market has become saturated with communications apps vying to be the Next Big Thing™.
If you were to ask an average UK smartphone owner which messaging apps they use, I'd expect to hear Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger and
Snapchat. Maybe even Google hangouts or BBM as an outside bet. It'd probably be safe to assume the same apps would crop up in mainland
Europe, or the US.
In Japan however, the same question would always be unanimous. Whatsapp is almost completely unknown and Facebook messenger is the sole domain of expats. Line is king.
The bottom line?
To see what the fuss is about, I decided to use Line exclusively for two weeks. My conclusion? well, on a technical level, it's ... a messaging app. Like Whatsapp or FB Messenger you can message and call your friends for free. You can send photos, videos and there's loads of emojis to choose from. The UI is fairly standard and it's all painfully simple to use.
So, if it's essentially the same as other apps, how has it achieved nationwide domination? As strange as it sounds, Line's success is less about the app, and more thanks to a levelheaded Bear, a hyperkinetic bunny and a blonde narcissist named James. You see, where FB messenger has it's cooling shades of blue and a whiff of the Zuckerberg empire, Line has more. Line recognises the importance of personality.
In his book Designing for Emotion, Mailchimp's new products manager Aaron Walter writes:
If we stop thinking of the interfaces we design as dumb control panels, and think of them as the people our target audience wants to
interact with, we can craft emotionally engaging experiences that make a lasting impression.
From Mailchimp's Freddie Von Chimpenheimer to Duolingo's Duo the owl, this principle has proven successful for many brands. By embracing their
user's sense of humour, Line has taken a run-of-the-mill app and built an empire with more than 400 million loyal users worldwide.
We now know that emoji are big business, but Line has taken them above and beyond, making them core to the app's appeal through the introduction
of 'stickers': giant, character-led reactions that express a wider range of emotions than the standard emoji we all know and love.
So far this might not seem that revolutionary and you might even recognise this concept from Facebook messenger. Where Facebook's 'cribbing' has
stumbled however, is in the quality of the characters themselves. All of the 'Line friends' have very well defined characteristics that are easily relatable
and just beg to be used in conversation. Need something to reflect how excited you are? Cony the bunny is your girl. Something to express the rage
burning inside you? that's Moon. If you just want to express how hot you feel right now, you need James ...though he's probably too busy taking a
If you embrace the weirdness, Line has excelled in creating characters that are memorable, multi-dimensional and fun. Beyond Line's characters, there are literally thousands of custom emoji as well as exclusive stickers for well known brands like Disney and Star Wars. By selling stickers and emoji packs at £1.49 a pop, Line has opted to monetise its user's self-expression, rather than the users themselves.
The master plan
Traditionally, the app life cycle pushes towards a multi-billion-dollar sale to the likes of Facebook or Google. The immense popularity of Line's
characters has allowed the company to forge a different path. In addition to the sticker store, Line is increasingly positioning itself as a 'platform' rather than just an app. It has purchased Livedoor (a popular Japanese blogging platform) and has successfully expanded into gaming, retail and even an apple-pay like NFC payment system.
More immediately, they are spreading their brand with the bricks-and-mortar Line Friends stores that are now popping up in most major Japanese Cities - with location specific sticker packs to buy, of course. On the wider stage, the app and stores have been a success in Taiwan, Korea and mainland China. Most interestingly, with the launch of a store in New York, it's looking like Line has its sights set on the west.
Will Line catch on in the shadow of Facebook's offerings? Is the west ready for the likes of Brown and Cony? It's hard to say. Japanese brands have
traditionally struggled in the US, and the emotional approach isn't for everyone. That said, there's no denying the appeal of Line's stickers.
We're no strangers to brands with an engaging personality at e3. Take a look at our latest work for Orange and their global brand guidelines.