Aug 5, 2018

Brand Story: Hello Kitty

Written by Avantgarde
Reading time: 6 mins

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Hello Kitty, a cartoon character developed in 1974 by Sanrio Co. Ltd. [Twitter: @sanrio] is one of the truly iconic brands to emerge from Japan. For over four decades, it has enjoyed enormous popularity that never ceases to exist.

Sanrio Co. Ltd., the creator of Hello Kitty was founded by Shintaro Tsuji in 1960. In 1971, the company began printing cute images on writing stationery that would appeal to children and it was in 1974 that Hello Kitty was drawn. She was drawn without a mouth, which later made her the perfect cross-cultural representative. The character was featured for the first time on a plastic coin purse and received positive response from customers. It can now be seen on thousands of products in hundreds of product categories. From towels, pencils, clothing, stationery, pet accessories, sneakers, jewellery and mobile phones to planes, themed restaurants and amusement parks.

The success of the mouthless cat, as it is commonly referred to, can be greatly attributed to the simplicity of its design with minimal characteristics and no mouth that allows people to project their own feelings on to it. Another important factor that differentiates Hello Kitty from other cartoon characters is its ability to evolve with respect to changes in the environment.

In the early stages (mid-1970s until the late 1990s), Sanrio focused on the sale of products through retail outlets and exported products to overseas markets which involved high investments in setting up retail outlets and marketing of products. As and when the brand started gaining traction, it was realized that a more efficient global expansion strategy was needed to tackle these issues. As a result, the company began licensing its products thereby minimizing business risk and significantly reducing operational costs.

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Licensing opened Sanrio to a wide assortment of new distribution networks and helped in attracting international brands to create mutually successful collaborations. Licensing strategy has helped Hello Kitty increase the number of global licences around the world.

Sanrio recorded $5.9 billion in licensing retail sales last year, with 50,000 products across all categories and 15,000 shops, sold in more than 60 countries making it the world’s seventh-biggest licensor. It ranks right behind companies like Disney, Meredith, PVH, Hasbro, Warner Bros. and Mattel, according to License Global. Hello Kitty reportedly accounts for half of Saniro’s annual turnover and 75% Sanrio’s annual operating profit.

Although originally, Hello Kitty was focused at appealing to pre-teen girls, in the past few years, the company widened its focus on to older fans as well and launched collections to cater to this clientele. Licensing pacts with Luxury jewellery brands like Swarovski and Mikimoto, makeup brands, a Hello Kitty mascot for baseball team Los Angeles Dodgers, among many were signed.

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Hello Kitty, like many other great brands showed some brand fatigue in the past but has been able to bounce back almost immediately as a result of the company’s flexible yet dynamic strategies. For instance, in 1980s, other cartoons such as Doraemon started gaining popularity which resulted in Hello Kitty losing some of its appeal. In response to this, Sanrio repositioned it as a retro-brand to make it more appealing to a wider range of customers. This was seen again in 2002, when Winnie The Pooh replaced Hello Kitty as the best-selling character. In response to this, Sanrio repositioned the brand by associating it with jewellery and luxury products. In spite of such ups and downs in the past and the current competition posed by Disney’s new frozen characters, which got more shelf space in stores last year, the current brand equity of Hello Kitty will serve as a steady platform for the future.

Hello Kitty’s success has never been subjected to traditional advertising. In fact, the brand relies on its simplistic yet attractive design.Celebrities such as Katy Perry, Paris Hilton, Avril Lavigne, Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, Lady Gaga, Cameron Diaz, Mandy Moore, Heidi Klum,Ashley Judd, Madonna, among many other have been see adorning Hello Kitty accessories, apparels and other assorted pieces of Hello Kitty branding at several occasions which has helped Hello Kitty gain visibility worldwide. Sanrio also acted quickly to make the most of this popularity.

Hello Kitty has an impressive social media following,with approximately 14 million likes on Facebook.

Some Interesting ‘Hello Kitty’ facts:

  • Taiwan’s second largest airlines, Eva Air, decided to use the Hello Kitty brand on flight routes between Taipei, Tokyo and Fukuoka in October, 2005. Everything from the aircrafts exterior, boarding passes, flight crew uniforms and the interior are held in the Hello Kitty theme.
  • Sanrio’s theme park, Puroland, opened in 1990 and features Sanrio’s most popular characters, with Hello Kitty as its star attraction and is visited by 1.5 million visitors, from around the world making it one of Japan’s most popular tourist attractions.
  • Seeing the impact and popularity of the brand, the Japanese board of tourism appointed Hello Kitty as their official tourism ambassador to China and Hong Kong. However, it wasn’t the first time Hello Kitty was a brand ambassador for a government undertaking. In 1983, UNICEF made Hello Kitty the United States children’s ambassador and for Japan in 1994.

  • Katy Perry’s unannounced appearance at “Hello Kitty Con 2014,” a convention in Los Angeles to celebrate Hello Kitty’s 40th anniversary, attracted incredible media attention resulting in a sold-out crowd of over 25,000 during the four-day exhibition.

  • Hello Kitty even became an animated character. She first appeared on the American-animated Hello Kitty’s Furry Tale Theatre, which was shown on US television throughout 1987. Another series ran in 1991. This year, Hello Kitty was seen for the first time in 3D in an animation made by Sanrio Digital, called The Adventures of Hello Kitty & Friends.

  • The American singer Lisa Loeb, dedicated an entire album to Hello Kitty, entitled ‘Hello Lisa’.

  • Lady Gaga was photographed in a gown made of Hello Kitty plush toys, while Katy Perry got a Hello Kitty tattoo on her middle finger.

  • In early 2005, Sanrio Co Ltd. entered into a licensing agreement with jewellery designer Kimora Lee Simmons’ company, to create a line of diamond jewellery called the “Hello Kitty” Collection which included pendants, rings, and diamond watches.

  • Pet accessories were sold under the label the “Hello Kitty Collection by Little Lilly” at upscale boutiques in the US.

  • A Japanese company called Business Design Laboratory created a 20-inch tall Hello Kitty robot that could perform the job of front-desk personnel in the early 2000s.

  • In 1999, Sanrio entered into a marketing tie-up with McDonald’s in Tai-wan. As a part of the promotional program, McDonald’s gave away a limited edition of Hello Kitty wedding collection dolls with every “Happy Meal”. The campaign was a raging success.

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