Larger and more expressive than emoticons, the stickers have been a draw card for Line, whose users are mostly in Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, India and Spain. They also set Line apart from the bare-bones interface of the rival messaging app WhatsApp, which was bought by Facebook for about US$22 billion. Line is worth about US$18 billion based on revenue from monthly users, according to Marcello Ahn, a fund manager at Quad Investment Management.
The popularity of the Brown and Cony stickers has also shaped a new trend in mobile communication. Instead of typing messages, many users simply tapped a sticker showing a coy-looking Brown sitting on a toilet or eating a bowl of ramen. Users began to associate themselves with certain characters and the lineup now includes a bespectacled middle-aged man named Boss as well as James, a blond narcissist. "People express their emotion with the characters so the depth of the interaction is different," Yoon said.
Stickers also made Line the rare mobile messenger that actually rakes in cash, first by selling stickers for US$2 a pack to mobile phone users, and later by adding new businesses such as games and a taxi hailing service. Users can now sell stickers they make themselves to other Line users. There are more than 200,000 people around the world who do that. Line Corp.'s net profit jumped 50 percent in 2014 to US$112 million on revenue of US$594 million, according to its parent company, South Korea's Naver Corp. The app was launched in June 2011.
Line also cashed in on the rock star popularity of its animal characters through mobile games and an animated TV show in Japan. In China, the company hopes the stores and other ventures will put it in a strong starting position in case authorities ever relent on their blocking of the app. The first Line Friends store in China will open in Shanghai's popular Xintiandi shopping district in May, selling Brown dolls, Cony pens, Sally mugs and other goods such as kitchen utensils, stationary, jewelry and toys. "We hope to resume the Line app service someday" in China, Yoon said. "If the Line app is resumed at a time when our characters are well known, it would be a powerful launch. We hope that in the countries where the Line app is not used actively, Line characters would promote the app." Though analysts are skeptical about the app's future in China where Tencent's WeChat is dominant, they say the merchandizing business could be effective in the U.S. and in Latin America.