Line—the messaging app that is dominant in its home market of Japan and also a hit in Indonesia, Taiwan, and Thailand—is making a home for itself in New York. It launched a Times Square flagship store for merchandise featuring its Line Friends characters today, citing the area’s diverse, high pedestrian traffic as core to its strategy for global expansion. “We plan to become an iconic company in Times Square,” said Line Friends CEO James Kim, addressing a group of journalists from inside the store’s “Choco House.” “It makes it easier for us to expand globally.”
Line Friends characters such as Brown the bear and Cony the rabbit began as a sticker set within the Line app and have grown to play a role in 84 character-themed cafes and stores in 10 countries. They’re also part of theme parks, animated TV series, video games, and soon, an AI-powered speaker system in the mold of Amazon’s Echo.
Powered by Line’s new Clova cloud-based virtual assistant, a speaker line is set to hit markets in Asia this fall, including speakers shaped like Line characters as well as models called Wave (which most closely resemble existing AI-based speakers) and Face (which includes a video interface featuring the characters). The characters are the primary differentiator, says Kim. In a world where many fear the progression of AI, perhaps Line’s cute and cuddly version will win over those who may otherwise be adverse.
“We are doing more than the messaging app,” Kim said. “As a character business, we want to give people an experience so they can see the character, and feel happy and entertained. They might not know the name at first, but they will fall in love with it.”
The new Times Square store aims to woo trendy millennials and use its characters as ambassadors for introducing new people to the company. Filled with special edition “NYC” bears, stuffed characters large and small, stationery, and a variety of other merchandise reminiscent of Sanrio’s Hello Kitty empire, the store reflects Line’s journey since the app’s 2011 debut, which has brought it to 230 countries and turned it into a broad-based, global marketing franchise, reaching even countries like the U.S. where the Line app itself is not a major force.
“The technology is important, but it’s more about how the consumer uses our products. [This store] is a test to see if our product can be used by a lot of different types of consumers,” said Kim.