Why Bank of Hawaii launched Hawaiimoji

Emojis, the digital ideograms and smileys, have become an intrinsic component of texting – so much so that Oxford Dictionary’s 2015 Word of the Year was an emoji: ???? , “Face with Tears of Joy”.

Personalized emojis can be a lucrative and brand-strengthening investment. Witness reality TV star Kim Kardashian’s emoji empire, Kimoji, which became the top-grossing entertainment app on the App Store on the day of its release in December 2015. In June 2016 alone, the app was downloaded 30K times and grossed $100K.

While it makes sense for celebrity and retail brands to develop their own emoji identities, the draw for professional finance brands is less obvious. It seems unlikely that Wells Fargo would earn trust points with SMBs if they launched Wells Fargo emojis, just as it seems improbable that investors at JP Morgan Chase would be reassured by an emoji of dollar signs or of Jamie Dimon.

Bank of Hawaii begs to differ

For Bank of Hawaii, which placed 9th in Forbes’ 2016 Best Banks in America, emojis provided an opportunity for the bank to connect with its user base in a relevant and fresh way. “The impetus for developing the emojis was that we have a unique host culture in Hawaii with its own lexicon that wasn’t represented in the standard emojis, like the shaka sign,” David Oyadomari, Bank of Hawaii senior executive vice president of products and digital channels, told Tradestreaming via email.

In other words, unlike Kimojis, which revolve around Kim K herself, Bank of Hawaii’s emojis celebrate the unique Pacific island community in which the bank operates. Although they are free to download, these emojis are more than just an act of goodwill – they’re a business strategy.

“From a business perspective, we understand that social communities form organically in the digital space”, says Oyadomari, “and we continually seek to be an active participant in our community”. With Hawaiimoji, Bank of Hawaii isn’t just participating in its local community – it’s growing a larger online community as well. 

Creating Hawaiimoji has paid off

If only as an exercise in diversifying staff activities, Hawaiimoji has been a worthwhile undertaking: roughly 10 employees from the marketing and digital channels departments collaborated with a company out of New York City called Snaps.

BoH’s choice of Snaps as its creative partner shows how serious the bank is about its emoji product – Snaps has designed emojis for brand giants including Pepsi, Dove, and Sony Pictures.

To Bank of Hawaii’s delight, consumers have taken to the bank’s emoji offering. Since its launch in February 2016, there have been more than 22,000 Hawaiimoji app downloads and usage is nearly 13 times that. Adoption of Hawaiimojis has come about mostly through word of mouth, which means that Hawaiimojis, and thus Bank of Hawaii, are becoming an integral part of how people talk about Hawaii on mobile channels. 

Bank-issued emojis are symptomatic of the changing role of banks

In recent years, social media networks like WeChat and Facebook have begun to position themselves as banking alternatives, by offering financial services like money transfer and payments through their platforms. Bank of Hawaii’s emoji project is indicative of a reverse trend: banks are becoming more like social media platforms.

“In our view, people will gravitate to the platform with which they are most comfortable and feel connected to, whether that be a mobile wallet app from their bank or a popular social media app,” says Oyadomari. Emojis are just one facet of Bank of Hawaii’s overarching goal of transforming the banking experience to meet changing customer expectations.

“Paying for a product or service, moving money, communicating, applying for a loan, or simply taking care of your accounts needs to be easy and accessible all the time. That’s where we’re headed.”

Bank of Hawaii isn’t the only bank experimenting with emojis. Barclays has also issued its own set of emojis, though unlike Bank of Hawaii’s distinctly cultural emojis, Barclays’ emojis aim to help people talk about awkward money situations such as owing or asking for money, without resorting to uncomfortable language.

Whether or not emojis become a mainstream bank offering, the gap between banks and social media platforms is shrinking. By inching closer to social media, banks are finding that they have the ability to grow organic communities around their brands. For bank marketers everywhere, this is reason enough for a ????.