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It is no secret that Asia is the market to look to for the latest innovations in social media. WeChat, with its predominantly Chinese user base, integrates elements found on Facebook, Twitter, Skype and Ebay, and 31% of WeChat users used the platform to initiate purchases in 2016, according to McKinsey.
In South Korea, messaging app Kakao Talk, which has more users than Facebook or Twitter, dominates thanks to its ability to enable users to do everything from hail cabs to transfer money – something that has seen it challenge Uber and placed it at the forefront of a new trend for Mobile Money.
Out of all of these platforms, Line stands apart. Instead of marketing itself purely on its utilitarian proficiency it has embedded itself in ‘kawaii’ and ‘aegyo’ culture – words that epitomise the idea of ‘cuteness’ among Japanese and Korean consumers, respectively.
Line’s characters, such as Cony, a female rabbit who is married to a bear called Brown and best friends with a cat named Jessica, are the at the heart of its success. Each character comes in the form of hundreds of animated stickers that express a wide range of emotions, from love and anguish to hate and surprise. In total there are more than 5,000 of these brand ambassadors, which have featured in everything from cartoon series, video games and cafés, hotels, theme parks and stores, the latter of which can be found around the world in major cities such as Tokyo, Hong Kong, Jakarta and New York.
These emporiums are, in short, irresistible. A sense of playfulness runs through each and every aisle. Passers-by in Seoul’s busy Itaewon shopping district can hardly resist the opportunity for a selfie with a 12-foot high version of Brown, and Line’s colourful displays of merchandise, which include phone cases, sweaters, tween soundtracks, sweet treats further encourage crowds to swarm inside to explore and experience the brand first hand.
What is even more impressive is that Line – a social media brand based on animated characters – has achieved the epitome of Explorium Retail, a feat that even the most seasoned shopping malls and boutiques have struggled to achieve.
With its harsh blue-and-white minimalist interface and battles over data privacy, it is hard to imagine Facebook creating a similar retail experience. ‘Facebook only recently introduced its own characters, so that connection with Kakao or Line isn’t made by Asian consumers,’ says Gissella Ramirez-Valle, editor-in-chief of Korean fashion magazine Mutzine. Facebook’s tactic has been to cannibalise features from Snapchat and forward-thinking platforms such as Instagram and WhatsApp. But despite this, its user base is stagnating. Between the autumn 2015 and winter 2016, Facebook experienced seven consecutive months of declining user engagement, according to Adweek.
Similarly Snapchat’s attempt to create a New York store experience was bare bones – one Snapbot in a white cuboid space and two monitors that demonstrated its Spectacles product. Despite the platform being known for its sense of colour and fun, it failed to hit the mark.
Meanwhile, Line is thriving. The company generated more than £804m ($1bn, €941m) in revenue in 2016, making it the world’s top-earning app publisher for the fourth year running, and successfully invigorated its telecommunications subscriptions, paid services, games and live streaming categories. It has managed to build both a loveable brand identity and profitable business model.
Facebook and WhatsApp are desperate to tap into the Asia-Pacific market, where internet usage rates are high and the number of active social media users increased by 14% in 2016, according to SmartInsights. But to do so they will need to reconsider their largely conservative approach to aesthetics and experimentation. It is well known that Gen Viz teens favour apps that are first and foremost playful.
In the same way that tv networks hold dear the ‘faces’ that epitomise their channels, social media platforms must look beyond branding that positions them as utilitarian entities. Storytelling, be it through characters or interactive experiences, will become an increasingly critical tool to capture the minds of audiences – a lesson that perhaps everyone, from retailers to financial firms, could learn from.