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Faculty Insights

Emoji Nation

By Wisconsin School of Business

February 5, 2018

Emojis have infiltrated our daily discourse. But do they work in marketing?
You can run, but you can’t hiding monkey emoji.
They’re everywhere: cups of coffee, thumbs up, palm trees, eyeroll faces, dancing ladies, hearts. Even the 19th century woodblock artist, Katsushika Hokusai, is immortalized with his own tsunami emoji.
Emojis are examples of textual paralanguage (TPL), which is nonverbal communication in text. The small, colorful signs and images convey a meaning and emotion that go beyond what the recipient would get from just reading the words alone.

Joann Peck
WSB Associate Professor Joann Peck

TPL is most commonly found in our non-professional communication—informal texts, emails, and social media interactions with family and friends. But my co-authors—Andrea Webb Luangrath of the University of Iowa and Victor Barger of the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater—and I had all sorts of questions when it came to issues of corporate brands and TPL usage. Primarily, are brands even using TPL in their public communication strategies? (Answer: They are—a lot). When should brands use TPL and should it come from the brand itself or the brand’s spokescreature (think Geico Gecko)? What sort of effects, if any, does TPL usage have on a brand’s consumers?
As we explored these and many other questions, we found nothing in the marketing literature that addressed this specific area. We decided to move forward with our own study in the hope that it might spur others to further research on these topics.
To emoji or not to emoji? That is the question
Using emoji-like characters isn’t necessarily a new thing for human communication. It’s thought that TPL started in the theater world with the use of parentheticals in play scripts. Italicized directives bound by parentheses showed actors how certain lines should be delivered:
I’m not sure.
In our study, we started by looking at publicly available data from brand accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. From there, we built a typology that incorporated what we were seeing on brand accounts with the predominant senses used in the literature for human interaction—sound, touch, and sight (visuals). In the auditory or sound category, TPL could encompass voice characteristics like stressing a particular word (e.g., “You are the BEST!”) or vocalizations including utterances such as “haha” or “whistling.” The tactile kinesics or touch category includes TPL like the man and woman holding hands emoji, or spelling out words like “hugs” or “high-five.” Relating to vision, the visual kinesics category defines TPL relating to the body—the dancing lady emoji, for example, or the thumbs-up emoji. Finally, artifacts are a second visual category and encompass presentational or stylistic elements of communication, like typeface, formatting, or the hamburger emoji.
Using our typology to examine our study sample, we found that brand accounts used TPL frequently in their social media communications: 20.6 percent of brand tweets, 19.1 percent of Facebook posts, and 31.3 percent of Instagram posts contained some type of TPL.
TPL benefits and consequences
We also created a conceptual framework of antecedents—the factors that motivate a brand to use TPL. Our antecedents were brand personality (e.g., humanization of the brand, degree of relatability), platform factors (e.g., asynchronous vs. synchronous communication), and target audience factors (e.g., demographics). TPL may be optimal for brands trying to create a younger, more relatable image, for example.
Our study suggests that the use of TPL has both benefits and consequences for brands. Here are several points for consideration and future exploration:

  • TPL can increase brand engagement for companies. Consumers are more likely to interact with brand tweets and to share them with others.
  • Consumers look for warmth and competence in a brand’s personality. Warmth can increase or decrease depending upon how TPL was used, but (perceived) competence only decreases.
  • This decrease in the perceived competence effect is neutralized if a brand’s spokescreature (e.g., Smokey the Bear, Energizer Bunny, Tony the Tiger) uses TPL. This could be due to the fact that since spokescreatures are already informal, using TPL doesn’t affect the perceived competency level.
  • Issues of mimicry: If a consumer employs TPL first in an interaction, should the brand respond in kind?

It’s likely that TPL has differential effects across distinct demographic groups as well. Brands should be conservative in their use; it’s important to make sure TPL communication is appropriate for the intended audience.
Our study focuses on brands’ TPL relationship with consumers, but future research could explore what companies can learn from consumers’ personal use of TPL—possible predictors like loyalty, engagement, and personality.
It’s something to thinking face emoji.
Read the paper “Textual Paralanguage and Its Implications for Marketing Communications” published in Journal of Consumer Psychology
Joann Peck is an associate professor in the Department of Marketing at the Wisconsin School of Business.