Nicolas Loufrani, chief executive officer, SmileyWorld
The Smiley first appeared in the 1970s when French journalist Franklin Loufrani used it as a way of highlighting news items. But the real story began in 1997 when his son, and current chief executive officer, Nicolas Loufrani, launched the SmileyWorld company.
"From the beginning of SmileyWorld, my intention was always to create a property for merchandising," says Nicolas Loufrani. "I started by refreshing the original by giving them different facial expressions that reflected different emotions, and thereby created much greater engagement with the audience. But it was a pure merchandising operation, not the lifestyle brand that we eventually became."
Nonetheless, with the launch of the SmileyWorld, 1997 also saw the first-ever Smiley style guide and the
Then, when mobile phones with graphics hit markets everywhere, an even greater opportunity for Smileys opened up.
"We did huge deals with Samsung, Motorola and Nokia," says Loufrani. "This then started a virtuous circle–we were making a lot of money from merchandising, which funded ever better design work, which in turn created a property with growing appeal.
"But, we were still purely a licensing/merchandising operation," he emphasizes.
SmileyWorld's crossover to become a lifestyle brand came in 2006.
"I saw the potential for turning Smileys into a lifestyle brand for teens and young adults," says Loufrani. "From the start I realized that to reach this audience you have to be cool, and that means high quality–cheap crap is never cool!"
Turning SmileyWorld into a creative design studio also changed the company from a pure merchandising and licensing operation into a complete lifestyle brand.
"We hired really good people from companies such as Nike and adidas, people who really understood the teen and young adult market," says Loufrani. "We began going to all the leading fashion shows such as MAGIC, and in every territory we hired specialist fashion PR people. We also began doing a lot of product placement deals with major stars. This is something that is still important to us."
According to Loufrani, the company has recently done such deals with the likes of Miley Cyrus and Rita Ora.
"The lifestyle aspect is the core of our business and runs through everything we do, including publishing," says Loufrani. "So does the SmileyWorld slogan 'Express Yourself,' which is the foundation of that lifestyle."
Even so, SmileyWorld is a company very focused on the hard principles of marketing.
"We are very focused on market research and a lot of our designs are aimed at specific 'style tribes,' groups built around different lifestyle choices–skating, rock, hip-hop–whatever it may be," Loufrani says. "We even issue style guides focused on these different youth sub-cultures. We also run many other marketing initiatives such as sales analysis and trend forecasting. The result is that when we work with a retailer, and we work some of the biggest names such as Zara, H&M and Benetton, we are not just granting them a license, we are also offering them a service. In fact, I was with a major French retailer recently who told me that the only other company that offers the level of support we do is Disney."
But such retail partners are about to discover that a lot has changed. SmileyWorld recently announced a deal with the major Chinese retail group Shanghai Yikuam to open 100 store-within-a-store concepts across the whole of China in 2015, and Loufrani insists that this year will see the announcement of many more such deals in many other countries. Engagement with customers is at the heart of this strategy.
"We are always looking to build engagement with our customers. When stores take products and put them in one place, and then some additional, which they put somewhere else, there is a limit to the degree of customer engagement that can be built. To go to the next level you need to offer an event, an immersion in the world of Smileys," says Loufrani. "So we are looking to do these deals or possibly to open chains of Smiley standalone shops."
Another change could see the company opening pop-up gift shops. One recently opened in Hong Kong was a great success.
"Gifting is a very emotional experience– that's why people do it. Smileys are ideally suited to gifting," he says.
Other major changes are also coming as Loufrani plans the expansion of SmileyWorld. For one thing, there will be a move into food, an area in which the company has previously not operated. SmileyWorld will also venture into entertainment, specifically looking at the preschool demographic, which is also untapped for the brand.
"We have been to all Europe's major food trade shows and have already signed a lot of deals for a range of food products such as snacks, breakfast cereals, burgers and even omelettes," says Loufrani. "The products will all be Smiley-shaped and made from the very best ingredients, in many cases also offering an organic version. But only the omelettes will be yellow."
The move into entertainment will see an expansion of publishing activities to include novels and comics, as well as a preschool TV series currently in development and scheduled for release in the first quarter of 2017. SmileyWorld is partnering with Dacher Keltner, founding faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center, the human emotions research facility at University of California, Berkeley, because, as Loufrani puts it: "As with all things Smiley, whatever we do, we do the best!"
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