The French Smiley Emperors

The smiley was born in the United States, but a business-savvy Frenchman claimed the rights to it 50 years ago. Franklin Loufrani and his son Nicolas are now at the head of an international merchandising empire.
Franklin Loufrani (left) and his son Nicolas, the CEO of the Smiley Company. © Florence Moncenis

In the Nordstrom department stores across America, the smiling yellow faces were impossible to miss. They have appeared on shirts, rugs, pajamas, beach bags, sports bags, earrings, suitcases, and bottles of perfume. The design was also featured on a Saint James striped sweater, a pair of Vilebrequin swim shorts, and an Alice + Olivia dress sold at 1,495 dollars. Franklin Loufrani, who specializes in licenses and derivative products, has pulled out all the stops to celebrate his brand’s 50th anniversary.

“We launched a huge operation with Nordstrom in the United States, supported by more than 30 creative partners, and we are now featured in every department store in the world,” says the founder of the Smiley Company. The festivities kicked off in February at Galeries Lafayette in Paris, with an enormous smiley-shaped yellow balloon installed under the store’s glass dome on the Boulevard Haussmann, before spreading to Beijing, Shanghai, Dubai, Jakarta, and Berlin. The slogan behind this international campaign? “Take the time to smile!”

The logo of the Smiley Company under the Galeries Lafayette’s glass dome in Paris. © Paul Blind

“Now more than ever, people need positivity and optimism,” explains the French businessman, 79, who has made joie de vivre his stock in trade. In 1971, while working as a copyright manager for the Hachette Group in Paris, he approached Pierre Lazareff, director of the newspaper France-Soir. “You only sell bad news,” he told him. “The French are never happy. I’m offering you the chance to launch a campaign against gloominess and publish some good news.”

The old publisher was reluctant. The news pages were monopolized by the Vietnam War, regime changes in South America, the debate on abortion in France, and the student and worker protest movements. Never one to give up easily, Franklin Loufrani explained his idea: “We’re going to highlight the good news in the paper. After all, there’s a bit in the sports and events pages!” He then took a paper and drew a circle with a smiling mouth and two eyes in the margin. “That’s what it would look like.”

A Smiling Interlude

The campaign was launched on January 1, 1972. “From today onwards, and for the following months, you will see this smile throughout the columns of France-Soir,” announced a text box printed on the front page. “It will be there as a symbol, to draw your attention to the news stories that offer hope or simply a little respite from the worries and disasters that often make up current affairs.” In a subtle nod to the change, two eyes and a smile appeared in the “o” of France-Soir.

An American graphic designer, Howard Ball, supposedly drew the first yellow smiley in 1963 for an insurance company in Massachusetts that wanted to boost morale among employees. (He was paid 45 dollars for his work.) Two dotted eyes and a large smile with dimpled corners became a simple yet effective symbol that conquered the nonconformist America of the 1960s and caught the attention of two brothers from Philadelphia. The pair took the logo, accompanied it with the slogan “Have a happy day,” and sold some 50 million badges in 1971!

The original smiley came out of retirement in 2021 for a capsule collection by the Brazilian department store Hering. © Hering
To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, Smiley has partnered with more than thirty brands around the world, including Saint James in Brittany. © Saint James
“Take the time to smile!” The slogan written by Franklin Loufrani in 1972 appears on 15,000 new licensed products every year. © Happy Socks
Smiley has been collaborating with the Californian clothing brand MA®KET since 2017. © MA®KET

Did one of these counterculture icons land on Franklin Loufrani’s desk one day? Perhaps, but when he talks about smileys, he says “my smiley.” “There must have been cave people thousands of years ago who drew circles with a mouth and two eyes,” says the businessman, who was named after President Roosevelt. “But drawing something is not everything.” To really make an idea a success, you have to protect it. In 1972, he patented the design at the French National Industrial Property Institute and legally acquired the rights.

15,000 New Products Every Year

Franklin Loufrani and his son Nicolas, the CEO of the Smiley Company, now direct one of the world’s biggest licensing companies. With trademarks in 140 countries and 555 million euros in sales in 2020, their collaborations have included Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, New Era, Lee, and Reebok, and they have printed their sunny dispositions onto every medium possible, from sunglasses to chicken nuggets. In London, where the company is headquartered, and abroad, an army of lawyers oversees the licenses and aggressively hunts down counterfeiters. “Madame Chanel said that people copied her because she was famous,” says Franklin Loufrani. “I’m really famous; 2.5 billion people know my logo!”

The smiling yellow face has been adopted the world over, but did not have a name until 1996. It was known as frimousse in France, binette in Quebec, and “happy face” or “yellow face” in English-speaking countries. “We had to give our icon a name,” says Franklin Loufrani. “When you walk into a store, you don’t ask for a polo shirt with a crocodile on it; you ask for a Lacoste polo shirt.” The businessman was unable to patent the word “smile,” as it was considered too generic. And so the word “smiley” was born.

Since then, Nicolas Loufrani has adapted the logo to the digital age and endowed it with a range of emotions including joy, sadness, fear, anger, and surprise. This “new universal language,” a precursor to emojis, was shared as open-source software with the first mobile network operators. “We used cell phones and the Internet in the same way other companies use billboards, to spread the reach and reputation of our brand,” says Franklin Loufrani. “We currently live in a terrible world. If people take the time to share good news and send each other smileys, we’ll have done our job.”


Smiley: 50 Years of Good News by Liam Aldous, Assouline, 2022.


Article published in the May 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.