Brand on the Run: Why US marketers should care about Line

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For Desigual, brand-friendly texting app drives more traffic than Facebook

Spanish fashion and retail brand Desigual joined the mobile messaging platform Line in January 2014. Within three months, the company began seeing big numbers coming from the service.
 
"We were like, ‘What is that?’" says Boris Mercier, global head of social media for the brand. These days, in its native country, Line is bringing in even more traffic than Facebook, he says. You read that right: more traffic than Facebook. Mercier was a little sheepish in admitting that, though. "I don’t want our competitors to know," he says.
 
Too late. At Engage, the social media marketing show in Prague last week, Shintaro Tabata, Line’s senior executive officer and head of corporate sales, made his case to marketers that unlike WhatsApp, Messenger and other popular texting programs, Line is very much open for business.
 
At this point, Tabata says, there are more than 200 brands on Line, including Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Adidas, Nike, Ralph Lauren, and Procter & Gamble. The brands have taken advantage of Line’s ability to push ad messages via text.
 
For instance, Mercedes recently got 4 million unique views with a promotion for its B Class compact luxury model. Ralph Lauren’s main source of mobile e-commerce sales are now coming from Line, Tabata says. Starbucks has also run a promo on Line in which you can send a coffee to a friend. (Starbucks ran a similar push on Twitter.)
 
What is Line, you ask? Though some 25 million people use Line in the US, it’s much bigger overseas, particularly in its native Japan. Launched in 2011, Line now has more than 560 million registered users worldwide. That’s not quite as many as WhatsApp’s 800 million, but it’s more than Twitter and about on par with Facebook’s Messenger. (The other big player in SMS, China’s WeChat, has 438 million users.)
 
As mentioned, Line is also ad-friendly. Tabata presented the advertising as a component of Line’s appeal, something that makes it fun for users. In fact, a big aspect of the Line experience is stickers, little illustrations that act as a more sophisticated form of emojis. If you follow the TV show "Family Guy" on Line, you can buy or send a sticker featuring Stewie Griffin saying, "I’m busy" or, "Egads!" Stickers are one source of Line’s $656 million in revenues in 2014. Advertising is another source. Line partnered with Salesforce last year to charge $0.01 a message and up to reach consumers.
 
The brand communication isn’t all goofy, either. For instance, LGHomeChat, a customer outreach effort by the South Korean consumer electronics and appliance brand, connects you to a rep if you’re having problem with one of the brand’s products.
 
That commercial approach is the exact opposite of WhatsApp, whose co-founder, Jan Koum, has trash-talked advertising as an insult to the user’s intelligence. Facebook paid upwards of $22 billion for WhatsApp and has resisted bringing advertising to the app or to its other messaging  platform, Messenger.
 
So is Line a Facebook killer? Despite Desigual’s success in Spain, your mileage may vary. Jan Rezab, the cofounder of research firm Socialbakers, says he believes Desigual is an outlier; he hasn’t heard anyone else say that Line was bigger than Facebook for them.
 
For his part, Tabata didn’t claim to be Mark Zuckerberg’s worst nightmare. Instead, Tabata was aiming even higher perhaps: email. Noting that 90% of company emails go unopened, Tabata predicted that such communication is going to die "slowly but steadily," to be replaced by the likes of Line. (Tabata didn’t reveal Line’s comparative open rate.)
 
Rezab’s not so sure. Line is super-popular in Asia, but – Spain aside – it’s not clear how well it translates elsewhere. Still, US marketers would be wise to keep an eye on Line. As Business Insider recently reported, messaging apps have finally caught up to social networking apps on mobile. The biggest such app, WhatsApp, is off limits, at least for now.
 
Like others, David Berkowitz, CMO at marketing agency MRY, says he thinks Line has potential, but "the big question mark is to what extent it takes over the States. For Southeast Asia and Japan, it is the big thing." Nevertheless, Berkowitz says he thinks Line is starting to gather momentum.

"I think it’s just one of those things that’s going to go from very low to very high brand awareness very quickly," Berkowitz says.

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