‘Japan's sticker hustle was way ahead of the curve when it comes to instant messaging,’ media brand VICE wrote back in 2017 about Japanese messaging app LINE. If anything, LINE has moved even further ahead of the competition since, with its popularity spreading across Asia largely thanks to its virtual stickers, animated emojis and games.
LINE launched more than a decade ago and was similar to the likes of WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger when it started. At first, all stickers were designed in-house. They're similar to the emojis that westerners use in chat apps, but they're highly stylized and often borrow from manga and cartoons. In a world that increasingly relies on digital communication, LINE stickers can help people express their emotions online.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, as the saying goes, then LINE stickers are worth plenty of cash. In April 2014, the app started allowing the sale of user-generated stickers. It proved popular with everyone: the app itself takes a cut, while users can have fun with them – and make money.
It also changed what stickers meant. Freed from the same handful of pre-approved designs, users could select stickers that represented their personality. It became an opportunity for app users to express themselves more obliquely.
Today, they're sold in packs for between ¥120 and ¥610 [99¢ and $4.99], with up to 40 stickers in any individual collection. LINE – which takes a half share of the 70% of earnings left after Apple or Google take their cut from any sale – earned ¥22.7 billion from sticker sales in 2020. At the time, that was around $212 million. And, as revenues post-app-store are shared equally between LINE and artists, the stickers' creators netted more than $200 million between them, too.
That $200 million is just a drop in the ocean of the broader $100 billion creator economy. From YouTube vloggers and TikTokers selling merch to Instagrammers bagging brand deals, there are more ways than ever before for creators to get paid for what they do. LINE sticker artists have found one way to capitalize on the success of social media platforms.
LINE's 10 biggest creators have made more than $10 million in sales of their stickers in the past decade. But just like any other digital platform that relies on the labor of its creators, what the very best earn isn't representative of the masses. More than 4 million people create stickers for LINE, with some committed amateurs and others professional design studios. Here, we speak to two digital sticker creators – one in Bangkok, the other in Tokyo – to learn more.
Rathamanoon Jongprakhone, Bangkok
Rathamanoon Jongprakhone used to design stickers for LINE as a diversion from the boredom of his job at a restaurant in Bangkok. The 20-year-old had hobbies including drawing and writing stories, but he was so rushed off his feet that he didn't have much time to develop his work.
For Rathamanoon, it was an opportunity to depict his support for and belonging to the LGBTQ community in Thailand. The main character of his stickers, Archer, is an offshoot from his self-designed manga comic. In the manga, the lead character joins a new company and discovers that his boss is an adult film star out of hours. The conceit is the basis for a broader discussion of LGBTQ rights.
‘It's just a comic that tells a bad joke in the daily life of LGBT people, but people like it more than I thought,’ he says. Enough people liked it to enable him to produce key chains and collectible editions of the comic. And, on top of that, he began designing a range of branded stickers that can be used within LINE.
‘Inspiration can be found in everything,’ he says. ‘I found inspiration from my original manga and sending messages via LINE. I started by thinking [about how] I want to use stickers to talk to someone, and what to convey to that person.’
Rathamanoon starts out by translating his idea onto paper, sketching it out to see how it'll work. He creates multiple ideas for stickers, then picks his favorites. When he's selected the best ones, he imports them into Clip Studio Paint, a popular software package.
‘The process of coloring, inserting text and exporting it is all done in Clip Studio,’ he says. The whole process takes about a week: thinking of ideas takes three days, drafting them into something feasible is two more days, then finalizing the design and setting it up for sale in the LINE studio store is another two days.
His 24-sticker range makes enough money that Rathamanoon has been able to quit his restaurant job and work on his art full-time. Since March 2021, he's made around 72,000 Thai baht [$2,000] a month from the manga comic, LINE stickers and other Archer merch. Around 70% of that income comes from sales of the comics and 30% from the stickers. He's one of 900,000 people in Thailand who make stickers, with around 4.4 million sticker sets designed by Thai creators.
‘Quite a few are recognized and famous abroad,’ says Chutinan Thimasombat, business unit manager of LINE stickers in Thailand. ‘This allows us to see the potential of Thai creators which, if developed, will expand the work to the international level, both in the form of stickers and in the form of an intellectual asset business or IP [intellectual property]. It generates revenue and creates huge value for the Thai economy,’ Chutinan says.
In Thailand, more people are looking to follow in Rathamanoon's footsteps, and LINE has produced a TV show designed to find the next big sticker creator, which was first broadcast in December 2021.
The TV show is an indication of just how seriously LINE takes its sticker economy. ‘Although making stickers is secondary to my writing,’ says Rathamanoon, ‘it'd be great if I could make LINE stickers my main job.’
Kosuke Nashida, Tokyo
When Kosuke Nashida was growing up, he wanted to be an artist. In 2007, he went to study at Tama Art University in Tokyo – one of Japan's top art schools – and, after graduating in 2011, he got a job as a web designer. But, by 2013, Kosuke changed careers and became a doctor, specializing in radiology.
The next year, he changed his mind again and broke up the long days at medical school by dabbling in his prior career. Rather than websites, he decided to design stickers for LINE.
Now 34, Kosuke has earned a modest sum: around ¥2.8 million, or $20,500, in the eight years that he's been designing stickers, since launching his first in 2014. He graduated medical school in March 2018 and now works as a doctor in Tokyo. Kosuke was one of 149,000 creators who signed up to make art for LINE in the three months after the sticker functionality was opened up to allow individual creators.
‘Although [I do it] partly for money, sales are currently declining,’ he says. ‘My motivation to continue is the voices of my fans.’ Those fans are obsessed with his best-selling sticker character, Otori-kun, a cute white bird. ‘Otori-kun is a character who lives a cheerful life while being sarcastic about the world,’ says Kosuke. ‘I like him the best, because that's how I want to live my life.’
‘Otori-kun’ has a double meaning: the word can mean ‘bird’ in Japanese, but it also means ‘decoy’. He named the character because he believed the bird ‘is a decoy for everyone’ – a kind of everyman that people can project their hopes, fears and frustrations onto.
And they have. More than 40,000 units of Otori-kun stickers have been sold through LINE's in-app store. One buyer was a colleague of Kosuke's at his hospital. ‘The person didn't know that I'd designed it,’ he says. It's a bugbear that many sticker designers feel: their creations can often get far more fame than they do. ‘I think many people don't care about the author of a LINE sticker,’ he says, ‘even if it's a sticker they use every day. Even more famous creators than me aren't known.’
Kosuke believes that there's a ceiling to Otori-kun's success. ‘I want Otori-kun to be known by many people,’ he says. ‘I think it'll be difficult – unless it's combined with some other content – to spread.’ That's a challenge, given the closed loop that is communicating on LINE. While the app has 167 million monthly active users across south-east Asia, it's less well-known beyond that geographical area. Some characters that became popular through LINE have become intellectual property that can be licensed away from the platform.
The doctor still longs for success – for him and his bird. ‘My dream is to increase our visibility on LINE and make Otori-kun known in other venues as well,’ he says.