausages – for a client and is working with a Chinese agency to design icons that can represent Chinese culture.

As for Line, which is looking at markets in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, customising stickers for its targeted users is slightly more complex.

“Line’s sticker strategy takes the same approach as Line’s basic strategy: providing contents that match local cultures and customs – sticker localisation, rather than trying to get our customers to adapt to us,” says Watanabe.

Messaging apps and sticker creators have been quick to jump on current affairs and popular trends. Take Telegram, which introduced a collection of Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton stickers amid the US election last year. However, their popularity has been relatively short-lived.

To create stickers that speak to or speak for other communities will require more than designing cute and funny characters. The illustrations need to capture the more subtle cultural nuances and, at the same time, reflect the thoughts of online communities, especially ones they would not utter out loud. And that will not be an easy task.