OUT OF LINE

A BANNED APP'S BRAND FLOURISHES IN CHINA

The World of Chinese - - TEA LEAVES -

In May, Chengdu’s Yin­tai Cen­ter be­came home to the Kids with Line Friends theme park, the lat­est brand­ing vic­tory of a prod­uct that isn’t even avail­able in China.

China cur­rently has more of­fi­cially li­censed cafes fea­tur­ing Line Friends, the mer­chan­dis­ing arm of Ja­panese-korean mes­sag­ing plat­form Line, than Korea and Ja­pan com­bined (where Line has close to 60 mil­lion users).

Yet the app was blocked by the main­land’s Golden Shield in July 2014, less than two years af­ter launch­ing in late 2012.

Un­daunted, Line part­nered with a Chi­nese cor­po­ra­tion to bring the app’s sta­ble of color­ful an­i­mal mas­cots to the main­land. The first Line Friends Café, of­fer­ing cud­dly mer­chan­dise, lat­tes, and an­i­mal-shaped desserts, opened in Shang­hai’s Fux­ing Plaza in 2015; the café’s pop­u­lar­ity is such that it’s still nick­named “(Stand in) Line, Friends,” two years later.

Line’s quar­tet of char­ac­ters—brown the Bear, Sally the Duck, Leonard the Frog, and Cony the Rab­bit—started life as emo­jis but can now be found across China on prod­ucts from air pu­ri­fiers to mois­tur­izer to Mole­sk­ine note­books and Mcdon­ald’s meals.

It may seem a strange sit­u­a­tion, but Line it­self be­gan in un­likely cir­cum­stances. Af­ter Ja­pan suf­fered a 9.1-mag­ni­tude earth­quake in March 2011, lo­cal en­gi­neers de­vel­oped the in­ter­net-based mes­sag­ing sys­tem to help re­store a shat­tered tele­coms in­fra­struc­ture; Line was re­leased as a pub­lic app three months later.

Since then, mes­sag­ing has be­come a side­line for the Line Cor­po­ra­tion’s core rev­enue streams: Dig­i­tal prod­ucts, like stick­ers and video games, and li­cens­ing, such as ap­parel and TV shows (the Friends ap­peared in My Love from the Star, which, like other Korean dra­mas, was a huge hit in China). “They’re cute, play­ful, color­ful char­ac­ters, very suited to the Chi­nese mar­ket,” one mar­ket­ing ex­ec­u­tive told Ad­ver­tis­ing Age.

They’re also out­laws. “Peo­ple yearn for what is for­bid­den…the con­sumer is aware that Line is a hip so­cial me­dia plat­form in Ja­pan and Korea,” mar­ket an­a­lyst Chen Yang told busi­ness pub­li­ca­tion CBN Weekly. “Those con­sumers lined up in front of the Line Friends Café may not be there just for the cof­fee, but are seek­ing an af­fir­ma­tion of sta­tus.” – H.L.

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