TOKYO — Line, Japan’s leading social media platform, is on a mission to convince fashion brands and retailers that it is a valuable tool for reaching consumers.
In February, Line live-streamed the Burberry Prorsum fall women’s runway show from London, reaching about 100,000 viewers, or more than one-third of the brand’s total number of “friends” on Line at the time. Similarly, the platform broadcast Tokyo Girls Collection, a huge fashion event involving a range of fast-fashion brands and targeting women in their late teens to 20s. That initiative, which also took place in February, attracted about 160,000 viewers and allowed users to click directly over to the brands’ Web sites and buy the styles as they came down the runway.
“I think the fashion area is a very, very important and strategic area for us,” Shintaro Tabata, senior executive officer of corporate sales at Line, said during an interview at the platform’s headquarters on the 27th floor of the Hikarie building overlooking Tokyo’s cityscape and a distant Mount Fuji.
Tabata stresses that live-streaming is just the start of what the platform can offer fashion brands and retailers. At its core, Line is a messaging app similar to WhatsApp, but it is quickly expanding its capabilities. As of March, Line counted 205 million active users globally, with Japan, Taiwan, Thailand and Indonesia being its largest markets. Brands with “official” accounts can use the service to send coupons and promotions to their followers, disseminate news about their online and offline stores, promote events, and increase brand awareness through customized, branded stickers.
Doing all of that comes at a price — official accounts for companies carry a hefty price tag. In Japan, these accounts start at 10 million yen, or about $81,600, for the first 12 weeks, then incur a monthly fee after that.
Tabata said the investment can quickly be recovered. He gave one example in the form of a recent promotion that Daimaru Matsuzakaya engineered through Line. The department store retailer sent out a coupon to its three million friends, offering free gifts to those who visited the store and other giveaways to those who made purchases at the store. The average customer’s purchase price was 6,500 yen (roughly $53), meaning the coupon promotion generated a total of 50 million yen, or about $407,000, in sales — a result that more than justifies Daimaru’s monthly Line official account fee of 2.5 million yen, or about $20,360, Tabata argued. Executives at Daimaru could not be reached for comment.
“In terms of each message, it’s very effective,” he said.
Tabata said a large percentage of Line’s 750 official corporate accounts are fashion brands, including Ralph Lauren, Loewe, Uniqlo, Old Navy, Desigual, Forever21 and Hennes & Mauritz. Since the platform’s most active users tend to be females in their teens through 20s, it has the potential to be a very effective digital marketing tool. Still, some brands, such as Uniqlo, seem to see it as something to be used in conjunction with, rather than something to replace, other social networking platforms.
“[The information we distribute on] Line is predominantly product promotions that lead to immediate sales, while the other social media platforms are much broader — topics for them include CSR [corporate social responsibility], recruitment campaigns, global brand ambassador developments, etc. Line informs its users as soon as they receive new information, making it very useful with time-sensitive product offerings,” said a spokesman for Uniqlo’s parent company, Fast Retailing. “Line is not the best SNS [social networking service] platform for back-and-forth communication with the users. It is closer to a digital magazine mail-out. Line [messages go] to everyone subscribed to us, while with Facebook we can filter our outreach so that we only reach women, for example.”
In Japan, Line has a higher social media penetration rate (44 percent) than global players like Facebook (26 percent) and Twitter (18 percent), according to Emma Li, an analyst at L2. Despite the numbers, relatively few leading international brands are tapping into the platform. That could be a mistake, Li said.
“Brands average much larger fan bases on Line [1.1 million] than on Facebook [81,000] or Twitter [21,000], suggesting the success of the platform in the local market,” Li said.
While Line is actively expanding internationally and already supports 18 different languages, it is focusing its efforts on strengthening its position in Asia for the time being. The platform’s major competitor there is Tencent’s WeChat, although Tabata said the Chinese social media app is a less attractive platform for brands and companies due to the prevalence of fake accounts. Burberry, he said, had been using WeChat for a few years before it opened its official account on Line, and within just one week, its number of friends on Line had doubled those it had on WeChat. Tencent did not respond to requests for comment.
“To reach young users in Asia, you have to use Line,” Tabata said.
The Japan branch of South Korean Naver Corp. launched Line just a few months after the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami that paralyzed the phone networks across much of eastern Japan and killed tens of thousands of people. Its founders wanted to create an alternative to Twitter, which for many became the only usable means of communication directly following the natural disaster, but was at the time used mainly by “very geeky people” in Japan, according to Tabata.
“Because of that earthquake, we learned that communicating with your family members or significant others or coworkers could be very crucial. I would say communication itself could be a lifeline,” Tabata said. “And especially right after the earthquake you couldn’t communicate [via] traditional mobile telephone calls, and there was big confusion. In Japan, maybe 20 or 30 million people are commuting every day by train, but at that time the trains had to stop. So they were stranded without communications.”
Line’s management is pondering growth options. The company has applied to list shares on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, according to recent press reports. A Line spokeswoman said there are “ongoing discussions” about a possible initial public offering, but the company has yet to reach a final decision.
Line allows users to message each other even when calls and text messaging are not available. But what sets it apart from Twitter or WhatsApp is its huge library of stickers — cartoonlike drawings that go beyond simple emojis and can be downloaded by users and sent as messages. Some are animated, and others carry sound. This option has proven incredibly popular in Japan and Southeast Asia, which represent Line’s biggest markets. Currently 2.4 billion stickers are sent across Line’s network every day. WeChat has a similar interface involving stickers.
Cute, lovable characters are one of Line’s calling cards in Japan and elsewhere in Asia. Line’s two most famous faces are a rabbit and bear named Cony and Brown, respectively — both are on their way to becoming nearly as recognizable and popular as Hello Kitty. The company has even opened a store in Tokyo’s Harajuku district that sells stuffed toys and other goods made in the characters’ likenesses. Companies with official accounts can pay extra to develop custom-designed stickers of Line characters wearing their fashions or using their products.
While cutesy stickers appeal to Asian consumers, Tabata admits that they may not carry over as well to Western users. He said, particularly among adult males, the stickers may be seen as childish, but Line faced a similar obstacle when it first launched in Japan. He said it’s only a “matter of time” before the stickers are a more widely accepted method of communication.
“In the long run, I think using stickers could be a very effective method of communication; it could be very universal,” he said.