Back in 2011, a violent earthquake and devastating tsunami ravaged the north-east coast of Japan, leaving communication lines in tatters.

It was a total blackout: there were no telephones and no messaging.

A few months later, an instant messaging service interrupted the silence. Its name? LINE, an app launched by leading South Korean company Naver. The app quickly established itself as the only service that could make it possible for people to communicate with their loved ones during times of emergency.

In and of itself, this feature alone was enough to make LINE an international success.

Yet they were only getting started.

LINE: turning messages into profit

What’s really made LINE the chosen messaging app of one in two Japanese (it has more than 70 million users in Japan and 130 million around the world) is its playful, cartoon-influenced style.

The company has succeeded in standing out from the crowd by introducing virtual stickers depicting cartoon characters. This might seem like a bit of a frivolous added extra, but it has truly revolutionised the way people communicate. Instead of simply sending text messages, users have started to express themselves using animated characters, altering their emotions and creating a close bond with them.

In this way, LINE’s virtual stickers left the screens behind to become part of the day-to-day lives of millions of users.

Herein lies the success of LINE. Unlike the rest of the competition, the colossus led by CEO Takeshi Idezawa has found the key to transforming a smart means of communication into a highly profitable company.

Users pay to buy stickers both on their smartphones and on merchandise (which is on sale in over 20 stores worldwide), while the characters have popped up in television shows and companies are now investing eye-watering amounts to advertise in the app so that they can have a sticker that promotes their brand. One example of this new way of advertising is the panda belonging to Rakuten, a Japanese e-commerce company who wanted their own LINE sticker to build up familiarity with users and create a bond between them and their brand.

It’s another example of a business within a business!

Innovation disguised as cartoon characters

Behind its playful, happy-go-lucky appearance, LINE is an extremely innovative entity. The company is working on artificial intelligence projects in order ensure it keeps evolving and stays current. Robotic assistants that grow up alongside their owners, toys equipped with voice-recognition technology and smart speakers are just some of the revolutionary developments waiting right around the corner.

In the meantime, the company has bolstered the app with a host of additional services in order to diversify its offering. LINE is now an open portal that allows users to write messages, access services (The Economist has been using the LINE platform in Asia since June 2016 as part of its social media strategy), make bookings, transfer money and utilise a range of other features.

The app also keeps a close eye on how society is today. LINE lets users contact delivery services in order to ensure they can always be reached, while it can also be used to request psychological assistance. Users can access a special emergency line designed to help prevent suicide, which – sadly – is all-too common among young Japanese.

We doubt anyone would doubt the power of LINE now…