In Japan, the mobile messaging app LINE is so pervasive that young people swap LINE IDs instead of phone numbers. Worldwide, the app has more than 170 million active users a month. Though that leaves it smaller than Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and China’s WeChat, LINE has excelled at something that’s arguably tougher than racking up hundreds of millions of users: It’s parlayed its app’s popularity into pan-media pop-culture relevance and a powerful business model.
The app, which launched in June 2011, started the craze for stickers—oversize emoji-like graphics that convey complex emotions and ideas. Its users now send almost 2 billion of them a day. Some feature licensed characters such as Mickey Mouse, Hello Kitty, and Doctor Who, but the signature stickers star the company’s own creations, including Cony (an exuberant rabbit) and Brown (a deadpan bear).
These critters have proven so popular that LINE is opening up retail stores that sell everything from stuffed animals and T-shirts to a $3,200 Swarovski crystal Cony. The company also has a thriving business in charging marketers such as Toyota to distribute their free, branded sticker packs, and to engage with consumers in other ways. Games, paid stickers, marketing deals, and merchandise add up to real money: $737 million in revenue in 2014.
What’s next? LINE, which is rumored to be readying itself for an IPO, wants to prove that it’s a global platform with staying power. It’s busy launching new offerings such as payment and delivery services and tackling the U.S. market, where its profile has been low, but celebrity members such as Taylor Swift and Maroon 5 have found unusually high levels of engagement from fans. “We know what we want to do,” says CEO Takeshi Idezawa. “Our intention is to become No. 1 in the smartphone field.”
Some of the 1,000 emojis that U.K. illustrator Dan Woodger created for LINE, working from 6:30 a.m to midnight for 10 weeks.
[Photo: Jeff Brown, Location: PLAY café/bar/lounge, Museum of Sex, NYC; prop styling: Bednark Studio]