Generating more than US$1 billion in sales back in 2002, Sanrio is one of the world's major character goods company. Much of the success of this global purveyor of all things cute and cuddly can be summarised by two words: Hello Kitty. With her moon-shaped visage slapped on more than 22,000 consumer products - from pencil cases, notebooks, toys, to even credit cards, cartoons, refrigerators and cars - Hello Kitty has become one of the most coveted brand images in the world.
How does this furry feminine feline attain such international stardom, especially among young girls of all ages?
In trying to discover the secrets of this, I read Ken Belson and Brian Bremner's title Hello Kitty: The Remarkable Story of Sanrio and the Billion Dollar Feline Phenomenon. Authored by two hardcore business journalists, the slim volume attempted to weave in the economics of the world's kawaii craze with the development of the Japanese cultural phenomenon, bringing in insights gleaned from the founder of Sanrio himself Shintaro Tsuji.
Shintaro Tsuji and Hello Kitty (courtesy of Sukebe Chan)
According to the authors, Hello Kitty's success was concocted over a brew of clever design, the growth of Japan's soft power (particularly its behemoth anime and manga industries), the understanding of what makes girls and their mothers tick, and perhaps just lots of plain old luck. The creation of the kitschy kitty herself appeared to be more an outcome of accident than design. Tsuji himself played an instrumental role in developing the design of Hello Kitty, together with a string of designers like Yuko Shimizu and Yuko Yamaguchi.
The storyline of Hello Kitty seemed more farcical that factual. According to her creators at Sanrio, Kitty was born on 1 November 1974 (without a mouth) to English parents George and Mary White and lives in a brick house a half-hour outside London. She has a sister called Mimmy who looks like her save for a yellow ribbon. Yes, believe it or not, Hello Kitty is supposed to be English, who is "locked in a kind of kindergarten fantasy" where the "deepest debate might be about whether to eat ice cream or cookies as a snack".
Lasting more than three decades, the moon-faced cat's enduring power was partially attributed to the growth of manga, a US$6 billion business originating way back to 12th century graphical representations, and its associated cousin anime. The social phenomenon of shojo manga which looks at consumption "as pleasure, as play, and as a creative act" has led to the boom in fancy and frivolous goods in Japan, led by young girls and teens. The ubiquity of Sailor Moon, Power Rangers, Pokemon and Super Mario shows how Japan's pop machinery centred on the appreciation of aesthetics has evolved and grown over the years.
Unfortunately, not everything purrs smoothly in kittyland. The huge merchandising success of the Hello Kitty-McDonald's tie-up still lingers in people's minds together with its more ugly aspect here in Singapore. There are also quite a few anti Hello Kitty purveyors who protest against its sexist depiction of women including Hello Kitty Hell. Some of the company's forays into movie making and a theme park (Sanrio Puroland) also performed poorly initially.
To fend off its arch nemeses like the Disney characters and Snoopy, the authors have suggested that Sanrio should capitalise on Hello Kitty's popularity with stars and celebrities like Christina Aguilera, Jessica Alba and Paris Hilton. These "role models" could be used to inject a contemporary and fashionable flair to the brand, while widening its appeal to youths and young women.
Spanning the fields of economics, pop sociology and psychology, Hello Kitty: The Remarkable Story of Sanrio and the Billion Dollar Feline Phenomenon is written in a breezy and entertaining manner by two veteran journalists. It weaves a tantalising tale of how character-based branding can take place without a detailed back story (unlike foes like Snoopy or Mickey for instance), and how the comforting presence of the mouthless cat provides an escape from the drudgeries of life. Some dimensions of the history and development of Japan's pop cultural phenomena are also covered.
Unfortunately, the book doesn't quite address the key management or business strategies and falls short of informing the reader about the Dos and Don'ts of making hits happen. Certain parts appear to be haphazardly strung together, and a central coherent argument appear to be missing. Despite these shortcomings however, it is still a useful read for anybody keen to understand what goes behind the creation of a image-based consumer brand.
As a tribute to the icon of cute, here's a 35th anniversary video showing how she has evolved over the years. Enjoy!
Hello Kitty celebrates her 35th Birthday this year! (Courtesy of Sanrio)