How a Small Hot Dog Shop (Almost) Started the Hot Dog Emoji

Ben Ustick    By under Social Media Marketing.

UPDATE: Hot dog emoji will be part of iOS 9.1. Read more information on the monumental decision here. Thanks to everyone who made this happen!

A good idea is often the lucky result of a chain of random events and just the right amount of motivation to see it through. And maybe, just maybe, a couple of beers help as well. With the creation of the hot dog emoji movement, all these factors were at play. I know this because I was at the Revolution Brewing Tap Room that Friday night in early January 2014. I was drinking those beers.

Laura Ustick, my wife, as well as third-generation Superdawg family member and current Superdawg Wheeling General Manager, saw the tweet first.

By that point, Laura and I both had independently been observing the growing chatter on Twitter over the lack of a hot dog emoji and knew we wanted to be involved. The movement was quite small, with under sixty uses of the #hotdogemoji hashtag in all of 2013 (a number that would be eclipsed easily in the first month of 2014). I had even sent out an exploratory tweet the day after Christmas 2013, checking on the pulse of the people.

But this night was different. Maybe it was when Jenny Pfäfflin tweeted the word petition. Maybe it was the huge American flag emblazoned on the wall of Revolution providing rebellious inspiration. Maybe it was the beers. Whatever it was, the time for action had come. A quick Google search found that there was a fledgling hot dog emoji petition online with 23 signatures.

Laura and I quickly decided that if we really wanted to do this right, we needed to control the narrative and explain with more precision why the inclusion of a hot dog in the emoji language pack was a necessity. And had the added benefit that if a petition hits 100,000 signatures within thirty days, the White House has to respond. As fellow Chicagoans, we felt that President Obama would be sympathetic to our cause.

And then just as quickly as it had the started, the Twitter conversation ended. Jenny Pfäfflin had left the Internet. Was this not meant to be? We drowned our sorrows in the only available outlet, beer, and our hot dog emoji hopes and dreams floated away. And then boom went the dynamite. Nearly thirty minutes since last contact had been made, JP had returned. And she brought a hot dog emoji prototype with her (which she graciously gave us permission to use).

During all of this Twitter fun, the Superdawg Facebook page had gotten a message from a local news outlet, Chicago. They were intrigued by the hot dog emoji fight and were thinking about writing an article. However, it was still Friday night and we were still at a brewery, so we deflected and told DNAinfo we'd get back to them with more information the next day.

not hot dog emojiWithout DNAinfo, I doubt the hot dog emoji movement would have become what it did. Maybe the next day, Laura and I wake up and forget all about the hot dog emoji inspired outrage of the previous evening. Maybe we keep trying, but no one listens. Who knows? But that next morning, when we woke up, we had a petition to write and a reporter waiting for a story.

Logging onto, Laura and I realized that we could direct the petition to a specific person. Of course President Obama would be a recipient, but who else? We decided on Shigetaka Kurita, the man responsible for creating emoji. We were unaware that Mr. Kurita's involvement with the management of the emoji language pack had ended long ago. That responsibility belongs to the Unicode Consortium, a group that plays a large role in this story.
life liberty hotdog emoji
But first, we had to type out our declaration. "I humbly request that you add a hotdog symbol to the emoji set, and furthermore ketchup shall not be used in the making of this hot dog emoji."

With a nod to our Chicago roots in place, the "original" Hot Dog Emoji Petition was published.

The great irony in all this has to be that Superdawg doesn't even serve a hot dog. We sell Superdawgs. If you order a hot dog, you will be corrected every single time. This fight for a hot dog emoji was always meant to be a fun team effort, a coalition of hot dog enthusiasts working alongside the nation's greatest hot dog stands and suppliers.

And we hit the virtual pavement to make that happen. Before we first sent off the petition to DNAInfo, we were already rounding up support online. We reached out to local hot dog stands and national hot dog purveyors alike. Two days later when Hot Dog Emoji is Needed, Says Superdawg was published, we had already gotten Twitter support from local dog establishments such as America's Dog and Hot Doug's.

The story certainly caused a little bit of local excitement, getting coverage in a number of local publications and an article on the Groupon Blog. We are able to ride the waves of this enthusiasm and support for a couple of weeks, but we certainly had not made enough noise to assume the Unicode Consortium had heard us. There was a silver lining though. A reporter from The Wall Street Journal had reached out to Laura. She saw the potential to highlight the hot dog emoji movement in a broader look at both the world and politics of emoji. But it wasn't a pitchable story yet.

So for us, it was back to work. Laura kept in contact with the reporter from The Wall Street Journal, hoping that would materialize. Mostly though, we waited and we kept grinding. Laura's days and evenings were spent scouring the Internet as she made sure that every "why isn't there a hot dog emoji" tweet was answered and redirected to the petition. She made it her mission to turn many idle thoughts into one organized conversation. And she created memes by the dozen. We can't forget the memes.

Eventually The Hot Dog Emoji Coalition would grow to include cross-country support from over thirty hot dog stands including Vienna Beef locally, Windmill Dogs on the east coast, Pink's on the west coast, Hot Dog OKC down south, Hank's Haute Dog for the non-continental U.S., and Nathan's Canada internationally. The National Hot Dog & Sausage Council even gave us political credibility. And the group began to grow outside of the hot dog world, as, Mr. Beef, perhaps hoping a hot dog emoji would open the door for an Italian Beef emjoi, competitive eater Patrick "Deep Dish" Bertoletti, and even Expedia's Roaming Gnome threw their support behind the movement.

And much like an Academy Awards' speech, I won't be able to do justice and remember everyone who helped (the picture below offers a small peek), but without this group of restaurants and people, the hot dog emoji cause never would have grown as big as it did. Enthusiastic restaurants and Twitter handles worked tirelessly along side us, furthering the cause with their own memes and campaigns.

hotdogemoji coalition
And we kept waiting. And grinding. Over two months after those tweets while drinking beers at Revolution, the Wall Street Journal article came out. It was amazing. Caroline Porter offered a thorough and fascinating look at the history of the emoji and the role of the Unicode Consortium through the lens of my wife's fight. There were even interactive graphics. At that point hot dog emoji blew up. The coverage came from everywhere. Pretty much every major publication in the country picked up some version of the story. And a bigger hot dog company came calling. For the sake of honesty, it was Oscar Mayer. And it didn't work out. But they were classy and approached us the right way and never tried to repurpose the idea as their own. A collaboration on the hot dog emoji fight wasn't in the cards and we offered our support to whatever they wanted to do to help moving forward.

In many ways though, we thought the fight was over. We had let out our most primal, Johnny Drama "Victory!!!" shout. This thing was in the bag. I mean the creator of the emoji even said "In Japan, we have onigiri [rice ball] emoji, so why not hot dogs? Hot dogs are onigiri for Americans, right?" Apparently the Unicode Consortium did not agree.

do the right thingWhen the group in charge of approving new emoji met in June of 2014, they did not add a hot dog. While it had been cool to see my wife on the cover of the print edition of The Wall Street Journal, we never saw the hot dog emoji as a way to gain personal attention. Essentially, nothing had changed. The fight wasn't over. It was time to press on.

And then suddenly there was a hot dog emoji. And no disrespect to Blackberry. We love them for doing this, however, the point of the hot dog emoji movement was for hot dog emoji to be available to as large a group as possible. To us, that meant iPhones and Android devices.

And then it was back to waiting. And grinding. Laura continued to post regularly on the Hot Dog Emoji Coalition Facebook page and track down hot dog emoji outliers on Twitter. But as had been the case so often in this fight, fortuitous events would put hot dog emoji back in the spotlight. First, in August 2014, we stumbled across a PDF detailing potential emoji additions. The reason listed for hot dog (pg. 6): campaigns.

Then in November 2014, the Unicode Consortium announced new emoji candidates and a hot dog was among them. The reason listed: most popularly requested.

most popularly requested emoji

And then it was back to waiting. And grinding. By this point, many hundreds of man and woman hours had been put into the fight. This wasn't a marketing campaign. Billable hours alone would have made it the most cost inefficient small business marketing campaign ever. This was a passion project. These hours were being put in largely on free-time as I worked full-time at my job and Laura worked full-time running a restaurant.

Then we saw this tweet. We didn't know what it meant. But it sure seemed positive.

AND IT MEANT EXACTLY WHAT WE THOUGHT IT MEANT! Hot dog was an officially approved emoji!!!!

Notice the lack of ketchup. A lack of ketchup that was originally requested in the petition. A lack of ketchup that is native to Chicago. Take notice of the neon green relish. Neon green relish that was inspired by Jenny Pfafflin's original hot dog emoji image. Neon green relish that is native to Chicago. A year and half later, we had finally won! At some point, hot dog emojis would be tweeted.

So imagine my shock a month later, when on National Hot Dog Day, I see a Fortune article go through my Twitter feed: Nathan's Demands a Hot Dog Emoji. Until July 4th, 2015, Nathan's had never once demanded a hot dog emoji or tweeted any combination of the words hot dog emoji. Yet now that the work had been done, they were ready to get involved.

At first, I didn't know who I was more upset with, Nathan's or the writer of the article. A quick Google search of the term hot dog emoji brings up first page results entirely specific to my wife and our campaign. Why would the writer ignore the fact that Nathan's had in no way started this campaign that they were rolling out on National Hot Dog Day? But also, we had reached out to Nathan's in the early days of the hot dog emoji fight and they didn't respond or show any interest. Now, weeks after the hot dog emoji was approved, they're suddenly leading the crusade? Ironically, Nathan's Canada publicly supported the cause way back when.

And maybe they didn't remember. I get that. We're just a small hot dog stand with a small cause. But I have to assume Nathan's at least did a Twitter search or a Google search before they started "their" hot dog emoji campaign. And they must have seen the backstory. If it had been Oscar Mayer who started the hot dog emoji movement, would Nathan's have so brazenly claimed it as their own? And despite the fact that the Unicode Consortium has artwork included on their website, Nathan's created their own original artwork. And they certainly didn't correct this guy, but they did RT him.

At the time, I let Nathan's know how I felt about their takeover of the hot dog emoji movement and got no response. I ranted and raved, the records of which are still on Twitter somewhere, but eventually moved past it. Then a couple days ago, Superdawg got a tweet from Nathan's Famous.

I thought it was a conciliatory tweet. I was even going to ignore that they started it with an @ mention, which would mean only our shared followers would see it, meaning most of their followers wouldn't. Then I saw the press release.

"We were overwhelmed by the fan support to create the #HotDogEmoji so we thought that it was necessary to take the effort further," said Mike Paribello, Sr. Director of Marketing, Nathan's Famous. "We decided to champion the petition process and serve as the official voice of fans everywhere."

They weren't joining the fight it seemed. They were taking it over. They even created a new petition at the appropriately named >, a site that is plastered with Nathan's artwork and appears to be an email/info grab more than anything.

laura emojiSo ultimately, this isn't just about me whining. I've asked myself if my reaction is fueled by some kind of Twitter territoriality or personal hubris, but it's not. We would have welcomed Nathan's to this fight along with every other one of the thirty-plus businesses that were involved. It's about the idea of creation, creativity, and ethics in the online age. It's about the little guy. It's about not rebranding other people's jokes, tweets, or ideas as your own. Can it be your social media campaign if it was already somebody else's? Maybe there is no clear answer to this question, but with where things are headed, I know it needs to be asked. Do I think Nathan's would have assumed the hot dog emoji mantel from a larger corporation that had spent tens of thousands on marketing budgets? No. I don't.

My wife and I put in a lot of time and effort. This wasn't some overnight viral sensation. This was hundreds of hours laboring with no promise of any kind of return. And it worked. The step forward we were looking for has been taken by the Unicode Consortium, but a month from now or a year from now when Apple and Google take the next step, will Nathan's claim victory? That's to be determined. But whatever happens, I'll tweet them a hot dog emoji that day and they'll know the real story of why that's possible.

Until then...

don't forget about hot dog emoji