Characters and other imagery associated with instant messaging apps have given rise to a number of licensed product initiatives, many of which have become strong programs globally in terms of retail sales. Such initiatives can be organized into three major groups:
- Proprietary characters created by messaging apps. LINE Corporation oversees a wide range of products featuring LINE Friends. The merchandise is sold throughout Asia and increasingly in other territories, through 140 dedicated stores around the world (including in New York) and in traditional retail outlets. Recent ventures have included a subscription box and a multi-category licensing deal with Xiaomi for the Chinese market. Meanwhile, KakaoTalk’s Kakao Friends, popular in its home country of South Korea and across Asia, also has a vast licensing program, as well as its own museum in Seoul. The brand opened its first store outside of Korea in December 2018 (in Japan) and was recently licensed to Miniso, a Japanese gift and stationery company with a global reach, for 200 products ranging from storage boxes and boutique bags to aromatherapy and makeup tools.
- Characters that have a close association with one or more messaging apps. Tuzki, a character created by a Chinese artist, gained fame through instant messaging apps QQ and MSN initially, and then on WeChat, KakaoTalk, Facebook, and other platforms. Now owned by Turner and managed by TurnOut Ventures, the character is particularly successful in China but has ventured into other countries, such as through collaborations with global designers. The property has a deal with Tencent Films to develop a movie and recently signed an agreement with Six Flags China. Similarly, Pusheen, the U.S.-based, kawaii-influenced cat character, got a big boost in interest and licensing activity when it became available as a sticker on Facebook, and it remains among the top 10 stickers across several leading messaging apps around the world. Recent initiatives have included the launch of a women’s clothing collection exclusively on the Pusheen website and the opening of a Pusheen café in Singapore.
- Emoji sets based on, inspired by, or now associated with the Unicode-governed, openly licensed emoji sets used globally. These well-known IP tend to be licensed on a worldwide basis; leading examples include the Official Emoji Brand, Smiley, and JoyPixels (formerly EmojiOne). Both the Official Emoji Brand and Smiley reported more than $400 million in retail sales in 2017. Recent Emoji Brand deals include fragrances with Paramount and women’s apparel with e-tailer Gotta Love It!; Smiley’s program has expanded of late into shaped chicken nuggets available in European supermarkets such as Farmfoods, as well as gifts, accessories, and stationery in India with Ultra Toys and Gifts. JoyPixels retained Born Licensing as its agent for advertising and marketing agreements and recently announced more than a dozen deals with the likes of British supermarket chain Morrison’s, New Zealand telecommunications company 2degrees, and Scotland’s police force.
Merchandise programs based on individual brands in this space are likely to wax and wane over time. But instant messaging remains a powerful means of communication, and all evidence points to this platform remaining a driver of merchandise sales for key properties, especially regionally. And, since the success stories include not only IP created by the app marketers themselves, but third-party properties that are licensed for use as messaging icons, this channel should not be discounted as a launch pad for new or lesser-known properties looking to spark a broader consumer products program.