You’ve heard of Hello Kitty. But you probably don’t know Brown, James, Cony or Jessica.
They are some of the main “characters” from LINE, a global mobile messenger based in Japan and owned by a South Korean company. It is trying to create cultural icons to follow in the footsteps of Japan’s famous feline.
To Iris Ren, a mainland Chinese living in Hong Kong, LINE characters have already trumped Hello Kitty. For the past two years, Ren has been paying a bimonthly visit to Hysan Place — a shopping mall located in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, and known for its sky-high monthly rent and luxury products. An office worker in her late 20s, Ren bypasses all the fancy designer boutiques and takes an escalator to the second floor where the LINE Friends store is located.
“I am obsessed with LINE characters and am collecting things from LINE stores,” she told Korea Exposé. “I buy almost everything but I love to buy dolls the most.”
K-pop, K-food, K-cosmetics — these are some widely known cultural exports coming out of South Korea, riding the wave of growing interest in South Korean culture. Less visible are character-driven products — neither marketed nor identified explicitly as Korean — but nonetheless making an impact on the global market.
Inside South Korea, colorful characters from messenger apps — especially the country’s dominant messenger KakaoTalk — are already all-pervasive, not just on the apps themselves as cute emoticons but also featured on consumer products as varied as mugs, bags and even tangerines from Jeju Island.
Outside South Korea, the market is harder to crack — but it’s much more lucrative. According to the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association (LIMA), entertainment and character licensing made up almost half of the total global licensing market, accounting for $118.3 billion in 2017.
Entertainment and character licensing comprises of taking elements from films, television shows, video games, online entertainment to create products such as toys, apparel, books and electronics. It’s a mammoth market because it’s easy to create spin-off products; companies can always create or form a licensing partnership with other companies that wish to tap into the original product’s popularity. (Think Disney movie Frozen and all those parents buying backpacks and gloves stamped with Queen Elsa’s image for children.)
South Korea’s character business generated a revenue worth $9.6 billion (10.8 trillion won) in 2015 according to Korea Creative Content Agency. (For comparison, the much-hyped K-pop industry was only worth about half that — $4.7 billion — in 2016.)
And yet KakaoTalk, LINE’s biggest rival in South Korea (by far), only recently decided to pivot to the character business by creating Kakao Friends, a subsidiary, in 2015. There are currently no overseas Kakao Friends stores: The app’s lack of popularity abroad is a big stumbling block.
Enter LINE corp, a Tokyo-based subsidiary of Naver Corporation, which runs South Korea’s largest search portal. It may not be as popular as KakaoTalk with South Koreans, but with its more significant presence in other Asian countries, LINE is doing a better job of selling its characters internationally. Since 2011, LINE has been producing tangible goods based on characters — mostly fun, cuddly animals. They did so well that in 2015 that an entire retail division based in Seoul was created to handle the character business, under the name of LINE Friends.
“We made merchandise to promote LINE messenger,” said a marketing team employee at LINE Friends who declined to be named citing company policy. “However, the characters are popular regardless of whether people use the messenger app or not.”
Character emojis, like those from LINE Friends, are changing the nature of communication, especially in Asia, where popular messaging apps have been designing larger, more elaborate characters to substitute for text in communication. Consumers feel a deeper, more personal connection with the characters, because they use the icons daily to convey their own feelings — giving these bears, caterpillars and butt-shaped peaches potentially more selling power than Hello Kitty.
That said, the successes of Hello Kitty are still hard to imitate.
No Asian character has yet to achieve the level of fame and global popularity long enjoyed by Hello Kitty, launched by the Japanese company Sanrio in 1974. Hello Kitty is an embodiment of Japan’s soft power, adorning everything from lunchboxes, motor scooters to the bodies of celebrities such as Katy Perry.
In 2007, a giant balloon of Hello Kitty was featured at Macy’s 81st Annual Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City alongside other popular American icons from Disney and Sesame Street. “The inclusion of Hello Kitty within the parade signaled nothing less than membership in the public club of well-known global characters,” said Christine R. Yano in her book Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific.
What set Hello Kitty apart was that there was nothing discernibly Japanese about it, making it a ‘universal’ product.
“Consumers in the United States and Europe have been buying Hello Kitty for decades previously without necessarily linking the plush toy or image with its country of origin,” wrote Yano. Some say Hello Kitty’s simple, mouthless design allows people to project different emotions onto her, which may explain her broad appeal and popularity. Hello Kitty’s identity is so ambiguous that even the cat-ness of the character is in question. (Its creator reportedly said it isn’t a cat at all despite the name).
Still, the legacy of Hello Kitty is felt in numerous characters that are based on animals without distinct national or cultural traits.
“We developed animal characters because they convey a universal language,” said a report from the Korea Creative Content Agency, describing the thought process behind Pororo, South Korea’s very popular (and lucrative) penguin character. Its spin-off products have been exported to over 200 countries worldwide according to Lee Dae Gun, manager of Animation and Character Licensing Business Team at Korea Creative Content Agency.
“When Pororo became popular, South Koreans petitioned to make Pororo eat Korean food,” stated the report. And yet Pororo — whose brand was valued at 389.3 billion won ($367 million) in 2011 — bakes cookies. Creator Choi Jong-il wanted Pororo to be a universally-identifiable character, not an ambassador for a culturally specific food.
It’s debatable whether the act of baking cookies is more universal and culturally non-specific than making kimchi — or there to signify a certain Western lifestyle. Just look at Pororo’s house — a cabin that screams Swiss chalet-meets-Disney cottage. (To be fair, Hello Kitty is from the suburbs of London, according to Sanrio.)
For better or worse, LINE Friends is also following this ‘universal’ approach. “We used universally likable characters, such as the bear and rabbit, that eliminated national color,” the CCO of LINE Friends said in an interview with Huffington Post Korea.
So far, LINE Friends has almost 100 retail and pop-up stores around the world in eleven countries including Japan, Indonesia, China and Colombia. The stores sell more than 5,000 character-related products. There’s even a pop-up LINE theme park in Taiwan.
It seems that LINE’s attempt to render its characters state-less may be working. At least according to the latest figures on the company website, more than 22 million people visited LINE Friends stores worldwide in 2015. In South Korea, once again according to the company, more than 70 percent of visitors to LINE Friends stores were foreigners.
And it can certainly count Iris Ren in Hong Kong among its loyal following.
“I am a die-hard fan. LINE dolls make me happier than luxury bags,” Ren said.
Cover image: LINE Friends characters (photo courtesy of LINE Friends)