Over the past few years, a cast of interesting characters have been taking the world by storm. Already celebrities across parts of Asia, a bear, a rabbit, an alien and their friends are seeing their fame grow steadily internationally. They are Line Friends, and their merchandise is now selling out in stores around the world.
For the uninitiated, Line Friends began as stickers (think emojis but bigger) on the messaging app Line. Developed by Line Corporation, a Japanese subsidiary of South Korean search giant Naver, Line is the most popular instant messenger in Japan and is widely used in Taiwan, Thailand and a few other countries. Line’s stickers were created so users could easily express themselves and soon after their release the app’s adoption rate shot up. The company decided to create its own set of characters for its stickers starting with Moon, an alien with a giant round head. Others were added soon after, and personalities, relationships, and backstories came into play. Brown, the bear with an unchanging expression, is dating Cony, the upbeat, sometimes ill-tempered rabbit. There’s also narcissistic human James, Sally the chick, and Leonard the frog among the cast of 11 characters.
The Line app comes with various free stickers featuring the characters but users can purchase extras and special, limited-edition collections from the Line Store. Creating physical merchandise out of Line Friends, however, wasn’t on the agenda for the company originally. The idea came after Line CEO Takeshi Idezawa saw Line Friends (pirated) on products in Taiwan during a business trip. He then realised there was a viable market for merchandise and the company began to create their own. The Line Friends stores began with a temporary pop-up in Seoul in 2013; now there are over 100 around the world in cities like Tokyo, Shanghai and New York.
The Line Friends stores sell a wide range of products, including stuffed toys, stationary, mugs, kitchenware, and jewellery. They’re also experiential spaces. Many stores include a mega Brown (giant statues of Line’s beloved bear) and spots for Instagramming or simply hanging out with friends. Some also have cafes that, of course, feature the characters on drinks and desserts. The characters also star in their own TV show and feature in collaborations with other brands; they’ve been on Lamy pens, Samsung phone chargers, and Bang & Olufsen speakers. Line Friends has also collaborated with Korean idol group BTS on a line of characters called BT21, playing a considerable part in the company’s expansion. Various merchandise is sold in both Line Friends stores and standalone BT21 stores and the characters have also scored their own collaboration deals with companies like Reebok, Anti Social Social Club, and VT Cosmetics.
In countries where Line’s messaging app isn’t popular – or in the case of China, blocked – Line Friends stores have still been successful. It goes to show the world’s love of cute characters isn’t to be underestimated. It’s nothing new either. Just look at the excited guests at Disney Parks across the world or the anticipated Ghibli Theme Park. Hello Kitty has been going strong since the 70s and Sanrio has had a number of hit characters since.
Whatever your take on the Line Friends phenomenon, it’s a glowing example of a digital brand successfully expanding into physical retail and experiences. Creating characters with personality, offering fun experiences and adding generous amounts of cuteness has been a winning formula for Line Friends. Whether the brand will find global success remains to be seen, but perhaps the retail revolution will be more adorable than predicted.