How ‘Line’ capitalised on Japan’s kawaii culture

Stumbling around Tokyo’s Harajuku district on a snowy day, bamboozled by jet lag, the crazy outfits of the area’s Harajuku girls and the ear-splitting J-Pop pouring out of the shops, I found myself in a shop called Line Friends.

After a few days in Tokyo I’d become desensitised to Japan’s obsession with ‘kawaii’ (literally meaning ‘possible to love’ but most often translated as ‘cute’). I was used to seeing sensible-looking grown men with pink Frozen iPhone covers or the cute rabbit illustrations used to warn of the dangers of getting your paws trapped in closing doors on the Metro.

So I didn’t think too much about wandering through another kawaii shop selling the usual range of trinkets dedicated to another set of cutesy Japanese characters, even if this one was especially busy and the customers seemed especially fervent. It wasn’t until I got back and happened to read Harry McCracken’s excellent Fast Company article that I realised this store was actually selling merchandise based entirely around an app called Line; an online messaging service similar to WhatsApp or We Chat.

It struck me that while tech and media analysts have been fretting about how exactly (and if ever) Facebook will be able to monetise WhatsApp effectively after their record-breaking $20bn purchase, Line have already gone and done it – by tapping into a distinct cultural movement in Japan to offer both distinction from their competitors and a dizzying array of additional revenue streams.

Line offers all the usual services, from online messaging and video chat to unique ways for brands to connect directly with consumers via the platform, but the thing that makes it stand out is its use of pop culture to turn it into a genuine phenomenon. Line has become the default form of communication across Japan, Korea and Taiwan while encroaching on many more Western markets too.

The cute characters I saw in the shop in Harajuku are the backbone of this, sold initially as ‘stickers’ similar to emojis to be used in messaging; constantly updated and selling in their millions, now appearing as cuddly toys, video game heroes, cartoon characters and pretty much anything else you can think of.

Line’s an app with plenty of great features and a uniquely ambitious business that offers real differences to its competitors, but it’s also a powerful lesson in how tapping into cultural codes can propel a brand into the stratosphere, something we think about a lot for our clients here at Truth.

My instinct is that the ‘kawaii-ness’ of it all maybe won’t travel as well in many countries as it has in Asia (admittedly, I’m also way out of its target market), but Line is committed to localising its offering for every market it enters and their success so far suggests they might succeed.

They already have 20m users in Spain, 27m in the US, along with a physical pop-up store in New York recently, while Burberry, ever the digital innovators, live-streamed their recent London Fashion Week runway show direct to Tokyo via the service, complete with slightly a slightly bizarre promo cartoon featuring model Cara Delevingne and Vogue editor Anna Wintour.

So, I’m probably wrong. It will travel, and soon we’ll all be communicating via emojis of a rabbit named Cony, a bear called Brown and a weird smiley-face thing by the name of Moon….