Smiley Symbol: The Happy $500m Business

Updated: Oct 13

Smileys have drifted across the pop-culture ether since the 1950s.


Smiley symbol

A yellow and black one first showed its face in 1961, when it was printed on a promotional sweatshirt by the New York radio station WMCA to promote the news-talk show Good Guys. Thousands were given away. But many people credit Harvey Ball, an ad-man from Worcester, Massachusetts, for designing the smiley in its most iconic form.


In 1963 Ball was hired by the State Mutual Life Assurance Company to create a smiley face icon to boost company morale. He penned his design in 10 minutes and was paid $45. The company produced pins with a smiley face on it, and sold millions over the course of the decade, though Ball did not trademark the design.


Later, in 1971, Bernard and Murray Spain, two brothers who ran a couple of Hallmark card shops in Philadelphia, spotted Ball’s design, and copyrighted a version that combined the image with the slogan: “Have a Happy Day”. In the first year alone they sold more than 50m buttons.


But, as a shrewd Frenchman figured out, the real money would be made if the smiley were registered as a trademark. So, Franklin Loufrani founded The Smiley Company in 1972, becoming the first entity to register the smiley as a trademark – taking ownership of it as a commercial logo. The company is now owned by his son, Nicolas Loufrani.


The Smiley Company puts smileys on things. Last year it sold $486m worth of products.


Today, the Smiley Company is ranked one of the world’s top 100 licensing businesses, with 458 licensees in 158 countries. It boasts thousands of products across 14 categories, from health and beauty to homeware. This year it celebrates its 50th anniversary, which means – you guessed it – smiles all round; 65 new partnerships and collaborations with everyone from Reebok to Karl Lagerfeld. If you’ve noticed more smileys on the high street lately, now you know why.

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