As a global brand, you already know you have to translate words and audio, but have you considered emoji localization? Yes, emojis may be images, but that doesn’t mean every culture sees them the same way. What may seem like an innocent thumbs-up in one country could mean something deeply offensive in another. 

Emoji localization is an important consideration, especially if you’re working in markets that are very culturally different from your own. So, what do you need to know about emoji localization? Are there any particular emojis you should be on the lookout for? And how much does it really matter? Keep reading to find out.

How emojis have integrated into our daily lives

While you’ve almost certainly used emojis before, let’s do a quick rundown as to what exactly they are. The first emoji was created in 1999 by a Japanese man named Shigetaka Kurita. In fact, the name emoji comes from Japanese—e means pictures, mo writing, and ji character. 

Emojis are so simple to use because they integrate into Unicode, the foundation or code of modern writing systems. Developers encode each new emoji using different numbers and points in the Unicode transformation format. This means that our devices recognize a certain set of numbers and points as an emoji and show those codes to us as a small graphic.

Even though emojis have been around for over 20 years, their use rapidly increased in 2011 when Apple added the emoji keyboard as an international keyboard. Suddenly, even people who weren’t tech-savvy gained easy access to fun and cute faces, animals, and more. In less than ten years, their usage expanded tremendously. Now, people exchange more than 70 billion emojis daily. The library contains over 2,000 symbols, considering gender and skin tone variations.

emoji usage over time graph
The percentage of emoji text from 2010 to 2015 dramatically increased from nearly 0% to almost 40%.

Most people have a positive attitude towards emojis, which only increases. A 2023 study reported that 92% of online consumers use emojis. While people once viewed them as very casual, this perception is slowly changing. Now, 61% of respondents say they use emojis in a professional context. 68% said they liked when people used emojis, 69% said emoji use at work made the user more likable and 59% said it made the user more credible.

In marketing, emojis are a powerful tool if implemented properly

Sprinkling them in your copy can make you seem friendlier and more fun. They’ve also been proven to incite better memory retention in readers, and their use is proven to boost engagement on social media. Plus, emojis are just everywhere online! Nearly half of all comments and captions on Instagram contain emojis

“[The future of marketing] is definitely going to be very visual. I think we can already see today how this trend is impacting the way that brands communicate.”

Mario Bini, Head of Global Marketing at N26

See also: Multilingual graphic design: Why it pays to hire specialists

Common emojis that mean something different in certain countries

Emoji localization

Here’s a list of some of the most known emojis with different meanings. If any others come up that you’re unsure of, do your own research and get help from local linguists or an agency specializing in content localization.

  • 👍 Thumbs up: While the thumbs-up is widely understood throughout Western culture to mean agreement, encouragement, or approval, in the Middle East and Greece, it can be seen as a vulgar and offensive gesture.
  • 👼 Angel: While an angel may symbolize innocence and modesty in Western Culture, in China, it can be seen as a symbol of death, and sending it can feel like you are threatening the receiver.
  • 👋 Waving hand: In Western culture, most people would see this as a casual “hi” or “bye,” but in certain parts of Asia, it’s risky to use. In China, it’s generally seen as a permanent goodbye, like you want to break up with the person you’re sending it to or stop being friends with them. In South Korea, waving with your palm outward is exclusively for calling dogs and other animals, so people there may find it offensive. In Pakistan, the gesture is extremely offensive, usually meaning that you’re hurling a load of curses at someone. 
  • 😂 Face with tears of joy: The most commonly used emoji in the world, and the 2015 Oxford Dictionary word of the year, most Westerners see it as expressing hysterical laughter. But in China, it expresses frustration, whereas in the Middle East, it’s seen as an expression of grief. 
  • 👌 OK Hand: This emoji has a lot of different interpretations. For many Western countries, this hand gesture means “I’m okay” or signifies that what the receiver is doing is correct or good. In American Sign Language, it means nine, while in France it can mean zero, either just the number or that something is worthless. In Japan, it’s a sign for a coin and can signify wealth. But in Brazil, Mediterranean countries like Turkey, Tunisia and Greece, parts of Germany and the Middle East, the gesture is very offensive. Even in the United States, this gesture can be used as a symbol for white supremacy. 
  • 🐼 Panda bear: This emoji is often used in China to express friendship, love, endearment and cuteness, but it lacks most of those meanings in other countries.
  • 🙏 Folded hands: The gesture of two hands firmly pressed together means please or thank you in Japanese culture. In many Western cultures, it is seen as someone praying or giving a high five. But in Muslim cultures, where praying is not done with hands pressed together, it has no religious connotation. 
  • 🙂 Slightly smiling face: The emoji that is automatically generated when you type “:)” on Facebook is often interpreted as conveying that something is awkward or that the sender is being passive-aggressive or ironic. When used in China, it expresses distrust and skepticism in the way Westerners might use 🤔.  
  • 🤟 Love you gesture: While you may see this as a “rock on” emoji, it gets its name from its meaning in American Sign Language. However, in Spanish, Brazilian and Italian-speaking countries, be careful. The gesture is interpreted to mean “horns,” and the expression for cheating on your partner in those languages translates literally in English to “putting horns” on your partner. So if you use it in those countries, they may think you’re implying their partner is cheating on them. 
  • 🤞 Crossed fingers: Many Western countries interpret crossed fingers to mean wishing someone luck. But avoid using this emoji in Vietnam, where this gesture is a sign of female genitalia. 
  • 💩 Poop: The (in)famous poop emoji is generally seen as fun and silly in most countries. But in Japan, it actually has an extremely positive connotation. The Japanese word for poop, “unko,” contains the sound “un,” which sounds like the Japanese word for luck. So, using this in Japan actually means that you’re wishing them good luck!

Do you really need to localize emojis?

Employees holiday emojis over their face

Look at it this way—emojis can convey different meanings even in the same culture. Think about it: If you send someone a red heart emoji ❤️, are you telling them you love them or just thanking them for a job well done? Instead of laughing with the typical 😂 emoji, many teens use the 💀, implying they have “died” from laughing so hard. 

A 2016 study aimed to see if US-based subjects agreed on the meanings or feelings of different emojis. Do they convey positive, negative or neutral emotions? Only 4.5% of the emojis studied were where most people saw their meanings similarly. Different reasons for this could be age, education, social group variations, and more. 

Another factor contributing to emoji confusion is the device you’re using to see the emojis themselves. While emoji names are standardized, each device company has its own images to convey this particular code. The differences can be drastic, and someone using a Samsung can interpret an emoji very differently from someone using an iPhone. 

Here’s an example:

An extreme example is the “blissfully happy” emoji, which has since been redesigned. While people with Android phones consistently rated it as very positive, most Apple users thought it conveyed a more negative tone. This was probably due to the lack of an upturned smile in Apple’s version. So an LG user would send this emoji thinking they were conveying happiness, and an Apple user would receive it and think the sender was mocking them!

The different versions of the same emoji
The different versions and interpretations of the same emoji across devices

So, if people who are part of the same culture have vastly different interpretations of emojis, imagine how differently people of other cultures could interpret them. Symbols, gestures and expressions differ widely even among more culturally similar countries (like the American peace sign vs. the British “two-fingered salute”), so it only makes sense that a set of symbols like emojis would differ across cultural borders.

Emojis aren’t their own language, as they alone can’t carry out a meaningful conversation.

Emojis are a tool we use to complement our language and serve a purpose similar to punctuation. Emojis are also highly subjective, with meanings depending on their literal interpretation, conveyed emotions and usage context. Additionally, their meanings can shift over time due to trends, social media and cultural shifts.

Cultural variations in understanding emojis

A 2020 study is a great example of cultural variations in emoji interpretation. Researchers presented nine emojis to people from Western Europe, North America (these two groups were referred to collectively as “Westerners”) and East Asia (referred to as “Easterners”). 

The emojis featured different combinations of eyes and mouths. For example, one with happy eyes and a happy mouth, another with happy eyes and a sad mouth, another with sad eyes and a neutral mouth, etc. 

When the eyes and mouth conveyed the same type of expression, the participants all agreed on what emotions the emojis were trying to convey. But when the eyes and mouth diverged in expression, so did the participants’ interpretation of them. Easterners placed more value on the emotion conveyed by the eyes, and Westerners emphasized the emotion conveyed by the mouth. 

So, emojis can be a surprisingly complicated issue when it comes to marketing. What can you do? Websites like Emojipedia offer databases that assign detailed primary and alternative meanings to every emoji, along with what the emojis look like on most devices. However, these websites tend to lack information on what they mean in non-Anglophone or “Western” cultures. 

As a global brand, our best recommendation is to be careful and aware:

  1. Get familiar with the most common emojis that can be interpreted differently in other cultures (we have a comprehensive list below). 
  2. Work with linguists from your target countries who can help you identify potential pitfalls in your copy. 
  3. And if you’re really not sure, you can always take an emoji out of your copy. It’s better to do that than risk offending your customers. 

See also: Localization strategy: Your guide to engaging a global audience

Get help from a localization agency

Localizing your content for your target audiences is hard work, especially when you add things like emojis to the mix. Working with a global social media agency like VeraContent is the best way to ensure you don’t make any serious mistakes.

Book a call with our VeraContent team today to see if you qualify for a Free Content Consultation.