Transformers and the Lego Movie showed there’s still a market for movies based on toys. Now the success of Line Friends in Asia shows that there is also a market for cafes and merchandise based on emoticons and stickers.
At Catherine Plaza in Nanjing, China on Sunday afternoon, October 23, a line of over 100 people waited for entrance into the newly opened Line Friends Cafe & Store. While they waited they took pictures with the giant statues of a bear, a chic, a rabbit, a frog, and a moon.
The Line Friends are a cast of characters originally developed as stickers for the chat app Line between 2011 and 2013. As the app exploded in popularity, Line eventually expanded the character lineup and featured them in animations (Line Town) and games (Line Rangers). Now they have started opening stores.
On its website, Line claims to have 45 stores in nine countries either open or in the works, but the list appears incomplete because it doesn’t include the Nanjing location. Besides Asia, Columbia and the United States (Times Square, NYC) are also listed as the sites of planned future stores.
The shops that have just opened in Shanghai and Nanjing are extremely popular. Fans, who were about 70-80 percent female and largely younger than 25, waited in line for 30-40 minutes to get in on Sunday afternoon. Inside the place is divided into sections based on the characters, including a cafe, a restaurant serving hot dogs, and a merchandise section that included apparel, backpacks, bags, and branded items for 100-300 RMB (which the women I was with thought was too expensive).
However despite the great interest in the Line Friends characters and the popularity of Line in neighboring Asian countries, few Chinese use the chat app Line Friends were originally developed for. Of the dozen fans I talked to, none said they actively used it and few said they downloaded it but didn’t use it. WeChat and QQ are the leading chat apps in China. Line claims to be the leading social network in Japan and boasts 700 million users worldwide, with popularity in Thailand, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Spain as well.
But Line Corporation, which is a subsidiary of the Korean internet giant Naver, has found a way to turn their chat stickers into expansive brands. It created a whole universe around the Line Friends called Line Town, and it developed the stories of the twelve characters in a series of 50 1-3 minute short animations.
It also worked to get the Line Friends in people’s minds through multiple media channels. One fan at the cafe said she heard about the Line Friends through Korean music idol group Exo. Line Corp also capitalizes on the popularity of photo-taking apps in Asia. Some of the Chinese fans did use the app Line Camera, which lets users take photos of themselves with the images of a Line Friend’s face superimposed over their own face.
A corporate promotional website lists six related and overlapping areas of business development: “STORE”, “Café”, “Collaboration”, “Character Goods”, “Licensing”, and “Contents.” Besides the 5,000 Line products that are said to be already in production, Line will also develop “license business with the world’s best partners in various fields” and introduce “authentic products collaborated with world famous brands.” Possibilities for Line entertainment features include “animation, movie, game, education, [and] publication.”
When it went public on NASDAQ in June of this year, Line raised $1.1 billion to become the biggest IPO of a slow year.
Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist based in China. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, The Korea Times, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, The Hill.com, City Weekend, Silkwinds and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.