SmileyWorld's CEO Nicolas Loufrani on plagiarism, the school market and a push for more toys

Jade Burke

By Jade Burke

March 7th 2016 at 10:45AM
SmileyWorld's CEO Nicolas Loufrani on plagiarism, the school market and a push for more toys

After developing the world’s first graphical emoticons used online in 1998, SmileyWorld has gone on to become a globally recognised brand. Here the firm’s CEO Nicolas Loufrani talks about how apparel is one of the firm’s best performing categories and why SmileyWorld can’t be beaten by its competitors.

How did SmileyWorld come about? Can you tell me a bit about the history of the brand?

After creating these graphical emoticons, we registered the trademarks for a new brand and intellectual property – and SmileyWorld was born.

This allowed us to create a collection of icons that expressed thousands of emotions and could be applied to a variety of products. Through this we created loads of new business opportunities, and also attached the brand to a whole new generation of Smiley consumers - the digital natives.

You created the world’s first emoticons/emojis. What was your inspiration behind that?

When I joined Smiley in 1997, the world was in the midst of a technological revolution. Text messaging and email were moving to the forefront of communication, and I really started noticing people using expressive emotions made from punctuation marks.

It really made sense for me to start experimenting with our Smiley to create animated faces that corresponded to the pre-existing emoticons made from plain punctuation marks, and also to enhance them more for an interactive use in digital.

I sat down with the designers in our then New York based studio and we decided to create a dictionary of emotions and started creating what became a collection of thousands of different icons. We then registered these designs with the United States Copyright Office from 1997 to 2000 and started publishing all of our newly created emoticons as .gif files on the web in 1998. These were the world’s first graphical emoticons used online.

In 2000 we re-launched our website with all our icons as smileydictionary.com and the slogan The Official Smiley Dictionary.

It was shortly afterwards that we started licensing the rights for our graphical emoticons to different telecom companies that included Nokia, Motorola, Samsung, SFR (vodaphone) and Sky Telemedia.

How do you protect your copyrights and trademarks?

We are a member of REACT, an anti-counterfeiting association of major brands, which allows us to enforce globally against counterfeit products.

We also have law firms working for us covering around 100 countries and we use Anaqua to manage our huge portfolio of trademarks. One very important aspect of our IP protection is also to apply copyrights for each of our creations and in some cases we protect designs or 3D trademarks.

We collaborate with customs officials throughout the world and last year we had hundreds of procedures across a variety of countries, where we have seized and destroyed hundreds of thousands of goods. 

There are many new emojis that crop up on the market, how do you legally enforce your brand against these? Do you suffer with a lot of plagiarism?

It’s something we have got used to with Smiley, we have always suffered from counterfeits, unfair competition and plagiarism. It is not new to us; in fact the first law suit my father won was in Austria in 1973.

We have a really good in-house legal team that is trained to fight the fakes and we also work with a network of international law firms, and this allows us to pretty much ensure no one goes unpunished.

As for emoji, it is just a new name for something old; emoji is the Japanese translation of the word emoticon; it is nothing but chance that it sounds a bit similar.

Where we have a real issue is with a small number of icons that are confusingly similar to our art, and because of this we are aggressively targeting anyone that we feel is infringing on this property, which has already led to legal actions and seized goods.

As far as the other icons are concerned, we are also looking into starting unfair competition actions because of the overall look and feel of ranges that are cannibalising our brand image and reputation.

What current licensees does the brand have?

We have over 230 licensees globally across 13 product categories.

Apparel is one of our best performing categories, we have deals in place with some of the world’s most successful fashion retailers, and this has seen 3.2 million unit sales alone in the last 12 months.

Our rapid expansion into FMCG has continued in recent months, with a number of new deals in place, and more than 10 new products launched in the last few months alone. This is creating a variety of new opportunities available across all of our food categories including, sweet and savoury snacks, frozen foods, treats and even dairy and beverages, with the majority of these products incorporating our 3D render Smileys.

SmileyWorld is also one of the major players in the back to school market, where we have significant retail exposure throughout Europe. Our licensing partnerships with Herlitz, Lannoo Publishing, Alpa, Franco Panini and also NICI Gmbh, all have just had a very successful sell through with our emoticon branded products.

Finally our publishing division continues to go from strength to strength. French licensee Dragon d’Or, a partner since 2013, has sold over 500,000 books in France alone and will have published 37 titles, which has led to their parent company Grund signing a global distribution deal off the back of these successes.

We see food, back to school, stationery and small gift items as some of the most important lifestyle products for kids and teens today. They create a halo effect for the brand.

Are there any new licensing areas you would like to tap into?

We want to push for more Smiley toys and we have great creative projects in the pipeline; the success of Zhu Zhu Pets, TY peek a boos or Shopkins is now proving that new creative concepts can become a huge success without a TV show.

What are your expectations for the brand for the year ahead?

I expect the brand to sell out even better than previous years, the Emojicons craze among consumers is very favourable to us. When a trend you have created and nurtured for 15 years is finally picking up big time, it is the one with the largest presence that will benefit from it. With 230 licensees and thousands of products we are in pole position and retailers will always buy more of what is selling well, rather than take a commercial and legal risk with cheap copies.

As a matter of fact the slogan we are now pushing on all hangtags, packaging and communication is ‘The Original Smiley Brand’.

We have a great team, the best creativity and a long lasting relation with the best licensees and retailers. My dad and I together have 65 years of expertise at managing Smileys, with billions sold, we can be challenged but no one will beat us.