TOKYO—In its home market of Japan, mobile-phone application Line won tens of millions of users by combining on-the-go messaging with cutesy emoticons, like the pink-cheeked, smiley-faced character, Moon.
But when Line's services hit Brazil last year, users there didn't warm to Moon. So Line gave him a macho makeover, wiping away his smile, beefing up his torso and adding local slang to his cartoon vocabulary. Popularity soared.
Moon's Brazilian makeover shows why Line is a contender—along with the U.S.'s WhatsApp and China's WeChat—in a global struggle to dominate smartphones.
The so-called messaging apps, which provide free text messaging over cellphones via the Internet, have attracted hundreds of millions of fans throughout the world, who use them to chat with friends and exchange everything from photos to emoticons like Moon. Their popularity has attracted the attention of Internet giants like Facebook Inc., which in February said it would pay $19 billion for WhatsApp.
Facebook and others see messaging apps as a channel to the more than 1.5 billion smartphone users around the world, at a time when people are increasingly going online through their handsets. Line is already using its channel to offer a broad array of services to its users. It is also proving adept at adapting those services, in order to push into markets where no Asian Internet company has succeeded before.
"We see Line as a portal to the smartphone," said Takeshi Idezawa, Line Corp.'s chief operating officer, in an office stuffed with human-sized figures of Moon and other Line characters. "Countries like the United States are priorities for us."
Outside Asia, Line has gained traction in Spain, where consumers hurt by years of economic slump wanted to reduce their telecommunications bills. Last year, Line signed marketing partnerships with the two biggest Spanish soccer clubs, offering emoticons—called stickers—that feature team members. Line says it has 16 million registered users in Spain—a country with about 24 million smartphones users, according to 2013 data from comScore.
Line went next to Latin America, and now claims 10 million registered users in Mexico. Building on that foothold, Line last month began its first major television advertising campaign in the U.S., on Telemundo, Univision and other networks that serve Hispanic audiences. If all goes well, executives say, a broader U.S. ad push could follow soon.
Line was created in Japan in 2011 by a unit of South Korean Internet firm Naver Corp. Teenagers use it to flirt, teachers to communicate with parents and emergency services to warn of natural disasters. But Line has also branched out into businesses that have long been dominated by the likes of Google Inc., Apple Inc., eBay Inc. and Facebook—including games, e-commerce, digital marketing and Internet calling.
"If you look at Line, it is building essentially a consumer company," said Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo, at a recent technology conference in Tokyo.
With an estimated 175 million monthly active users world-wide, according to analysts at BNP Paribas, Line trails WhatsApp, which says it has 465 million, and WeChat, which is owned by the Chinese Internet company Tencent Holdings Ltd. and claims 355 million users. But WeChat is still largely a Chinese phenomenon, while Line says 85% of its users are outside Japan, especially in places like Thailand, Taiwan and Indonesia.
"It's a three-man race, and we're very much in the land-grab phase," said Eric Cha, an analyst at Nomura.
What sets Line apart from its rivals so far is its money-making heft. Last year, in only its second full year of existence, the closely held Line generated sales of ¥51.8 billion ($505.8 million), versus an estimated $20 million for WhatsApp. Tencent doesn't disclose exact revenue figures for WeChat, but said the messaging app generated between 200 million and 300 million yuan (between $32 million and $48 million) in the fourth quarter or last year.
While WhatsApp founders say they want to keep their service clear of ads, games or "gimmicks," Line makes money off a wide range of services. Some 60% of Line's revenue in the quarter ended in December came from the sale of items in mobile games, while 20% came from the sale of digital stickers, which cost around $1 for a pack of 40.
In Japan, toy stores sell stuffed versions of the Line characters, along with coffee mugs, notebooks and other goods. The company recently opened Line Mall, a mobile site that lets users and retailers in Japan list items for sale. Line plans to open its sticker market to outside artists this month, letting them share revenue from sales of their creations with the company. A music-streaming service is coming soon, Mr. Idezawa said.
On top of that, companies ranging from Coca-Cola Co. to convenience-store chain Lawson Inc. use Line for marketing promotions—opening "official accounts," which let them communicate with fans, for a fee. Line introduced official accounts in 2012 with an upfront fee of ¥2 million as well as monthly costs of ¥1.5 million, though it has created lower-cost versions since then.
In December, Line held several "flash sales" in Thailand through its marketing service, including one in which it offered 500 Maybelline lipsticks to its users ahead of their general retail introduction. The lipsticks sold out in five minutes.
As new services are added, "we are sure that our revenue breakdown is going to change drastically in the future," Mr. Idezawa said, without providing specific goals.
Some analysts say the broader approach pursued by Line, as well as WeChat and KakaoTalk, a smaller app from South Korea, may help them grow into bigger businesses than apps that focus on messaging alone. If the app market continues to expand at its current pace, Line's revenue could increase to $7.5 billion by 2017, with WeChat growing to $10.6 billion and WhatsApp trailing at $3 billion, according to a report by Macquarie Securities.
The U.S. will be a big test of both Line's money-making approach and its ability to adapt to local tastes. Some analysts say U.S. users favor functionality and don't want to be distracted with a lot of add-ons like games.
"It's an important market," said Line chief executive Akira Morikawa, in an interview. "It's also a difficult market. We're not going to rush things, or do anything in a hurry."
The challenges of going global have added to speculation over whether Line will follow WhatsApp into the arms of a bigger player, or go public. Naver has said it is considering listing the firm, though Line executives won't comment on specifics or timing.
They also play down talk of a possible sale.
"We don't really think we need a partner right now," Mr. Idezawa said. "If we decide that a partner is necessary for us to become No. 1 globally, we would consider it."