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The Kingdom of Crying Kim Kardashian

How Amber Rose, Blac Chyna, and Bubba Watson invaded your keyboard and became emoji moguls. And why brands are trying to do the same.

John W. Tomac
John W. Tomac

Before entering the offices of Whalerock Industries, you’ve got to walk through a crystalline, oval-shaped, empty lobby and take an elevator up to a second lobby. This one is bigger, bathed in white, and manned by a single security guard. The security guard has to swipe his badge at the next row of elevators leading up to the offices — but not before a third lobby, this one more beautiful and pristine than the last and full of dozens of very busy people.

This labyrinthine, Ex Machina–esque set leads to the bustling workspace of Whalerock, the home of Kimoji. Today, Kim Kardashian West’s emoji pack — featuring various illustrated images of the Calabasas queen — dominates thousands of text conversations. In less than a year, she’s come to redefine how we communicate. But Kardashian West couldn’t have done it without the occupants of this office.

The company — formerly known as BermanBraun — officially renamed in 2014, just as a partnership was formed with the Kardashian clan to construct its mobile empire. The rechristened Whalerock’s splashy first collaboration with the ubiquitous sisters was a set of subscription lifestyle apps, featuring fashion advice, looks inside their homes, and other personal bits and pieces about the famous family. Within hours, it transformed the company.

Head of digital operations Jared Heinke can still remember the night of September 14, 2015, when he finally crashed after more than 30 hours in the office developing the product. When he awoke the next morning, Whalerock and the Kardashians (and Jenners) held the nos. 1, 2, 3, and 4 spots on the Entertainment section of Apple’s App Store chart. “It felt really good,” Heinke says, beaming with pride.

It ought to. For most companies, conquering the App Store would be a peak. But the next idea — this one broader and more forward-thinking — would radically change the face of digital branding. And it came directly from the mind of Kardashian West: Kimoji. “She came to us,” Heinke says. (The name was her idea, too.)

Now, Kimoji has the creative brainpower of Whalerock, with more than a dozen people working directly on the app, and various members of the company’s hundred-plus employees touching the project on a regular basis. Kimoji designers and product managers routinely meet with Kardashian West at her home and their offices, and constantly email about what images should be included in the next pack. (Kardashian West declined to comment for this story.)

“Kim’s the best marketer I’ve ever met,” says Heinke. “I’ll go to her with an idea on marketing Kimoji and say, ‘Kim, this is how we’re thinking about doing this.’ I’ll plant the seed, and then she’ll come back to me with something better.” Dashes of Kardashian ephemera pepper the Whalerock offices; her aura acts as a kind of muse. A photo of Kanye West cut out of a magazine is pinned above one desk; a copy of Khloé Kardashian’s Strong Looks Better Naked sits on another. I suspect that the infamous Vogue cover is lurking somewhere.

Before Kimoji, Whalerock had done icon and emoji work for clients, but nothing on the scale that Kardashian West was imagining. It didn’t take long for their team to realize that yes, Kimoji was a genius idea — a “duh” idea, really — and yes, the company would compose the next chapter in the story of her growing cultural dominance. The following months were spent executing the intense work of designing the pack. The team worked closely with Kim, identifying which icons should be part of the first push, what sort of style the cartoonish designs should take, and precisely the look and feel of the pack. It was decided that Kim’s iconic cry-face emoji would be the app icon; variations on the butt emoji were obvious early additions.

Kimoji launched on December 21, 2015, some four months after the idea was originally floated. And then it did to the App Store what its subject intended to do to the internet once before: broke it. Apple insists that the App Store suffered no malfunctions at the hands of Kimoji, though those on the development side aren’t sure they agree. (The day Whalerock launched Kimoji, the company also moved into that pristine new office — it was a chaotic day filled with nonstop calls to and from Kardashian West, Apple, and Whalerock execs.) Whatever the case, the added attention surely didn’t hurt Kimoji’s popularity — more than five months later, it still sits at no. 13 on the overall chart and no. 2 in Entertainment.

While Kimoji wasn’t truly the first celebrity-focused emoji app or sticker pack, it was the first one of its size and scope — and let’s be honest, the first one featuring an icon. Kimoji is what started all of this. “This” being our custom emoji industry, which has quickly become a massive money-making market stateside — much of it was spurred, or at least inspired, by Kimoji.

Now, a week doesn’t go by without a celebrity app launch, or less exciting but still noteworthy, a brand’s own pack. Nothing is too inane and no artist too big to be shrunken into text-message size and cartoonified. It is, of course, a marketing tactic, and a sly one: For a long time, social internet advertising has been about putting your brand everywhere, on Instagram with a filter, on Twitter with a hashtag. But those efforts, while necessary, simply join the stream of content — becoming an emoji is a status symbol. It takes you from participating in something to being the something people are participating in. In that way, it is perfectly Kardashian.

The custom emoji market is bursting at the seams, with content and with branding agencies, for good reason. The economy of chat — both private and group — has become more interesting than posting for public consumption. Being able to insert yourself (or your brand) into these smaller conversations is incredibly important. Hashtags are meaningless if all the real talk is happening inside a DM.

“You need to have your own emoji. We’re moving away from the mentality of, ‘Let’s tweet or post things for the world to see,’ and moving to group texting and private chats, and that makes it harder to reach people and interact with them,” says Oliver Camilo, the founder and CEO of Moji, a San Francisco–based custom emoji-app maker. Moji makes many celebrity packs, including Amber Rose’s MuvaMoji. “So how do you reach people once they’ve moved to smaller, more private social apps? You do it in a way that’s more natural. It lets the user kind of evangelize [the celebrity’s] brand for them. There’s no call to action. Kids are getting smarter about marketing, and emoji are still fun and exciting and relevant.”

Kim Kardashian West may have seen all this coming, but she’s far from the only one with her own emoji pack. In March 2016, Rose came next. MuvaMoji is similar to Kardashian’s in that it features insider references only her fans alone would understand, many of which allude to Kardashian West’s husband and Rose’s ex, Kanye West. Within one week of its launch, MuvaMoji earned a reported $4 million. (Same as Kimoji, the app costs $1.99, which has become the going price for a popular celebrity emoji pack.)

Moji’s parent company is AppMoji, which also owns PlushMoji, the home of stuffed animalized emoji. It’s a many-armed, emoji marketing beast — and it was launched just a year ago by entrepreneurs Liam Burns, Johnny Burns, and Camilo.

Moji has its own staff of about a dozen in-house designers, something of a departure from most of the emoji agencies I spoke with. “They develop all of our products; everything we do has our signature look and it’s very recognized in the market,” says Camilo. “If you were to look at other celebrity emoji, you can definitely tell ours apart from the rest because we follow a certain set of rules. We’re really big on doing things in-house. It gives us a better design flow, good synergy. We have 15,000 emoji that we’ve designed from scratch. It comes naturally to us now.”

Rose’s MuvaMoji app is easily Moji’s most well-known collection, and its only standalone celebrity emoji app. So why did Rose qualify for her own pack rather than a slot inside Moji’s keyboard? “We’re very careful about … who we do a standalone app for,” Camilo says. “Not to discredit stars [featured] in Moji but … she’s an international star, she has a huge global reach, she’s at the top of social media. … Amber is probably one of the only people in the world who, uh, I don’t want to say can compete with Kim Kardashian but … we wanted to make a splash.”

While MuvaMoji has become a competitor to the throne, Camilo recognizes that Kimoji put this trend on the map. “Kimoji kind of … I don’t want to say dignified it, but it put it on the radar. It’s a very lucrative space and you need to do it to stay relevant and engaged with your users.”

Custom emoji are not only for the Kim Kardashian Wests or Amber Roses of the world. While people made famous thanks to the internet may have been uniquely positioned to jump on this first, it is now open emoji season — and agencies are looking for potential emoji inspiration. In the case of professional golfer Bubba Watson’s emoji, Bubbamoji, Santa Monica, California–based Kapps Media went looking for the star. Watson is the company’s first celebrity emoji pack launch, with more to come. Kapps’s talent relations VP, Alison Silverman, also described it as a “collaborative” process with Watson. Rick Sorkin, president and COO at Kapps Media, says the company’s process takes about three months from start to finish. The team spent time with Watson and his friends, learning about his mannerisms, personality, and, of course, his catchphrases. (“If I got a swing, I got a shot.”)

The artists themselves, however, never actually met Bubba. The Kapps Media team relayed their Watson research, and then received artwork in return. “We create a sort of style guide that we send to the talent and ask which they like best,” says Sorkin. “We don’t give them the artists’ names. We name them after museums, so we ask whether they liked LACMA or the Met or MoMA best.” According to Sorkin, Watson liked a few different artists’ work — Sorkin wouldn’t name any — so a few different styles appear in the app. This sort of transaction is increasingly common.

Camilo says Rose was easy to work with on her emoji pack. “Not a diva at all. Some [celebrities] have more direction than others; some come to us and say, ‘We want to do emoji,’ and I say, ‘OK, what are your ideas?’ Because I think the more involved they are, the bigger a success it will be, especially if they have some pride and ownership of it. But some have no idea, and just have us come up with it — we understand pop culture and we’re up to date on what’s going on in the celebrity world.”

When it comes to celebrities who require several revisions, Camilo says he doesn’t “want to throw anyone under the bus,” but that the bigger the client, the more arcane the channels of approval.

The operative word when talking about creating Kimoji is “collaborative.” According to the team at Whalerock, Kardashian West has been instrumental to the process. (“Kim is amazing on email!” says Heinke.) Most of the design team is in-house, though because it is such a huge pack — Kimoji launched with more than 250 icons — the company sometimes outsources the work to freelancers.

Custom and celebrity emoji production is largely farmed out to digital design agencies. Some specialize in standalone app strategies. Whalerock, which is a sort of collaborative effort focusing on the Kardashians’ online presence, is an outlier. Moji is a hybrid, with a variety of artist-specific emoji packs inside the app; MuvaMoji gets its own, separate billing.

Why the distinction? Moji bills itself as the “App Store of emoji.” The app itself is free, but much of its content is not. Verified packs, meaning those that belong to celebrities and artists, are typically paid for. (Some, like DJ Snake’s and Lil Dicky’s, are free.) While Camilo declined to share specific revenue figures, he says Moji’s user base is growing month over month. The deals that Moji cuts are typically revenue shares, and he says that every client has thus far been pleased with the profits their emojis have generated.

Initially, Moji spent time reaching out to artists and celebrities about being involved in the app; now the company is getting more inbound requests from talent. “A lot of labels, direct management come to us,” says Camilo. “They’ve found us to be the leaders in the space, but we still reach out to people who we think would do well with this.”

If an agent or brand want, nay, need custom emoji, there are options. There’s no shortage of agencies. There’s Admojis, a group of three artists who create — you guessed it — emoji for advertising purposes. There’s Emoji Fame, a custom emoji firm that made Oakland-based hip-hop group Hieroglyphics’ emoji pack, among other artists’ packs. LOV Games is the developing body behind DMX’s emoji. There’s Fanmoji, which designs European emoji, not to be confused with FanMojis, an app developed by Toyota for sports fans.

Emoji Fame cofounder Gavin Rhodes tells me that typically his company strikes a 50–50 split with the artist/client (fairly standard for the industry), but he says someone on a Kimoji or MuvaMoji level would likely get a higher percentage of the share. (Whalerock declined to comment on its Kimoji revenue share.) And those types of superstars are more likely to make some actual money from the pack — other, less-well-known emoji subjects are looking to accrue a stronger social media following rather than hard cash.

“We predict a 0.5 percent to 3 percent conversion rate of an artist’s social media following, but I think that’s conservative,” says Rhodes, meaning Emoji Fame believes that ​that amount of the emojified artist’s social following installs the keyboard. “We mostly see more like a 6 percent conversion rate, but I’d rather be conservative.” Obviously business is good for the app developer in question, too: Emoji Fame’s most recent pack, a set featuring guitarist Zakk Wylde, increased its installs by 1,000 percent.

On the pricing of these packs, Rhodes says $1.99 is fair. “I feel very strongly in the positioning of the pricing on these things. I’ve seen some that are 99 cents, and to me that just seems like it tremendously undervalues a brand. I get it, people are cheap, but art costs money.”

According to Whalerock, Kimoji was profitable on day one — actually, hour one. While the company declined to offer hard numbers, I was told I could directionally deduce how it’s performing. (Well.)

Making the packs can be expensive, too. Rhodes says on average it takes 45 minutes to an hour to create an emoji. Freelance graphic designer rates can range anywhere from $15 to $60 an hour. It’s not cheap work, and more and more companies competing to use people with these skills will surely drive up the rates for illustrators.

Moji’s Camilo says he doesn’t see anyone competing at the same level as his company. What he does see is market validation. “I hope that it will last forever,” he says. “Facebook has its sticker store, Snapchat has stickers in messaging, but no one has really taken [this space] over.”

Not all emoji are made inside an icon-making machine. There are freelance artists, like Kevin McCauley, who go the emoji-making route on their own. McCauley didn’t become an emoji designer by choice, but by chance. A graphic designer by trade, he fell in love with the @Seinfeld2000 Twitter account, and the guy behind it — Toronto TV producer Jason Richards — helped him into the market. “I was a huge fan, so he must have noticed that this guy who always retweeted him was a graphic designer, and DM’d me one day to ask if I knew anyone that could create some Seinfeld emoji illustrations.” McCauley, naturally, volunteered himself.

After Jessica Seinfeld, the real-life wife of Jerry Seinfeld, posted about the Seinfeld emoji app on Instagram, his new hobby became something more. “I really fell into this role, and this project put me on the map for it.” He hasn’t worked on any high-profile celebrity emoji releases, and typically doesn’t work with start-ups or keyboard pack developers because, frankly, he’s too expensive. “It’s taken a lot of trial and error but I’ve found that if someone contacts me with an ‘’ email address, it’s probably not going to work out.”

McCauley does everything in Adobe Illustrator, blowing up the image much larger than it will appear in order to capture more detail. Faces are easier than objects, he says, because they all have the same elements — skin, eyes, nose, mouth. “I prefer [doing] props or objects, though … because it’s different every time and it’s very satisfying to create something from nothing and end up with these perfect little pictures.”

Also, objects don’t talk back. Or, at least, their account managers don’t. McCauley says he doesn’t work directly with talent; an agency working with the brand or celebrity contacts him to do the work and relays messages about the art.

“I have gotten feedback from the account where they said, ‘Can you tweak this to make it more flattering,’ or something. But they were speaking on behalf of the subject, before they had seen it.” There’s always a middleman between the artist(s) and the talent, so illustrators often work from reference material. “Sometimes [the agency] provides images or video, but sometimes I just have to use Google,” McCauley says. Imagine: Some of your favorite celebrity emoji might be designed by someone just like you, trawling for source material on Google Image.

John W. Tomac
John W. Tomac

Camilo notes that some of Moji’s competition is flooding the market with half-baked projects, like the new Starbucks emoji keyboard. “It’s like some of these brands, the bigger ones … have these marketing teams and they say, ‘What are we gonna roll out? Emoji are hot!’ and they either contract it out or do it in-house, but it’s not engaging or relevant. Twenty-some icons of cups on a keyboard, where is the relevance for that?”

Instead of creating an app full of soda cans or coffee cups, Moji focuses on quick-response development. “If something happens, we’re continuously pushing new content based on what’s going on,” says Camilo. “If there’s something that’s trending in the media, if it’s an event or gossip or a big, popular meme, we create content within an hour and publish it. It’s like emoji are becoming the new hashtag. A picture is worth a thousand words.”

When the Damn Daniel meme hit earlier this year, Moji had a new emoji celebrating those white Vans up within 20 minutes. “Our traffic that day just went through the roof,” Camilo says. When Amber Rose’s friend Blac Chyna (soon to be Angela Kardashian, god bless) got engaged to Rob Kardashian, Moji celebrated by adding the betrothed and the diamond sparkler to the MuvaMoji pack the following morning.

Blac Chyna has her own emoji aspirations: She and Rob recently announced her pregnancy with an emoji posted to his Instagram page; just a few days later it was reported that Blac Chyna would release her own emoji line, ChyMoji. The app, also priced at $1.99 in the App Store, is made by a developer called Glamroks LLC, though the ChyMoji support page leads back to Makemoji, yet another emoji app design agency, which also does emoji analytics. Add it to the list.

Emoji being so hot right now isn’t the only reason that celebrities and brands have turned to them. How we consume the internet is rapidly changing, and throwing another app into the ether or producing a viral video won’t necessarily cut it. Our attention is an important commodity, and there isn’t much of it left anymore.

“There’s a shifting of behavior in mobile content consumption and social media,” says Kapps Media’s Rick Sorkin. He explains that standalone celebrity or brand apps require you to create accounts, come back, open them up, check notifications and feeds there — and that’s asking a lot of users who already have too many log-ins and feeds to browse. “You get a notification in an app, and a high percentage [of users] won’t log in to that app to see it. But when it comes to messaging, most people read 100 percent of their texts.”

Our familiarity with emoji mean marketers are eager to speak the language. “There’s really no other product like it. It’s a double-edged sword, in a good way — an extremely effective marketing tool, but they can also be monetized,” says Camilo. “No one is paying to see ads, but they pay to see emoji. Each emoji can be a form of a digital ad.” Emoji are no longer just emoji — they’re tiny, adorable commercials.

But as with most disguised marketing tactics, it can last for only so long. Is there a risk of ruining emoji? Memes, GIFs, and internet-speak have all been adopted and abused by overeager marketers. Why not emoji? We are in danger of reaching saturation; you remember, of course, the phrase “there’s an app for that.” There’s now an emoji for that: for veterans, for Washington State students, for flirting, for Finns, for Catholics, for Latinos, for fitness and/or Shaun T fans, for yogis, for Trump … supporters and haters, for bros. Emoji are large, they contain multitudes. But app overload is called that for a reason — the quick rise and fall of Yo was a nearly perfect example of our increasing frustration with too much of a good thing. That app had a singular purpose, one accomplished by other apps, and it was a novelty — and then it was over. Can that happen with emoji?

There is a caveat, and a protection for the future of emoji: None of the apps or keyboards we’ve talked about are actually creating emoji. While many of these projects include some part of the word “emoji,” that is not what they are. They’re technically “stickers” packed inside apps that work with your phone’s keyboard function so they’re easy to insert. Which, yes, is a lot like how you find and use emoji on your phone. But a real emoji goes through a process to become an emoji; it’s submitted, voted on, debated, approved, and eventually included in an operating system update to make it a part of your phone’s, tablet’s, or computer’s native character set.

And that brings us to another potential problem: While celebrity and branded emoji packs are inarguably fun and joyful (and profitable), their diversity may be diluting the standard. “The Unicode Consortium enables people around the world to use computers in any language,” according to the official website of Unicode, which is like the Oxford English Dictionary for emoji. “Our freely-available specifications and data form the foundation for software internationalization in all major operating systems, search engines, applications, and the World Wide Web.”

The point of Unicode is to create a digital, visual language that anyone can understand, that looks the same (at least that’s the idea) across any platform. Which means that custom emoji are a challenge to Unicode’s mission. If all of these different “emoji,” with their own art directives and insider references, invade our phones and text-based communication at large, there’s the chance that actual emoji will lose some of their officialness. The debate over whether emoji are copyrightable hasn’t been settled yet, but it’s being discussed at the highest levels.

There’s also the globalization of emoji to consider: In the United States, an image of Amber Rose’s reference to giving Kanye West a rectal exam has social significance (well, at least to a great many of us). But elsewhere in the world? Maybe not.

“I think you’re right when you ask if [custom emoji] dilute the overall purpose of emoji,” says Ged Maheux, cofounder of Iconfactory and the creator of Twitter’s custom emoji. “[Standard emoji] are like the letters of the alphabet or numeric characters. When you type a Game of Thrones hashtag out [on Twitter] and see the Iron Throne icon, unless you watch the show or have any idea, you’re not going to understand it. The way emoji are chosen is specifically done so they’re ubiquitous and universal.”

Even though Maheux is responsible for a non-Unicode-sanctioned emoji pack, he understands the issues tied to flooding the ecosystem with these custom icons. Especially when you label them the exact thing they are not. “The thing about branded emoji is that they aren’t the standard. They aren’t emoji,” he says. “They’re just branded icons. This happened a few years ago, with the Seinfeld emoji. Those aren’t emoji. They’re just icons drawn in the emoji style.”

Of course, labeling a celebrity emoji app the “Amber Rose Branded Icon Sticker Pack” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. “It’s totally a marketing thing to say, ‘These are emoji,’” according to Maheux. “They’re riding the coattails of the popularity of emoji right now.”

That popularity is anything but waning. Nathan Barker runs Visixtwo, a company that creates custom messaging features and works with a variety of brands on emoji packs. “It reminds me a lot of the ringtone industry in the late ’90s,” he says. “The first thing people did when they got home with this gray box was get ringtones. It was a way to express your personality.” The difference, of course — and perhaps what makes the more compelling case for custom emoji — is that they’re part of a two-way conversation.

“It’s a tribal thing,” Barker says. “People sort of laugh when I say that, but it is.” By that Barker means Kimoji or MuvaMoji or your university’s custom emoji or your NBA team’s emoji signals you’re part of something, it reveals your allegiance, and it influences the way you speak (er, text). This is exactly why the symbol for Kimoji is her crying face: Whalerock says it was a conscious decision to own a moment in which Kardashian West was mocked and transform it into an icon. The more self-referential and self-deprecating the emoji pack, the more you invite your audience into your life. It’s a translator that allows users to speak the language of a celebrity. You don’t have to be talking about Kardashian West for her to be a part of the conversation. Kimoji is bigger than Kim herself.

“A lot of our ideas came from Kim coming to us and saying, ‘Why isn’t there a ‘whatever’ on the keyboard?’” says Whalerock designer Joanna Figliozzi. Three of the most popular celebrity emoji apps — Kimoji, MuvaMoji, and ChyMoji — have introduced plenty of “missing” emoji.

They also have some strange ties. There are, of course, the real-world connections: Kim Kardashian West is married to Kanye West, who used to date Amber Rose, a.k.a. Muva, a.k.a. the subject of MuvaMoji. And ChyMoji’s Blac Chyna is engaged to Kardashian West’s brother, Rob Kardashian, and is also friends with Rose. All three women are largely known for being beautiful, and also for their relationships with famous (and famous-ish) men in hip-hop: Kanye West, Wiz Khalifa, Tyga. They’re known for their ties to these men and as sex symbols, especially in the black community. And this is noteworthy because of who represents the most active communities on messaging apps: young Latino and black teens.

According to a recent Pew study: “In a testament to the shifting landscape of texting, one third (33%) of teens with cell phones use messaging apps like Kik or WhatsApp. These apps are more likely to be used by Hispanic and African-American youth who own cell phones, with 46% of Hispanic teens and 47% of African-American teens using messaging apps to send texts, compared with one-quarter (24%) of white teens with cell phones.” Also, according to Pew’s research, black teens are more likely to have access to a cell phone than any other teens.

The standard emoji set is infamously white. Unicode has come under fire for ignoring certain cultures’ foods, flags, hair, even skin. (Though a recent release addressed the outcry to an extent.) But it’s not just the color of face and hand emoji that leaves people out: The food is primarily American and Asian. The activity emoji aren’t necessarily exclusionary … but sailing, archery, and horseback riding recall a certain privileged, Martha’s Vineyard lifestyle. Part of celebrity emoji’s appeal is the way it directly communicates with its primary demographic. It’s direct marketing in a digital sticker.

Barker says he doesn’t think we’ve hit the ceiling on branded emoji. He points to Asia, a trend forecaster when it comes to most things digital, and all things messaging. It’s still growing the custom emoji market. He does expect some platform issues, though — Kik, for instance, doesn’t let you pull in emoji from outside keyboards. It wants you to pay for and install its own suite of custom stickers. Platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook could do the same, relegating all those ChyMoji to SMS and iMessage. It would appear, though, that many platforms are willing to work with these new emoji: After initial resistance, Kimoji are now available on Twitter. Heinke says that in the past, when you searched for “Kimoji” on Twitter, all that would come up were complaints about not being able to use the icons within the app. But now? It’s a sea of animated hair flips and gyrating Kims.

Today, in fact, Kimoji is launching a new pack. Not just any new pack: a gigantic set of emoji that will nearly double the catalog. The launch includes more of her daughter, North, and about a dozen new GIFs (a popular feature with users), one of which features Kardashian West twerking in a white bathing suit and fur coat. Another pays homage to Kanye West’s “Bound 2” video, showing a topless Kardashian West facing her husband as they both straddle a motorcycle. (The subtle movement of the GIF was described as “elegant” by Whalerock designers — they’re not wrong, either; it’s oddly mesmerizing.) All in all, the pack introduces 134 new icons and 20 new GIFs (called Kimogifs, mind you). Kimoji has long referenced the star’s own life, both sexy and tongue in cheek, but there’s a difference with this release: It’s the first pay-for pack. Kimoji, a $1.99 app, included everything in its catalog for free, until now. To get the 200-some new icons, you have to pony up an additional 99 cents. It’s something of an experiment on Whalerock and Kimoji’s part — but its users have proved loyal, with usage and download numbers spiking with each new icon pack release. So this time, they’re betting a little cash won’t kill that thus-far dependable momentum. Risky? A little, but Kimoji’s track record thus far makes it a chance worth taking.

Purchase points, though, are not custom emoji apps’ most formidable foe. The biggest hurdle for celebrity and custom emoji is the keyboard problem. Third-party keyboards are not easy to install for the average user, and developers are required to use Apple’s language for instructions — language that can sound a little scary. When Kimoji first launched, so did articles accusing the app of spying on users’ keyboards. It’s something the Whalerock team is always studying: Has anyone come up with a better onboarding process or a better system for switching between keyboards? So far, they say no. But everyone in this game is hoping, wishing, waiting for Apple to amend how it treats these apps. Apple is reportedly listening, and changes may come as soon as this year’s WWDC.

Regardless, Iconfactory’s Maheux agrees with Barker — we aren’t even close to peak emoji marketing, from brands or stars. He does, however, question the staying power of celebrity-branded emoji. There’s nothing like the real thing.

“Sure, Star Wars emoji are cool at the moment,” Maheux says, “but you’ll always need a smiley face.”

And if there’s a cry face that can compete with Unicode’s Face With Tears of Joy, read it and weep: