September 2015

Gen Y, Gen Z and Emojis

Universal and Ambiguous

Universal and ambiguous – no communication trend illustrates Gen Z and Gen Y’s desire for both more than the use of emoticons and emojis. The use of symbols that deliver the emotion of the sender personalizes their content and allows a freedom of interpretation by the recipient. This type of visual consumerism doesn’t necessitate breath-taking imagery to draw the observer’s eye. Rather it relies on simplicity with stripped down symbols that deliver a general, yet uncertain message.

6 Billion Emoticons Per Day

Today’s widespread use of emoticons and emojis by Gen Z and Gen Y, signifies a cultural shift in conversational language. This presents brands with an opportunity to convey their messages in original and creative ways. Visual communication is such that emoji alphabets and icon “stickers” can be substituted for text with picture symbols and glyphs that provide context and create subtext. The Unicode text language was first developed in 1999 by Japanese engineers and since grown into a global part of electronic communication. [i] According to eMarketer, there are 6 billion emoticons or stickers sent around the world every day on mobile messaging apps. [ii] [iii]

Impact on Youth Culture and Brands

Visual communications personalize a message beyond words and enable an emotional connection. For the Gen Z consumer today, emojis and emoticons are 21st century dialogue. Consider just a few of these cultural indicators:


Microsoft is updating its software platform with radical and even controversial emoji, while Mentos, Ikea, and Comedy Central are among many brands that have created their own emojis. [v]


64% of Millennials communicate with them regularly. [iv]


Instagram reports that nearly 50 percent of all captions and comments on its platform have an emoji. [vi]

From the hand-written letter to e-mail communications, and from texts to tweets, Gen Y and Z are using emojis and emoticons to advance their communication with each other.


Striving to Be Cool

Before brands begin to adapt to this shift in language, it is essential that they not become the equivalent of an embarrassing parent. Striving to stay cool by using emojis and emoticons can have negative outcomes if executed poorly. By understanding youth culture and how emojis are used in their everyday communication, brands can successfully create authentic content that young consumers want to engage with. As Mobile Marketer suggests, “Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words so figure how to tell a story through your emoji, and you may need more than one, incorporating existing ones that are already being used today.” [vii]

The Downfall of Civilization

While emojis are embraced by today’s youth, they are not accepted by everyone. To some, emoticons are immature, silly, confusing and a waste of time. The Today Show titled a recent piece, “Are Emoticons the ‘Downfall of Civilization?”). [viii]  Others simply believe emojis are merely a trend. “Emoji will probably get replaced by something else before it has the chance to shape a generation, but there will certainly be a window of people who will never look at peaches or eggplants the same way again,” Dan Brill, author of Emojinaylsis, suggests. [ix]

The Future

From the hand-written letter to e-mail communications, and from texts to tweets, Gen Y and Z are using emojis and emoticons to advance their communication with each other. “Emojis are doing what the tone of voice did on the telephone and what gestures, tones and facial expressions did in interpersonal communication,” says Mitchell Stephens, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. “It gives people something that has been missing in writing for the past five and a half thousand years.” [x] Brands that don’t speak the language of teens and young adults today risk being perceived as less relevant.

[i] “Emoji”, Wikipedia

[ii] “Smartphone Users Worldwide Will Total 1.75 Billion in 2014”, eMarketer, January 2014

[iii] “The Emotification of Brand Advertising”, Digiday, April 2015

[iv] “Brands Attempt to Decode Emoji Social Conversations”, Marketing Dive, June 2015

[v] “Microsoft Windows 10 Leak Reveals New Offensive Emoji”, Forbes, May 2015

[vi] “This is your Brand on Emojis” Brandviews, June 2015

[vii] “Brands must decode branded emojis or risk getting left behind”, Mobile Marketer, July 2015

[viii] “Emoticons: Like ‘em Love ‘em or Abhor Them”, Psychology Today, November 2014

[ix] “The Language of Emoji Communications in the Digital Age”, Vice I-D, May 2015

[x] “The Emotification of Brand Advertising”, Digiday, April 2015