Different generations have differing views of the smiley icon. To the pre-punk hippies of the ‘70s it was the flower-powered face of peace and love. To the rave kids of the ‘80s it was reborn as the day glo icon of acid house.
And now, in the 21st century, it has become something else entirely; something multi-faceted, modern but classic. A brand, in fact.
Exactly who created the first Smiley is the subject of some conjecture. Many credit Harvey R Ball, who created a badge for employees of the State Mutual Life Assurance Company of Massachusetts. The first person to register it for commercial use, however, was Franklin Loufrani, a French journalist who used it to indicate good news stories in his newspaper.
Over the years its popularity spread and Loufrani retained full ownership of over 4,000 trademarks worldwide. He worked with companies such as Mars, Levi’s and others to create the first wave of Smiley merchandising.
In 1996 there was a significant shift in gears as Franklin’s son. Nicolas Loufrani, came on board and created Smileyworld Inc specifically to co-ordinate a licensing programme for the famous face.
Style guides were put in place and the whole process was put on a more profession and commercial footing. Smileyworld controls all aspects of production, quality and distribution. Loufrani comments: “Our relationships with licensees has completely changed. They develop products as we see them and do not just slap style guide images on the same item as crap TV-driven properties.”
Quality and innovation are at the heart of the new Smiley revival – a claim backed up by the fact that design guru Ora Ito has been appointed art director for the brand in several categories.
The initial range of licensed products included clothing, home deco, textiles and even fragrances, all based around Happy Therapy – in other words, their aim is to make consumers feel happy. The Smiley face may be the logo of a successful commercial enterprise, but it’s retained some of its idealistic roots.
The target audience is 15-25 year olds, but because of the various aforementioned incarnations dating back to the early ‘70s and peaking again in the mid ‘80s, there are people in their mid-30s and older who have an affinity with the brand.
It’s also, as Loufrani points out, truly gender neutral, appealing equally to boys and girls – quite a rare feat for any licence.
The next step for Loufrani is two fold: to increase the range and increase the retail reach. “We had some very good sell through last year. We now need more stores. But this is something we will do gradually, we don’t really want a smiley craze like we had in the ‘80s. I want to control the growth. I’m 36, I am not looking for a short-term hype, I want to build a solid brand for the future.”
The Smiley brand is split into two categories. The Smiley Collection is the big stuff based on the original logo. Loufrani compares it to classic cultural/corporate icons such as the Playboy bunny and the Nike swoosh.
“It becomes the signature of a lifestyle brand. It has a very long history, which we are able to express with vintage products as well as modern items. We play with the creativity but also keep its integrity. It reminds everyone of how powerful of a smile is and how it can change your life, and the lives of others.”
Key licensees include Smiley Industries (clothing and accessories), Intermedium (shoes), Nef Nef (home textiles) and Present Time (gift items).
Smileyworld, meanwhile, is based on the company’s 1,200+ internet icons. “The idea here is to create a social expression property that reflects people’s feelings and their vision of the world through gift items or lifestyle products, like a greeting card saying Luv U or a bathrobe with a Smiley water drop and the message, ‘Save Water, Shower With A Friend’.”
Key licensees include: Santex (clothing), Brepols (stationery), SID (gift items and jewellery), Riethmuller (party goods) and Eigenart (greeting cards).
Over the coming 12 months there will be additions across all categories – and new licensees. For now, Loufrani says simply: “I can only promise you that you will see things that Smiley has never done before in our history.”