Kakao Counts on Japan's Manga Love to Break Through Overseas

  • Company in talks with Nomura for Tokyo listing in 2020
  • Daily users for its manga app to reach 1 million in September

Asia’s messaging apps have a history of becoming huge in their home market before struggling to gain traction overseas. South Korea’s Kakao Corp. is counting on the Japanese love of manga comics to break that trend.

Kakao’s Piccoma app.

Source: Kakao Japan

Amassing 43 million users at home has driven Kakao’s market value to 8.1 trillion won ($7.2 billion) but it’s little known outside Korea, a factor that’s contributed to a 33 percent share price slump from a peak in August 2014. Earlier efforts to add customers in Southeast Asia and Japan have foundered as it ran head-first into dominant apps like WeChat and Line.

To attract customers in Japan, and compete against a host of rivals in the $4 billion manga market, Kakao’s Piccoma app adopted a new business model. Instead of charging per book, it sliced them into chapters to provide smaller and cheaper offerings and win over casual readers rather than just hardcore fans. Not only has that added users and boosted revenue, but is helping it develop a platform in the country as it actively considers a Tokyo stock listing in 2020.

“Kakao hasn’t seen this kind of growth before outside Korea,” Kim Jaeyong, the chief executive of Kakao Japan Corp., said in an interview at the company’s Tokyo headquarters. “We have a chance here.”

The Japan unit, an office of less than 35 people, first introduced Piccoma last April offering a few dozen comics series. The service now features over 1,000 items, with themes spanning from romance to fantasy. The number of daily readers, a key metric for manga apps, reached 900,000 for the fledgling service as of August, and monthly users have exceeded 2 million. Downloads topped those operated by Japan’s largest publishers and Line Corp. for three months since May.

It made other innovations as well, including taking inspiration from its popular Anipang game in South Korea. While the home version gives users extra chances to win with a day of waiting, for Piccoma it allowed readers to access free chapters after 24 hours.

Kakao’s ultimate aim is to take the success of Piccoma and build a stronger user base in Japan like it already has in South Korea. For analysts, that’s the key to success for instant messaging apps, especially as they morph into other services that generate revenue such as games for an otherwise free app.

“Any overseas business is going to be very difficult,” said Jung Hoyoon, an analyst with Eugene Investment & Securities in Seoul. “It has to be based on a platform, and they are pretty much fixed by now, globally, like how it’s Line for Japan.”

Jung recommends buying the stock on Kakao’s potential to branch out in mobile services, including banking, with its firm grip in South Korea. While Eugene is one of more than a dozen brokers with a buy rating, none cite potential overseas expansion as a reason.

After solidifying its presence in Japan, Kim hopes to tap the Chinese market by leveraging its relationship with internet giant, and WeChat owner, Tencent Holdings Ltd.

Tencent currently holds more than 8 percent of Kakao through its affiliate Maximo Pte. The two companies have cooperated on previous occasions on banking and comics services. In August, Kakao announced that an online comics service, operated by Tencent, will adopt its model of providing content for free after a certain time break.

For now, Kakao’s Japan strategy is based on getting its manga formula right, especially as online growth surges and fewer consumers get their fix from printed versions.

Manga sales in the country amounted to 445.4 billion yen ($4.1 billion) in 2016, of which 67 percent was print based, according to a report published by All Japan Magazine and Book Publisher’s and Editor’s Association in February. Digital grew 28 percent, while those in print book volumes and magazines fell 7.4 percent and 12.9 percent, respectively.

Piccoma’s payment model is designed to encourage light reading, which Kim said could drive monthly revenue to 1 billion yen next year. While that’s just a sliver of the market, Kakao is counting on capturing consumers looking for a way to kill time, much like many do with games by putting birds in slingshots to knock over pigs.

Kim Jaeyong

Source: Kakao Japan

“It’s yet a theory of mine, but I feel like what’s happened with smartphone gaming is starting to happen here, with manga,” said Kim, who previously helped roll out new services for Line before Kakao poached him to rebuild its Japan unit. “We want it to be used like Instagram or Facebook, something you resort to for ten minutes, like you do for YouTube, news and Twitter.”

Kakao Japan has a long way to go. Its immediate challenge is adding blockbuster manga series like “One Piece” and “Attack on Titan” from Japan’s three largest publishers. It hasn’t been easy, as publishers disapprove of Kim’s idea to provide manga for free after a time break. While smaller publishers have come to understand the model doesn’t cannibalize its profit share, bigger ones have been more hesitant.

“It’s been stifling, not being able to tell a single success story outside Korea,” Kim said. “But management is thinking, this is it.”

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