TOKYO -- Line, a free calling and messaging app provided by the eponymous Tokyo-based company, is speaking the language of expansion, and it sounds a lot like Spanish.
The company is trying to catch up to its rival WhatsApp, which U.S. social media giant Facebook bought for $19 billion in February, by adopting an unorthodox strategy: build up success in the Hispanic world and use it as a launchpad to a bigger market share in the U.S. What is the Spanish-language connection? The hispanic population in the U.S. topped 50 million in 2010 and is growing.
Line is going strong, with 380 million registered users abroad, far more than the 51 million users at home. But the company knows it needs more overseas muscle to chip away at WhatsApp's lead.
WhatsApp has 500 million monthly active users. Although Line does not release those figures, it is believed to have around 300 million monthly active users. It wants to bump up that number, and that is where Spanish comes in.
In September 2013, Line teamed up with top-tier Spanish professional soccer clubs Real Madrid and FC Barcelona and acquired the rights to use images of their players for its signature "sticker" service. Stickers are emoticons that users can insert in their smartphone text chats.
Many Line users in Spain now pepper their messages with stickers based on local soccer stars such as Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo and FC Barcelona's Lionel Messi.
"We will take advantage of the big clubs' popularity to win customers in Europe and South America," said a Line official.
WhatsApp already has a strong presence in the U.S. and Europe. Though it has many users in Spain, it lost some of them after an influential local blogger recommended switching to Line when WhatsApp was forced to suspend service temporarily in the autumn of 2012.
Sensing an opportunity, Line quickly introduced a Spanish version of its service, adding to its existing Japanese and English offerings. It began airing TV commercials in Spain in 2013 and rapidly gained popularity there. It now has more than 18 million users in that country, the most in Europe.
In February, a deal with Telefonica saw the Line service get pre-installed on smartphones sold by the major Spanish telecommunications company in Spain, Venezuela, Peru, Colombia, Uruguay, Brazil and Mexico.
Spain is seen as a gateway to Latin America and, through that region, North America. It was the partnership with Telefonica that paved the way for Line to win customers in Latin America.
Localization based on data obtained through marketing activities is one of the two pillars of Line's global strategy, along with aggressive promotional campaigns. This localization can be seen in the way the sticker service's popular Moon character -- a round-faced personification of the moon -- is given a muscular physique in Brazil. Line found through an on-site survey that tough guys tend to be more popular in Brazil.