“I had to become smiley myself…”

Nicolas Loufrani is CEO of The Smiley Company, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t had to work hard for his happiness, in business and in life

The smiley character is one of the world’s most recognisable images and so simple – a cheery yellow circle with eyes and a mouth – that it’s perhaps surprising to learn that it launched a multimillion-pound business. Smiley first appeared in a newspaper promotion in 1972 and was promptly trademarked by its creator, Franklin Loufrani. The Smiley Company is now run by his son, London based Nicolas Loufrani, who digitised the logo in 1997 – inspiring the emoji in the process – and took the business to another level. Today, it turns over $285m annually, thanks to a string of global licensing deals with companies including Vittel, Renault, McDonald’s, Selfridges and Dunkin’ Donuts.

The business hasn’t always made me smile “I used to be a very moody person and quite negative, if I’m honest. I wasn’t particularly happy about what I was doing and working with Smiley wasn’t part of my plan. My father had asked me to take over and the business wasn’t doing so well back then. For me, Smiley was more of a mass-market merchandising programme responsible for cheap things being sold in street markets. For a few years, I was deeply depressed.”

Change comes from within “One day, I read a book called There’s No Such Thing as Coincidence, by Jan Wolterman. It’s all about positive thinking and trying to look on the bright side of what we do. I started to see things in a different way, and it inspired me to transform Smiley and make it into a nicer brand, aligned with how I wanted to be as a person. This enabled me to turn it around. I guess, as a creative person, I had to find my own happiness first.”

The highs make it all worthwhile “The biggest highlight of my life was the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, in which we were heavily involved. On the night, the dancers made the Smiley face. They were all wearing our badges and merchandise, and the whole spectacle was seen by one billion people. When we got the call [from the organisers] we couldn’t believe it. I still have the letter thanking us for our involvement.”

I had to prove myself “Working with family can be a challenge. You have some fabulous times and some tough times. My father is a real character – he’s very charismatic and everyone asks me about him wherever I go. He is out of this world. But, at the same time, being with people like that can be a rollercoaster journey. At the start, I was trying to find my identity in the business and he found it as difficult as I did, but I’m happy to say that I’ve proven my worth. Ours is a multimillion-pound brand, and he respects me and knows that what I’ve done [with the business] is right. Some people will say that I owe it all to him, but I also owe it to myself and my vision.”

Dare to be different “Initially, Smiley was one logo. A flat, original design that had been the same since year one. I wanted to bring it to life and started developing hand-drawn versions for food and transport, etc. These were all in 3D and, back in 1997, they were a radical departure. I was in the office with my father and we had our German agent with us, and my father was screaming at me because I had dared to change it. He said that it was as untouchable as the Nike Swoosh symbol. The agent agreed with me though, and we decided to follow this route as a spin-off. It was the start of emoticons, or emojis as some people call them.”

Go all in “In 2007, I took the company one step further by repositioning it as a lifestyle brand. My intention was to try and make it more appealing – the sort of brand that cool, positive-minded people would identify with. We’ve had such a good reaction from the industry, and collaborations with high-end brands, musical acts and celebrities followed. It proved to be a great move.”

I make mistakes, so what? “I’m sure I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but now that I’m successful I accept my mistakes more than before. Why? They are part of what make you a success. It’s like when I used to work with fashion designer Ozwald Boateng. I spent a lot of time and money investing in his business. Eventually, the whole world was talking about how he revolutionised Savile Row. I was proud of my work, but then we split in dramatic fashion. It was a major disappointment at the time, but looking at what I’ve created now with Smiley, it’s not a problem.”

Bring in fresh blood “My team are really important to me. Until I decided to change the direction of the business in 2007, we would recruit mainly from within the licensing industry – Disney, Warner, companies like that – but I mixed things up and started hiring from fashion brands and trend forecast agencies. The different profiles of the people we brought in added an extra dimension to the business and changed our outlook.”

My time in the air is time out “I work in a global industry and it’s natural that I travel the world for business. From Asia to Europe, from the East Coast of the USA to the West. I’m almost constantly in the air, but you know what? I don’t mind. It’s the only place I don’t have phone calls or internet and email. So, I read a lot. I’ve lost three Kindles on planes!”

Reject complacency “I gain a lot of satisfaction from this role, but I’m always looking for my next move. Sometimes, you need great change to survive and sometimes you have to react to change in the marketplace, like how things are sold or how consumers think. You have to adapt constantly. My next move is to shift the brand into books, TV, maybe a movie….”

This interview was carried out by SIM7’s Simeon de la Torre and first appeared in easyJet Traveller magazine. To read the latest issue (and the entire back catalogue of magazines), visit: https://ink-global.com/our-clients/portfolio/easyjet-traveller/