The character brand’s first North American retail location is designed to introduce Brown Bear and his friends to the world.
GLOBAL–Line Friends is planning to take over the world, one store at a time. The Asian-based character brand, which got its start as a series of digital stickers for the messaging app “Line,” has opened a new flagship in the heart of New York City’s Times Square, and according to CEO James Kim it’s the first of many, as the brand begins a global expansion.
Line Friends is already hugely popular in Asia with 84 stores and cafés across 11 countries including Korea, Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong, Indonesia and more, as well as numerous activations at malls and theme parks.
The new 4,600-square-foot Times Square flagship, which is the first permanent Line Friends location in North America, will serve as a launch pad for the global expansion of the company, as it sets its sights beyond Asia.
Designed not only as a retail store, but as a brand experience, the choice of Times Square is a strategic one, aimed at introducing Line Friends not just to Americans but to the millions of foreign tourists that will pass by 1515 Broadway (also home to the long-running musical The Lion King).
“New York is a center of global interest, so we decided this would be the perfect spot,” said Kim* at the store’s official opening Tuesday, timed to coincide with the one-year anniversary of Line Corp’s listing on the New York Stock Exchange. “We plan to become an iconic company in Times Square. If we become an icon in Times Square, it will be easier to expand globally.”
The New York store opened its doors to customers two weeks ago with little fanfare, not that it needed it with a 12-foot bear (lovingly called Mega Brown) sitting in the entrance to welcome passersby in from the street.
And Mega Brown is just the beginning. In addition to row upon row of merchandise, the store features themed areas like Brown’s Brooklyn studio and Brown’s sister Choco’s fashionable “house.”
“This is not only a place where people buy merchandise, I want this to be a place where people can come and enjoy with their friends,” says Kim.
Over the past five years, the Line Friends character brand has become an entity all its own, independent of the messaging app where it got its start. Kim says that the characters themselves have such an innate “charisma,” fans don’t need to be users of the “Line” app in order to be customers of Line Friends (although having more than 217 billion users for the app worldwide certainly doesn't hurt). He points to the brand’s success in Hong Kong, where the app is banned, as an example of this.
Ironically, the characters were never intended to be anything more than a solution to a technical problem. When “Line” (which is the Japanese arm of Korean-based Internet search engine Naver) was launched in 2011, the characters were created to allow Japanese customers to communicate via the platform despite the fact that “Line” couldn’t support Japanese characters (as in letters, not cuddly bears).
From that utilitarian beginning, Line Friends has now become a central part of Line Corp’s business strategy, and no where is this better reflected than at the Times Square store, which is stocked to the rafters with everything from apparel to toys to lamps featuring all 11 of the brand’s characters. The store also features a prominent New York City-themed section right up front with localized merchandise, offering tourists the chance to not only stock up on cute lunchboxes and notebooks, but to take care of their souvenir shopping at the same time.
For the moment, all product is shipped in from Korea, which has already led to shortages of especially popular items like the character face cushions. According to Sehoon Chang, CEO of Line Friends America, who will be leading business development for the brand in the region, one of their first tasks will be to tackle these inventory issues by looking into other manufacturing solutions, potentially domestic.
At the moment, the brand doesn’t have an explicit strategy for licensing, in or out, in the U.S. The first goal is to build the brand itself globally through continued retail development, explains Chang. But that’s not to say that Line Friends isn’t open to partnerships if the right opportunity comes along.
The company has a robust licensing program in Asia with more than 100 deals in place across various markets. Recent programs with Korean beauty brands Missha and Mediheal and the Asian healthcare retailer Watsons, targeting women in their 20s and 30s, have seen great success, as did a line at Uniqlo in Japan and Southeast Asia. Line Friends has also done a host of collaborations with partners ranging from the Swedish crafts brand Gustavsberg to the British folding-bike brand Brompton.
For the moment though the focus is one bringing the Line Friends brand to the world, with Times Square as the first stop on its globetrot, says Chang. And the next stop? We hear South America.
*Speaking through a translator
|Music-lover Brown in his Brooklyn studio apartment.|