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What Can We Learn about Audiences through Emojis?

Emojis have become an essential part of our lives, helping to express our emotions as we interact with others online and by text. Whether you are responding to a Twitter post laughing through your tears, giving your colleague the thumbs up or applauding a comment on Youtube, they provide an easy way to add a human response through your computer screen. With a plethora of choice thanks to an ever-growing emoji library, understanding emoji social media usage and preference has become key for marketers trying to pinpoint which emojis drive the best engagement.

In particular, marketers have to grasp how culture changes the meaning users convey to ensure that any content produced using emojis resonates with relevant communities. 

Why Is Emoji Marketing on the Rise?

Literally meaning ‘picture write character’ in Japanese, emojis first appeared on the webscape in Japan in 1999 as a way of expressing emotions quickly and effectively through pictures using unicode. The widespread use of emojis was further boosted by the introduction of smartphones thanks to their keyboards, which provide access to thousands of smileys. Social media platforms have also played a significant role in the growth of emojis. In 2013, Facebook launched the emoji stickers feature. This was followed by Twitter, which, on top of enabling standard emojis, also allows the use of special emojis (sometimes known as hashflags) for specific events. For example, the 2014 FIFA Football World cup first saw the introduction of flags to tweets when typing the country name.

It is therefore unsurprising that marketers want to harness these expressive symbols to effectively engage with and appeal to their audience. The key is to understand which emojis have the most impact. 

Unicode, the World’s Standard for Text and Emojis, regularly examines social media content to understand the frequency with which emojis are used. Based on their analysis, the most popular emojis are Face with Tears of Joy 😂 and Red Heart Emoji ❤️.

The top 5 most frequently used emojis internationally. Source: Unicode

But emoji usage and meaning differs by category or topic, and even by country and gender. The recent study ‘COVID-19 and the Gendered Use of Emojis on Twitter’, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, assessed the Twitter discourse around Covid-19 and showed differences between genders in the way the pandemic is discussed through emojis. This shows the importance of understanding potential usage differences by demographic, segment, location and other possible nuances to understand what might resonate with specific audiences.

How Emoji Usage Differs by Country

Looking at these differences on a country-by-country basis helps marketers better understand emojis for business. After all, what one symbol represents in the US could mean something completely different in Singapore. We found some striking differences which are important to know when localising social media campaigns.

So, which emojis are used most by country? 


The applause and the cat with tears of joy were some of the unique emojis that featured in Brazil’s most popular emojis in 2020. The former often means appreciation and success, while the latter is used to mark amusement or to express relief. Other countries that often use this cat emoji include Russia, Egypt and Iraq.


Among the other popular emojis mentioned above, the folded hands and kiss stand out when looking at India. Often used instead of kisses (xxx) at the end of a message, it is a popular way to convey affection in India. While the joined up hands may mean prayer in other geographies, they are used to show gratitude, appreciation or even respect among Indian social media users.


While the Red Love Heart ❤️ is a popular emoji in Spain as in the rest of the world, some more unusual emojis are featured among the most used, such as the drooling face and pleading face emojis. Mexico is the only other country featuring the drooling face emoji, leaving no doubt that shared language and culture impacts the popularity of emojis among specific users.


For Vietnam, we found that the relieved face was used frequently to convey positive feelings, good humour or being at peace. The expressionless face was also used to indicate annoyance and frustration, or that you’re ‘over it’.

United Kingdom

In the UK, while the Red Heart Emoji was also used as frequently as in the rest of the world, the smiling blushing face with hearts was a popular way to show love and affection. It is also no surprise that amid the Covid-19 pandemic and multiple lockdowns, a popular emoji was the grinning face with sweat indicating relief or hard work. The rest of the UK’s top ten featured emojis popular in most countries, including the three hearts and crying with laughter.

Rare and Unusual Emoji Meanings


In Japan, this droplet means intense embarrassment or shock. Anime and manga characters express this same emotion through a similar water droplet when something makes them sweat.

Thumbs Up

For many people in the Western world, this is a fairly self-explanatory one, but in the Middle East this has a completely different meaning. In Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, this can be the equivalent of an obscene gesture or ‘giving someone the middle finger’.

Sign of the Horns

At first glance, many of us would interpret this as the ‘rock on’ sign and nothing more, but in Latin American countries, such as Cuba, Brazil and Spain, this represents horns and is a traditional metaphor for adultery.

Emoji overload?

While emojis can be an effective engagement tool, they won’t be appropriate for all audiences. It is important to remember generational differences and keep in mind that emojis are much more commonly used among younger people. In fact, research on perceptions and attitudes towards emojis in digital campaigns has shown that older audiences will respond less positively to them, likely because they have not grown up with them and may not even understand their meaning. 

Research from YouGov on marketing campaigns has also shown that emoji use can backfire and have a negative effect. Consumers may perceive brands as trying too hard when using emojis.  The same could be said for the use of GIFs, which are becoming another increasingly popular form of audience engagement on social media platforms, partly boosted by the introduction of story features on social media networks.

Why Is Emoji Marketing Effective When Done Right?

Emojis are a great way to express opinions, emotion and intent while communicating quickly. Understanding the cultural context, the age groups of the people you are targeting and the meaning behind each symbol in different countries will enable you to discover what emojis will be the best for your campaign.

If you want to gather in-depth and relevant research on the best emojis for your business, you can contact us, or take a look at how we can offer you invaluable audience insights to boost your campaigns.