On the Front Line of China’s Chat Sticker Industry
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2017-09-12 12:52:40

LIAONING, Northeast China — As the clock strikes 9 p.m., cartoonist Zhong Wei tucks his 3-month-old son into his crib and locks himself away in the cramped study at his home in Shenyang, where he works through the night to create virtual stickers that will support his family.

Emoji-like sticker sets were first widely used on Japanese messaging app Line, with the advent of the popular Line Friends cartoon characters in 2011. In 2015, Line’s stickers accounted for $268 million in revenue, according to the company’s 2016 IPO filing. Line Friends has since become a global brand, expanding beyond the digital realm with merchandise and cafés from Shanghai to New York.

With sticker sets now ubiquitous on Chinese messaging apps, the industry is seeing an influx of investment. A telling example is Block 12 Culture, a Beijing-based intellectual property incubator specializing in stickers that raised 25 million yuan ($3.8 million) in its first round of financing in March.

Cartoonist Zhong Wei demonstrates the process of making a virtual sticker. By Liu Jingwen/Sixth Tone

Zhong remembers working as one of the first Chinese cartoonists in what was then a fledgling sticker industry. One of his most famous — and profitable — creations is Ao Damiao, a sassy but lovable cat with a human body that went viral shortly after its debut in 2014 on tech giant Tencent’s QQ messaging app. “It was around [this time that] stickers suddenly became popular across social media platforms,” Zhong tells Sixth Tone. Users chose stickers from the Ao Damiao collection to express themselves over 2 billion times in 2014, according to a Tencent data report — ranking the sticker set third among QQ’s roughly 500 sticker and emoji collections.

Now, Ao Damiao and his other creations make Zhong annual earnings of roughly 500,000 yuan — a sum that falls at the higher end of the middle-class salary range in Shenyang, his hometown.

However, not every cartoonist is as fortunate. Zhong acknowledges that competition in the industry is intense. “Only a minority can earn this much,” he says. “Most cartoonists make way less.”

Now known professionally as “Murong Aoao,” Zhong got his big break at a particularly desperate time in late 2013. He had a degree in industrial design, but he and his wife, Wang Dan, were struggling to make ends meet in Beijing. “Our annual savings couldn’t even buy a square meter in the neighborhood back then. We just couldn’t see a promising future,” Wang tells Sixth Tone. Out of money and options, the young couple returned to Shenyang.

People who can’t stick to diets due to their uncontrollable appetites can look at the cat gorg-ing on food and say, ‘This is exactly what happens to me!’

A few months later, a man Zhong now calls “Kehu Baba” — which roughly translates as “Client Daddy” — saw Zhong’s creations on microblogging platform Weibo and requested a series of Ao Damiao online comic strips for 40,000 yuan. “We were over the moon upon receiving the payment,” Zhong says.

In 2015, WeChat — the messaging app at the center of the fierce competition among sticker designers in China — invited Zhong to offer his creations on the platform. The WeChat “sticker store” currently hosts over 16,000 collections, a public relations representative from the company told Sixth Tone.

Designers can upload stickers to WeChat for free, and if approved by the app, their creations are released into the ether of the sticker store. The store’s ranking system keeps the newest and most popular designs at the top of its catalog, meaning less popular creations are quickly edged out and forgotten. Normally, a new collection of Ao Damiao stickers can hang on to a top spot for two months.

To stand out from the crowd, Zhong believes the key is to create stickers with which people can empathize — designs reflecting human nature. Ao Damiao is good-natured but also gluttonous and lazy, because “imperfections appeal to people,” Zhong explains. “People who can’t stick to diets due to their uncontrollable appetites can look at the cat gorging on food and say, ‘This is exactly what happens to me!’”

While most of the WeChat sticker sets are free to download, users can opt to send cash contributions directly to favorite cartoonists via WeChat Wallet, the app’s built-in payment function. Through these contributions, Zhong receives an average of 20,000 yuan per month — though he notes that this amount is declining as more and more stickers become available on the app.

Cartoonist Zhong Wei poses for a photo holding an Ao Damiao figurine at his home in Shenyang, Liaoning province, Aug. 12, 2017. Qian Zhecheng/Sixth Tone

Cartoonist Zhong Wei poses for a photo holding an Ao Damiao figurine at his home in Shenyang, Liaoning province, Aug. 12, 2017. Qian Zhecheng/Sixth Tone

WeChat contributions are only part of what Zhong makes from Ao Damiao. In fact, more than half his earnings come from selling the design usage rights — a business model that comes with its fair share of challenges.

The biggest problem is copycats. Simply type “Ao Damiao” into the search bar of e-commerce platform Taobao, and numerous stuffed toys will appear in the results. “I have never authorized anyone or any entity to use Ao Damiao to produce such toys,” Zhong says. “Years ago, we couldn’t do anything about it, [but] Taobao recently improved its reporting system, so now we can shut down these copycats by filing complaints.” In the new system’s first month, more than 80 percent of reported listings were removed, according to a statement by Alibaba Group, Taobao’s parent company.

Zhong’s designs are copied so frequently that his wife has taken on the task of filing regular complaints. Wang fumbles for the words to describe her feelings on the issue: She says she despises those who steal from her husband, but as the mother of two sons, her maternal instinct occasionally stirs her sympathy. Wang recounts the story of one reported copycat who sent an email begging Wang to revoke the complaint for the sake of her daughter, as the woman needed her e-commerce business to feed her family. “It’s ridiculous,” says Wang, appearing to reassure herself. “We stick to our principles.”

In China, it only costs a little to do wrong, but it’s expensive to defend your legal rights.

Wang sifts through Taobao and reports plagiarists every couple of weeks, and it’s common for her to have hundreds of pleading emails from copycats flooding her inbox. “Yesterday, we reported 200 vendors, half of whom will contact us today,” she says. But no matter how many users the couple report, copycats keep springing up under different identities.

Sometimes, determined copycats even send Wang threats. In one email Wang showed to Sixth Tone, a banned Taobao vendor alleged that they had found out where the family lived and would “put an end to Zhong’s business.”

While a few law firms have offered to take on cases, the couple hasn’t accepted. “We were told that a lawsuit might last years,” Wang says. “We don’t have that kind of time or energy, what with the drawing and taking care of our newborn at the same time.”

Through witnessing the rapid growth of the Chinese sticker industry firsthand — and fighting against copycats who try to profit off his creations — Zhong has become resigned to the baby steps China is taking to improve protection of intellectual property rights. “In China, it only costs a little to do wrong, but it’s expensive to defend your legal rights,” he says. “But I’m no longer really angry. I do believe the situation is getting better.”

Despite the stresses of the job, Zhong still has big plans. For his Ao Damiao comic book series, he’s already created a mother character as well as several friends, and he’s now working on getting sticker versions onto social media platforms. Recently, what’s kept him up working all night is his newest sticker collection to hit WeChat: a couple’s series featuring a girlfriend for Ao Damiao.

Editors: Amy Snelling and Denise Hruby.

(Header image: A promotional image shows Ao Damiao figurines for sale on e-commerce site Taobao. Courtesy of Zhong Wei)