Today is the world’s unofficial “Emoji Day,” which falls each year on 17 July. We wanted to mark the occasion by talking a little about the evolution of emojis, and emoticons – and also the role that emojis might play in business and marketing communications. Are they unprofessional? Or is there a place for emojis in modern workplace communication? We’ll weigh up some of the pros and cons, and let you know our verdict!

A Brief History of Emojis

So first off, what is Emoji Day? And why Emoji Day?

This unofficial international holiday was kicked off by Jeremy Burge (creator of the Emojipedia), in 2014. He picked the date because “July 17” is the date shown in Apple’s calendar emoji (it is also the date that Apple’s original iCal app was launched in 2002). People – and companies – liked Burge’s idea. In 2015, Pepsi launched their own set of emojis on Emoji Day. Sony began teasing their Emoji Movie on Emoji Day 2016, and in 2018, the Washington Post chimed in to suggest that on Emoji Day, their readers might like to try communicating solely in emojis.

Of course, the use of emojis predates all this by decades. In an interview in the 1960s, the Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov told The New York Times:

“I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile – some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket.”

By 1982, computer scientist Scott Fahlman proposed the use of symbols like :-) and :-( as quick ways to express emotions in text. In 1990 we got the Wingdings font, and by the end of that decade we saw the first mobile phones with dedicated emoji character sets.

Many credit Shigetaka Kurita as the author of the first real emojis – as we know them now – with a 176-character set he designed for the NTT DoCoMo mobile network in 1999. However, the Japanese designer never accepted that credit – instead, he simply said that he’d taken inspiration from the pictograms often featured in the Japanese manga tradition, and also from the characters used in Chinese script.

Because really, the idea of using images to communicate goes back much further than the 20th century. Not only in Chinese characters, but look at the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt too, whose emoji-like characters allowed whole sentences or complex phrases to be expressed in a single small panel (or cartouche).

Nowadays, we’ve come full circle – and once again civilization is turning to pictograms to express ideas that otherwise might have taken many more characters to type. It was Nokia, for many people, who brought emojis into the mainstream by including them as standard in their mass-produced (and indestructible) mobile phones.

As emojis can save us typing time, they tend to thrive in contexts like short text messages or social media posts. But here’s the million-dollar question: should emojis be used in a professional context? In business, or marketing communications?

There is no single clear-cut answer to that question… so instead, let’s weigh up some pros and cons to using emojis in a business context.

Emoji Day – the Wingdings font.

Emojis in Business Communication

The Benefits of Emojis

Emojis are relatable

Perhaps the most obvious benefit of using emojis is the very fact that they’re informal. They can have a humanising effect, breaking up stuffy memos with a friendly face – they make the sender feel down-to-earth and relatable. This can be particularly effective in online marketing. Sprout Social cites research showing that a well-placed emoji can increase engagement by 25% on Twitter, while on Facebook, it can boost shares by 33% and interactions by up to 57%.

Emojis convey nuance

When we communicate through computers, we lose all our non-verbal communication cues. Shrugs, winks, sarcastic smiles… we may not realise how much we communicate to each other with our bodies and hands. Then there’s the pitch and tone of our voice, the intonation of our words, which also often convey additional meaning. Emojis actually give us a way to bring a sense of this richer communication back into our digital messages. This can be particularly useful in cultures that tend to use a lot of sarcasm or dry humour… for example, we know some of our American colleagues occasionally struggle to understand British humour when they see it written down, but a simple smiley might be all it takes to let them in on the joke.

Emojis are universal across languages

Alright, so maybe not all emojis are understood the same way everywhere (we’ll get to that) – but a lot of them are truly universal. A smiling face, fireworks, a cake, a trophy, these are all great ways to get a message across. Especially if you’re working with colleagues who speak a different first language, they can also help to clarify your meaning. For example, taken alone, the words “YOU DID IT” might sound abrupt and even accusatory… whereas “YOU DID IT 🏆🥳” is liable to be understood correctly regardless of native language or culture.

The Disadvantages of Emojis

Emojis can have multiple meanings

So although we just said that emojis are universal across cultures, that might not be true for all of them. According to research, one of the most frequently misunderstood emojis is the symbol showing two hands held together, palm-to-palm (🙏) – which some cultures interpret as a high-five, others as prayer, and so on. And does an eye roll emoji mean that something is obvious? Or is it a passive aggressive gesture? Or does it mean “it wasn’t me?” This isn’t only a cultural thing – The National News suggests that the same emojis might be understood differently even from one generation to the next (for example, don’t use emojis to ask your younger colleagues if they want aubergine for lunch). In a business context, this kind of ambiguity is definitely not helpful.

Emojis can be misunderstood

Following on from the point above, in some contexts the use of emojis could lead to major misunderstandings. We’re not just talking about those Gen Z colleagues who communicate in whole strings of emojis to form what look like coded sentences (example). What if you used a heart emoji to indicate that you loved an idea – but the recipient interpreted it as a personal romantic gesture? There are even cases where people have been accused of making unwanted advances through emojis… and emoji messages subsequently being read out (or rather, described) in court. It all sounds terribly awkward and best avoided.

Emojis can look unprofessional

This is the big one. Whatever you may feel about emojis, the fact is that for a lot of people around the world they simply look unprofessional. The University of Amsterdam conducted a study in 2017 which found that people who used emojis in formal writing were often perceived as being less competent at their jobs. Yikes! 😬

Although it should also be noted that these attitudes are seen to be changing over time. Surveys have shown that younger people are generally less likely to consider emojis to be inappropriate. The workforce is always rotating, and with Millennials and Gen Z increasingly rising to fill professional roles, acceptance of emojis increases too. There are also observable differences across industries – for example, what might feel like an appropriate message from your mobile network, might feel inappropriate from a funeral home.

Our Verdict: Emojis are Here to Stay

All things considered, we’re pretty much pro-emoji in the Alvio camp. Work doesn’t need to be dull in order to be professional. And when we can’t gesture with our hands, or smirk, or raise an eyebrow, it’s sometimes nice to have a way to do that in writing!

We think there are definitely some provisos to keep in mind though, when using emojis in a professional context. For starters, this is very much a generational thing and there’s every chance that some of your more senior colleagues may not appreciate it. So maybe limit your usage to people who also use them themselves. Emojis can be great in personal messages, but perhaps not for company-wide emails. They’re possibly not the best way to start an introduction with new clients or partners, either.

For more advice, we recommend looking at the detailed exploration of emoji Dos and Don’ts over at the Pumble blog. Two more great points they raise are:

  • Use emojis to enhance meaning, but never to replace a word. People need to understand you.
  • Use emojis to illustrate positive comments (☘️), but don’t use negative emojis that way (💩).

Oh, and once again – do steer well clear of any emojis that might be misinterpreted as having romantic or sexual implications. That’s a risky one. However, that still leaves you with an extensive library of safe and universally-understood symbols to play with.

And if you ask us – modern digital communication is all the richer for it. 😊👍


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