Katie Ewer
Jan 15, 2015

Asian Champions of Design: Hello Kitty

In which we ponder how the innocuous character (who is NOT a kitty, according to her owners) continues to enthrall millions and make billions.

Asian Champions of Design: Hello Kitty

It’s been said that the management of an identity is as important as its creation. It’s hard to say how much of Hello Kitty’s success is due to the personality manifest in its character, and how much can be attributed to its maniacally active merchandising initiatives. Clearly, to have become so popular it must touch something deep in the human psyche. What that is remains anyone’s guess. What’s clear is that this little cat has bewitched millions of normally rational people around the world for generations. Can it keep us under its spell?

This is a brand that deals in superlatives. In 1999, the little white cat appeared on 12,000 different products annually. In 2008 there were over 50,000 Hello Kitty branded products in more than 60 countries (and that’s just the licensed ones). By 2008, it accounted for half of Sanrio’s $1 billion revenue. Hello Kitty has adorned credit cards, aeroplanes, wines, Swarovski crystal jewellery and Fender Stratocasters. She has her own theme parks, restaurants, hospitals and cafés, as well as films, games and music.

Hello Kitty was created by a young designer called Yuko Shimizu for the Japanese company Sanrio in 1974. She is a gijinka (an anthropormorphism), and more specifically, she’s kawaii—the quality of ‘cuteness’ so highly prized in Japanese culture. She was originally called ‘Hi Kitty’, but the story goes that her first name didn’t really stick, so she became Hello Kitty (ハローキティ or Harokiti in Japanese). Originally targeted at young girls, she caught the imagination of an older audience. Since then, mums have been buying Hello Kitty products for their own daughters, performing the role of brand advocate in a neat little case study of cross-generational marketing.

What’s the secret of her appeal? As any Hello Kittyist will tell you, part of her charm is that you can project whatever mood or character you want onto her expressionless, mute face. Hello Kitty has no mouth, so she’ll never say anything you don’t like. Critics say this feature has limited her reach in animated media, but she seems to have weathered the storm so far.

In truth, I can’t really figure out why Hello Kitty is as wildly popular as it is or why it’s achieved cult status like no other animated character. But I do suspect that the simplicity of its execution—two dots for the eyes, three lines for the whiskers on each side, and a red ribbon—have given it enduring influence. Certainly, the sheer numbers and complexity behind her kitsch kitty empire stand in stark contrast to her quiet, simple design.

Did you know?

The cat’s out of the bag. One of these Kitty facts is false (scroll down for the answer).

1 - Designer Yuko Shimizu got the name Kitty from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass. An anime short based on Alice in Wonderland starring Hello Kitty as Alice was made by Sanrio and released as part of Hello Kitty & Friends.

2 - Hello Kitty is not technically a cat. Her owners Sanrio have backtracked from saying she is human, but have said that her identity is Kitty White, who hails from the London suburbs has a twin called Mimmy and her own pet cat called Charmmy Kitty.

3 - All copies of a Hello Kitty dictionary for children had to be pulped when it was discovered that they contained a definition for “necklace” which referenced it as a means of execution favoured in South Africa, involving a burning tyre.

4 - In one of her many film iterations, there is a six-inch model of Hello Kitty sporting a mask and straitjacket à la Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.

5 - She is blood type A, her height is “five apples”, her weight is “three apples” and she has no mouth because according to a Sanrio spokesman “she speaks from her heart” and “is not bound to any particular language.”

6 - Hello Kitty is estimated to generate $7 billion annually in revenue, and all of this without any advertising.


Katie Ewer is strategy director at JKR Global in Singapore.
Check out the rest of the Asian Champions of Design series, which is available in book form.

Answer: A model of Hello Kitty as Hannibal Lecter does not in fa-fa-fa-fact exist [perhaps not as an official licensed product, but... -Ed.], so number 4 is not true. However, there is a Robo Kitty model in which she is tricked up like RoboCop.

 

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