Brian Bremner (left) and Ken Belson scan headlines for the latest Hello Kitty developments. (Photo © Torrin Boyd)



Continued from…


Is Hello Kitty purely a commercial brand/logo,
or does it have more creative permutations?

She’s basically just a character and a brand. There’s a television show and there have been short movies from time to time, but basically, she’s an image. Very little story line, too. In that sense, she’s a pure commercial vehicle. Sanrio also spends almost nothing on advertising and instead relies on word of mouth between consumers.

How big of a business is Hello Kitty?

Sanrio’s sales are about $1 billion a year, and half of that is from Hello Kitty. In addition to the thousands of products Sanrio produces and sells, the company also receives a royalty of between 3 and 10 percent from hundreds of other companies that use Kitty in the products they sell. It’s hard to know how much those companies make off of Kitty’s image.

How many different kinds of Hello Kitty products have there been?

There are currently about 22,000 Hello Kitty products on the market. Sanrio produces and markets more than half of them, but about one-third are made under license by hundreds of other companies. The licensing part of the business came a few years after Kitty was born. Companies approached Sanrio and asked to use her image. So Sanrio stumbled into this lucrative licensing business a bit by accident.

Each month, Sanrio takes 600 products off the market and replaces them with another 600 items. Some are shuffled for seasonal reasons. Beach sandals in summer, down quilts in winter, back-to-school bags in autumn. But many are taken off because they don’t sell and to keep the lineup fresh. Sanrio wants Kitty to be collectible, so they rotate products and release special edition lines, but they also try to keep the prices low enough so kids don’t go broke trying to collect everything.

There’s a host of surprising Kitty items. A Daihatsu car, a Kitty surfboard, a Kitty bowling alley, an indoor ski slope, karaoke bars, Kitty red wine. The only things Sanrio forbids are sharp objects, drugs, guns and hard alcohol and cigarettes. Of course, rip-off artists have broken these rules.

Have any of Hello Kitty's imitators come close to its success?

In the Japanese character goods markets, none of the other Sanrio ultra-cute characters have emerged as something of a global fashion icon. So Kitty-chan is something of a standout. Of course, other forms of Japanese mass culture are quite the rage right nowmanga and anime come to mind. Also, you can see Japanese influences in Hollywood in such movies as Lost in Translation, Kill Bill, and The Last Samurai.

Do Japanese consumers consider Hello Kitty to be mostly for children,
or are there serious adult collectors?

In researching our book, we interviewed serious Kitty lovers and collectors across Asia. Some are looking for a little cuteness or camp to cheer up an otherwise high-speed professional life that can be pretty weary. Some want to harken back to a time, in their childhood, when they felt more protected or innocent. Still others really hate cute little things like Hello Kitty but collect the stuff, nonetheless, to make a counter-fashion statement. It is all over the map.

Any theories on why Hello Kitty became such a hit?
Why does a simple cartoon logo have so much appeal?

Two theories: One is that Hello Kitty somehow touches upon an archetype, one of the unconscious human desires just about everyone shares. She represents purity, cuteness, and innocence and girls seem to respond to that even at different stages of their life.

The other theory is her Zen-like, undefined quality we mentioned earlier in this interview. Hello Kitty doesnt have a body of film work or comic strips that define her character in a meaningful sense such as Mickey Mouse and Snoopy. She is like a mirror, reflecting back any desires or feelings you project upon the character. She works with little girls, obviously, but also with mothers yearning for some sort of nostalgia for their last pass or wanting to pass along the values of the mouthless one to their kids. Kitty also works cross-culturally. Hello Kitty designers gave her a birthplace, London, and a last name of White. To Japanese kids, she evokes feelings of British life. Hello Kitty, for instance, likes to bake cookies and play the piano. In other parts of Asia, she represents a quirky bit of Japanese pop culture.

Why hasn't Hello Kitty's popularity diminished over time, like other product fads?

Well, actually, there are signs of brand fatigue back in Japan and Sanrio is trying very hard to build up its foreign sales. If Sanrio doesnt handle this right there is some risk that Hello Kitty could end up in the junk yard of failed brands down the road.

When did Hello Kitty enter the American market?
Was it marketed any differently than in Japan?

Hello Kitty arrived in America in time for the Bicentennial. Sanrio tried for a while to market and design her differently from in Japan, but found out that she was popular as she was. Some things made in Japan don’t work and have to be changed or not exported. Colors also sometimes differ. Language is also translated. But basically, most of the products come as is. Sanrio is also developing a lot of Kitty goods specific to different regions, so there’s now a line of Hello Kitty Statue of Liberty goods sold in New York, for example.

Did Sanrio expect it to catch on in the U.S.? How successful is it here?

Kitty was a sleeper for years. Sanrio spent a lot of money and energy trying to break into Hollywood, too, with limited success. She really made a resurgence in the late 1990s, though, when several 20-something stars like Mariah Carey took a shine to her. Kitty started making appearances at all sorts of fashion shows and events. U.S. sales are now setting records.

Does the Japanese concept of "cute" translate well to American consumers?

American women are different in the sense they tend to lose their fascination with cute things and get on with being a teenager earlier than their Japanese counterparts. In Japan, it is not unusual for women to affect cute poses and prefer cute fashion well into their twenties. In the U.S., the majority of twentysomethingsthe current Gen-Y crowdwouldnt be caught dead doing that sort of thing. I think, though, there is a fascination right now with Japanese pop cultureand Hello Kitty is a beneficiary of that. These young people are very Internet savvy and are looking for alternatives to Hollywood fare, hip-hop, and so on. There is a sense that Hello Kitty comes from somewhere beyondand that may be benefiting the brand.

Are there any new Japanese fads or products that
we should be expecting to hit the U.S. market in the future?

Japanese manga and anime I think will continue to make inroads and may eventually intersect with the massive pornography industry in the U.S. A big craze is the so-called hentai art books, essentially animated porn that is very popular now, that explore all sorts of sexual fantasies in ways watching humans engage in such behavior obviously cant. For instance, storylines featuring "dick girls"–that is, hermaphroditesis all the rage right now. Another trend that could be transplanted are Japanese bishoujo video games, simulated and X-rated dating games featuring amply endowed and otherwise interesting animated characters. Realize such things in the states are out there, too, but the Japanese onesnow getting translated into Englishare really off the reservation.

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