Ever-present Emojis Sell Safe Sex, Tacos, and More to Millennials

Emojis are ubiquitous: on smartphones, tchotchkes, and even a forthcoming film. They are also increasingly a preferred method of communicating, especially by millennials on mobiles. And as Hans Klis reports, given the popularity of the symbols, they are also creating useful ways to communicate marketing messages and more.

And as Hans Klis reports, given the popularity of the symbols, they are also creating useful ways to communicate marketing messages and more. 
The everpresent emoji have even found their way, predictably, into sexual behavior but perhaps less expected, into promoting safer practices.
On World AIDS Day on December 1 Durex tried to do this using an emoji: ☔. An interesting, but not surprising marketing campaign. Looking at some of the preferred emoji (combinations) for sexual interaction an emoji promoting safe sex isn’t such a crazy idea.
Young people between the ages of 15 and 24 have an increased risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2014 this cohort made up nearly two-thirds of reported cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea in the US. How do you educate these youngsters to practice safe sex? 
One way is to send memorable messages where they are—on their smart devices. After all 98 percent of Millennials in the 18-24 age group own a smartphone, Nielsen reports. And last year creative agency Deep Focus reported that more than 40 percent of Millennials prefer communicating with pictures over words. 
By representing emotions and feelings, emoji function as a visual language that conveys meaning where words fall short. The use of these symbols in mobile communicating is rising steadily. 92 percent of online users use the symbols to communicate, research from marketing platform Emogi shows. It projects that in 2016 consumers will have used 2.3 trillion emojis across messaging platforms. 
The World AIDS Day campaign #CondomEmoji not only promoted safe sex, but was also a way for Durex to drum up support for a new and original condom emoji. A design for such a symbol was rejected in August by the Unicode Consortium, the non-profit organization that coordinates the Unicode text standard of digital communication. It governs the extensive emoji library and approves around sixty new symbols every year, like the hijab emoji.
The emoji has become an innovative marketing ploy. In an age where consumers are trying to block out ads in their browsers, emojis present a playful, non-invasive way of advertising--in the mobile messaging environment: Facebook Messenger, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, etc.
“With consumer’s attention scarcer and more fragmented than ever, emoji provide a level of expression that is tailor-made to a given channel or context,” asserts Rachel Mercer. She’s VP and head of digital strategy at Deutsch and worked on the emoji campaign for Taco Bell in 2015. “Using emojis is a simple way for a brand to act truly human, especially in native platforms like Instagram or Twitter where it’s a natural extension of existing user behavior”.
Although there are pizza and hamburger emoji, together used almost 30 million times on Twitter according to Emojitracker, Deutsch realized a taco symbol was not yet part of the emoji alphabet. The agency mounted a campaign to grab the attention of Unicode. Successfully, Mercer adds. “After more than 33,000 signatures on a Change.org petition, the Taco Emoji became a reality on more than 2 billion screens”. After enlisting Taco Bell consumers, Deutsch launched the hashtag #TacoEmojiEngine on Twitter. “When users tweeted a taco plus any other emoji, they received any one of 1,294 different custom responses — one for every emoji.”
Mercer was glad to see a positive response to the campaign. It generated more than half a million tweets in the first five days after the taco emoji was made available. Why? “There were several layers of incentive to participate,” she explains. “First was the novelty of the custom content combination. What would a Taco and Horse look like? A Taco and a pyramid? These were simple, easy micro interactions for a user to generate with a near instantaneous reward.” #TacoEmojiEngine prompted one Twitter user to try 370 different combinations, Mercer adds. 
Ever since the introduction of emoji support in Apple’s iOS 5 the use of colorful symbols has skyrocketed. And Taco Bell isn’t the only company to capitalize on this development. In the past few years a host of brands including Pepsi, Anheuser-Busch, and McDonald’s have embraced the visual language (some more successfully than others). Twitter even created hashtag-triggered emoji for the Nov 8 election.
Last year General Electric developed an Emoji Table of Experiments to promote science to a younger audience. It urged Snapchat users to send an emoji with the hashtag #EmojiScience. According to the messaging service, it reaches 41 percent of all 18 to 34 year-olds in the United States. In return they would receive a personal video message with appearances of celebrities like Bill Nye ‘The Science Guy’ and The Daily Show’s Jessica Williams. 
Emoji are also steadily becoming a mainstay in chatbots. The simplicity of the symbols makes communication easier. That’s why retail chain Whole Foods introduced a Facebook Messenger Bot this summer to help find recipes for consumers using emojis. Typing ‘gluten free’ and a chicken emoji results in a range of dishes like ‘Honey-Glazed Five-Spice Chicken.'
Facebook opened up its Messenger service to developers and brands earlier this year. Whole Foods is joined by the likes of GE (Dot the Bot), American Express and Pizza Hut. That last one debuted an emoji only menu in the UK this past summer.
Although emoji use by consumers and brands is steadily rising - mobile analytics firm Appboy reported an increase of 609 percent in emoji campaigns over the last year and a half - it’s not a silver bullet.
“Emojis shouldn’t be used for their own sake, they should serve a purpose”, Appboy CEO Mark Ghermezian emphasizes. “They can make messages snappier, highlighting or emphasizing importance, and communicating a tone that goes beyond words alone. At this stage in the game, brands should be wary of too frequent or improper use of the platform, which could desensitize the audience to the format and potentially even impair brand image and relevance.” The lukewarm reception of the upcoming The Emoji Movie should serve as a warning.
There is a difference in how individuals and brands use emoji, Appboy finds. While the first group uses face emojis for self-expression, brands are more inclined to use eye-catching, attention grabbing emojis. Brands need to be aware of this. Ghermezian notes, “You want that chemistry and personality to come out with each emoji you create. Emojis have this unique appeal to really resonate with people, so building an emoji which talks to your market is key and important for when you are looking to create one."
It’s also important to note that marketing agencies are still figuring out how to earn money with emoji and there’s yet to be comprehensive research that specifically determines the return of investment of emoji campaigns. Even after the Taco Bell success Deutsch VP Mercer says, “Personally, emoji packs make a great PR story but have a highly convoluted funnel with multiple barriers to widespread adoption.”