I wrote last year about how LINE Friends Cafes are opening up around China, based on the characters in the branded stickers of the Japanese chat app LINE.
In Korea, Kakao is the leading chat app, with, Kakao’s investor relations team claims, 41 million domestic active users (in a country of 50 million). Apparently it noticed the profitability trend of characters, too. Kakao opened its second store in Hongdae in November 2016. Its first store, in Gangnam, attracted 450,000 visitors in one of its first months. With the opening of the Gangnam store, revenue from Kakao Friends merchandise more than doubled versus the previous quarter. Now there are eight stores in Seoul.
Why do chat app character stores have so much success in Asia? Probably because there is a kawaii (or kiyomi in Korea) culture in Asia that is attracted towards cuteness. Chat characters and smileys are also a big part of chatting. In fact, emojis were initially developed in Japan, as the word “emoji” and the large amount of Japan-specific international emojis is testament to.
The mobile companies Line Corp, Kakao, and TenCent (WeChat) all focus on cross platform branding and sales channels. Besides its chat app, Kakao has taxi-hailing and ride-hailing apps, apps for shopping, video sharing, payment, games, Kakao Story, Kakao Music, and more. Unified use of the characters across platforms (Kakao Games feature the Kakao Friends) helps promote each platform. LINE even did a web series about their LINE Friends.
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, and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.