Smiley, the universal symbol for happiness and positivity, was born in 1972, when Franklin Loufrani added an illustration of a yellow smiling face to a section of feel-good stories in the French newspaper France-Soir. Now a global licensing enterprise that extends across fashion and homewares and into food and beverage, Smiley continues to embrace collaborations as an opportunity to spread a message of positivity and creativity.
As the DJ and art curator DB Burkeman has noted, “In the history of graphic design, no symbol has ever held the duality of Smiley: used simultaneously as both a positive mainstream driver and a counterculture subverter of that very mainstream.”
In 1997, as the digital revolution gathered steam, Franklin’s son Nicolas Loufrani, now CEO, launched the Smiley Dictionary. By codifying emotional intelligence, or EQ, into emoticons, he forever changed how we talk through text. The company then launched SmileyWorld, which evolved into the first lifestyle brand dedicated to emotional expression through its thousands of icons. Focused primarily on kids and parents, the brand leverages emotional intelligence to create products that encourage learning and self-expression.
Now, as Smiley gears up for its 50th anniversary, an array of initiatives aimed at increasing optimism, imagining a better future and connecting people through EQ provide lessons for brands and marketers that have never felt more timely—or urgent.
Defiant optimism as a marketing strategy
This is no ordinary moment. Global smiles are in decline, not only concealed by face masks but also diminished by so-called “absent presence,” precipitated by increased immersion in digital devices. That’s why Smiley is committed to guiding people through a period of difficulty with its message of “defiant optimism.”
Smiley has helped bring this message to consumers through partnerships with global brands including Unilever, McDonald’s and BNP Paribas in recent years. Their scope is broad—from experiential mall events, QSR and loyalty campaigns to on-pack premiums, bespoke packaging and multimedia campaigns—but their message is consistent, rooted in positivity, happiness and EQ. Here are three KPIs and benefits that resulted from EQ-driven positivity campaigns for these partners over the years:
The feel-good effect: A campaign with Nestle’s Vittel water that featured specially created SmileyWorld icons designed to appeal to their different age segments saw 128 million bottles sold across Europe with an 11.8% sales uplift in a testament to their purchase power. Similar campaigns with Nestle’s Pure Life in Thailand and Turkey saw another 100 million+ more bottles sold, with double-digit increases in registrations on digital platforms to redeem SmileyWorld stickers.
Traffic driver: Increased footfall is another huge driver of these bright, Instagrammable activations, engaging the public onsite and creating traffic in malls. Activations featuring SmileyWorld, such as a year-long association with the Hyundai Mall in Korea or a month-long holiday activation across 33 CPN malls in Thailand, saw both sales and revisit rates rise during the promotion.
Dream job: And it’s not just consumers who benefit from these promotions—the teams working on the campaigns also experience a lift. Last year’s activation with Pull&Bear was a lifesaver for the team during a global pandemic, with reports that working on the project during the first lockdown was a way to keep the team motivated by having such a positive launch to look forward to.
The values of happiness are universal, but adapting that message to your brand partner is a marketer’s real strength, providing exclusive concepts that keep it fresh and relevant to the target consumer. This is why Smiley does not consider itself a traditional IP owner; the company brings concrete brand values and a creative expertise that is reflected in everything it does.
This year, in the lead-up to its 50-year milestone, the Smiley Company launched an animated short that takes audiences on a five-decade journey, showing how the icon’s universality, durability and versatility have helped it flourish in popular and underground culture alike.
The next 50 years
The brand’s birthday celebrations are not just about looking back. It’s also about helping shape the next 50 years of positivity, and forward-thinking brands and marketers should note that there is plenty of demand for such a positive outlook:
Searches for “good news” have reached all-time highs and trend reports by WGSN have identified emerging tribes such as the “New Optimists,” a diverse spectrum of ages and backgrounds united by an attraction to inspiring brands and feeling hopeful about the future. Similarly, WGSN’s recent Shopper Forecast highlighted the power of spreading upbeat messages at retail as a lure back to bricks-and-mortar shopping. With brands aligning their products and marketing with joy, mindfulness and wellness fads, the need for authenticity and meaningful content becomes more elemental than ever.
Optimism is an integral part of Smiley’s DNA, perfectly positioning the brand to be at the forefront of the imminent comeback of all things positive and help to manifest a better future:
The pandemic won’t last forever, but will likely have a lasting effect. To help a generation of kids who endured the pandemic’s impact on their lives, the Happier Schools emotional intelligence curriculum for teachers is being developed using research showing that higher EQ translates into better learning confidence and wellbeing in kids. Meanwhile, the EQ Art Trail and Yellow Bench Project will encourage more social connection and a bigger discussion around the importance of EQ in our lives.
The Smiley Movement, the company’s not-for-profit wing founded in 2018, plays matchmaker for brands and causes that best suit them. Smiley News, launched last year, goes back to the brand’s roots, reminding everyone that there are inspiring stories to be told by focusing on changemakers doing good.
Ambitious, authentic, and forward-thinking brands and marketers can harness the power of the smile to lead the world toward a future we all actually want to be part of—a defiantly optimistic one. If the last 50 years of Smiley are any indication, an authentic smile is one thing we can all rally around.