LINE takes on WhatsApp in US

LINE, the Tokyo-based mobile messenger service operator, is accelerating its expansion into North America, tightening marketing activities by taking its mega-hit character brand there.

The top messenger app in major Southeast Asian countries has secured more than 500 million registered users. The chatting platform is particularly enjoying its leading status in Japan, Thailand and Indonesia.

LINE is also famous for a group of its in-app characters — including a bear and bunny. With their growing popularity, the company spun off the character brand — LINE Friends — into a separate entity in 2015, opening more than 80 character merchandise stores in 11 countries.

But the messenger has so far failed to expand its presence in the United States due to fierce rivalry from its North American counterpart WhatsApp from Facebook.

As part of its efforts to raise its global profile, LINE had a dual listing in New York and Tokyo in July of the previous year. The move came at a critical time when LINE needed to tackle its years-long tepid growth by finding new growth areas besides the existing revenue sources in Asia.

Marking the one-year anniversary of its initial public offering (IPO), the company opened its LINE Friends store at the world’s busiest commercial district of Times Square in New York on Tuesday. This marked the first time an Asian character brand has opened a store there, LINE said.

By continuously enhancing its brand identity with the character sub-brand, the company hopes to attract more North American users. After securing a sizable number of users there, the company aims to launch a series of other mobile services in such areas as shopping, advertising and payment.

“The LINE Friends flagship store there has drawn more than 300,000 visitors since its pre-opening on July 21,” a LINE official said. “The opening of the New York store is expected to speed up our expansion onto the global stage, helping us extend our winning streak beyond major Asian markets.”

LINE has also established a large light-emitting-diode (LED) digital sign outside the 430-square-meter store, which the firm believes will help form a strong brand identity for Americans.

“The opening of the flagship store is our first step to boost our global expansion especially into the American market,” the company official said. “This is noteworthy, as the LINE Friends characters originated from digital media, not from movies or TV.”

LINE generated 14.6 billion yen ($131.79 million) in second-quarter operating profit, up 82.6 percent from a year ago. But the earnings failed to meet expectations when excluding a one-time profit from the SNOW video messaging app. In May, their parent company, Naver, realigned business structures for its subsidiaries by incorporating SNOW into LINE.

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