NEW YORK: Line Friends, the character merchandising unit of Japanese media giant Line Corp, opened its first megastore in the US this week as the company seeks to raise awareness of its messenger app in America.

Situated in a prime site in Manhattan’s Times Square, the new 4,628 square-foot flagship store features characters originally created as stickers/emoticons for the Line app.

Storylines based around these characters, such as a bear called Brown and his rabbit girlfriend named Cony, have become very popular in much of Asia but are largely unknown in the US, Digiday reported.

It is a similar situation with the Line messenger app itself, which lags behind rival services in the US, yet SimilarWeb, a digital market intelligence firm, has found it to be number one messenger service in Japan, Taiwan and Thailand.

“We know that Line messenger is not as popular here [as in Asia], but people don’t need to know the names of Line characters to fall in love with them and further know our brand,” said James Kim, CEO of Line Friends, at the opening event.

“I think it’s because we are not just a merchandising company – we offer great in-store experience,” he added. “For instance, visitors can feel, touch and take pictures with mega Brown, and they feel happy.”

Expanding on the company’s brand building strategy, Kim explained that in 2015 Line opened a store in Hong Kong, where Tencent’s WeChat app was more popular, yet there was still great demand for Line Friends merchandise.

There were different circumstances in mainland China, where Line messaging is blocked, yet the company still developed six retail spaces, which are a mix of Line Friends stores and cafes. Kim said he hoped a similar approach will work in the US.

“We plan to succeed in countries where our messaging app is not successful. New York City is a great test bed for our global expansion,” he said.

“The Times Square store is a good way to test out what our consumers like, which can help us introduce artificial intelligence and smart speakers for our character line going forward.”

Data sourced from Digiday, SimilarWeb; additional content by WARC staff