Embracing the Emoji Explosion

The opportunity for social change organizations

Quick, name the word of the year in 2015. If you picked an emoji, you’re right. With that announcement, emoji moved from niche to mainstream. Brands have paid attention, and many now incorporate emoji in ad campaigns. Several social change organizations have been early adopters and helped set the stage. While social change organizations can get creative, the market will soon be oversaturated, so the time to act is now.


Why emoji?

Consumer psychologist and author of “Decoding the New Consumer Mind” Kit Yarrow explains her thoughts on emoji’s effectiveness, “Great advertising has always kind of circumvented the rational parts of our brains by relying on visual images to conjure up emotions…it’s a shorthand way to turn on emotions using visual stimuli, and it’s just that the stimuli du jour is the emoji.”

Emoji have become pervasive in part due to their ability to quickly tell stories and grab people. People make decisions based on how they feel, not how they think, and emoji use storytelling to connect with our brains outside of the areas of rational thinking.


How can emoji be used?

Companies, social change organizations and others in between have adopted emoji. Because of that, the wow factor is waning quickly; it’s no longer enough to just have emoji as part of a campaign. There needs to be strategy and creativity behind it.

These five campaigns nailed it and provide lessons to help shape your next (or first) emoji campaign.


BRIS (Children’s Rights in Society)



To help make sure children had an avenue to talk about domestic abuse, self-abuse and alcoholism, BRIS introduced a downloadable emoji pack. It resonated because it gave people a way to talk about something serious without using words. Victims of abuse often feel shame; this simple emoji pack let them say everything with a single graphic.


Bill Nye

Bill Nye gained widespread acclaim when he explained climate change with emoji. Since, he has taken on evolution, dreaming, super materials and more with brief explanations using emoji. This approach makes complex topics significantly easier to understand and digest.


Taco Bell

Taco Bell launched a change.org petition to persuade the Unicode Consortium to add a taco emoji. This campaign rallied its fans and created a groundswell of support under a relatable banner. Taco Bell then rewarded its devotees with a custom taco gif generator. Folks who tweeted the taco emoji with another emoji, e.g. TACO + HAPPY, would get a unique mashup of the two.



For National Toilet Day, WaterAid debuted a custom emoji app to remove stigmas around sanitation, which helped jumpstart a conversation about the 2.3 billion who lack a toilet and clean water. WaterAid used emoji to capitalize on a moment in time and extend its life cycle.


Cycle for Survival


Cycle for Survival launched an emoji pack that deviated from the often melancholy tone of battling cancer while still remaining respectful of its subject matter. The emoji showed strength, unity and rewarded long-time supporters with “inside information.” The campaign treated emoji like a talisman to unite a community.


Looking ahead

We’re in the midst of an emoji explosion. Some have resulted in open discourse and some have resulted in a fun way to connect with audiences. The examples provide a roadmap for many social change organizations, but before trying to emulate them, consider these questions:


  1. Can your mission and/or impact be distilled down to emoji while still making sense? If so, is emoji appropriate for your scope of work?
  2. What is the distribution channel? Is it petitioning for a standard emoji addition, creating a custom emoji or something else entirely?
  3. What is your realistic lead time?
  4. Will this campaign truly result in social change?