Inside Sony’s Virtual Stickers Business

Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, and Bill Murray in a scene from the film 'Ghostbusters', 1984. Photograph: Columbia Pictures via Getty Images Close

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Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, and Bill Murray in a scene from the film 'Ghostbusters', 1984. Photograph: Columbia Pictures via Getty Images

For $1.99, you can download a pack of digital stickers from Line featuring Care Bears winking, crying, dancing and riding a scooter. Users of various messaging apps are embracing these kinds of cartoons as a fun way to quickly convey emotions to friends. For Sony, which created the stickers, it’s a whole new digital revenue stream.

A Sony unit in Tokyo, which has about 50 full- and part-time workers, creates sticker sets by combing through comic books and other media to find characters expressing the gamut of emotions. Atsushi Fukuda, the president of Sony Digital Entertainment, said his sticker team is distributing more than 50 stamp sets through Asia’s largest messaging apps, including Japan’s Line, China’s WeChat and South Korea’s KakaoTalk.

Sony has licensed characters from television shows, such as “Looney Tunes,” “Care Bears” and “The Powerpuff Girls,” to amass a beloved stable of sticker content. The unit is exploring expanding the use of characters from Sony’s Hollywood and video-game studios, and may offer a 30th anniversary "Ghostbusters" stamp, according to Fukuda. Sony already distributes stickers featuring Toro Inoue, also known as the Sony Cat, which has appeared in PlayStation games.

Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

Atsushi Fukuda, president of Sony Digital Entertainment Services Inc. Close

Atsushi Fukuda, president of Sony Digital Entertainment Services Inc.

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Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

Atsushi Fukuda, president of Sony Digital Entertainment Services Inc.

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“We have learned that a stamp can become a hit even if the character is not famous, as long as it has a rich expression of emotions,” Fukuda said in an interview. “We want to sell digital content, and act as a liaison between client companies and consumers on social media.”

To achieve the latter goal, Sony works with clients such as Kose, Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola to design promotional stickers that are typically offered as free downloads, and social media campaigns, Fukuda said. He declined to provide sales figures for his unit or say how much Sony has invested in the project. Line charges advertisers between 20 million and 30 million yen (at least $195,000) to make promotional stickers available through its online store for at least four weeks, according a company presentation.

Sony began offering digital stamps through Line’s service in April 2012, and started selling the items through WeChat two months ago. Line, which is considering going public in the U.S., and Tencent’s WeChat each have more than 400 million users. Their success has caught the attention of Silicon Valley, where Google and Facebook have added sticker collections to their messaging apps.

Sales of digital stickers to Line users generate about 1 billion yen ($9.7 million) a month, Hazuki Yamada, a company spokeswoman, said by phone. Line shares a cut with the creators. She declined to disclose revenue generated from promotional stamps.

“Line stamp revenue should keep increasing steadily, according to its subscriber level,” Joshua Kong, an analyst at Shinhan Investment, said by phone. “As Sony and other partners put more effort into promoting digital stamps through Line’s platform, the average revenue per users at Line will probably rise.”

Sony Digital Entertainment started in 2004 as a unit of Sony Pictures Entertainment, the parent’s film subsidiary. In 2007, the digital group become a separate entity fully owned by Sony focusing on business opportunities in the smartphone market. Kazuo Hirai, Sony’s chief executive officer, is trying to revive the company after projecting its sixth annual loss in seven years as demand for TVs and compact cameras falls. While stickers probably won’t be Sony’s next blockbuster business, the unit fits squarely within Hirai’s emphasis on entertainment content, consoles and mobile.

Plus, who wouldn’t want to receive a picture of a Care Bear taking a nap?

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