By: Jonah Morgan
The Year is 1974, the current anime and manga fueled Japanese character industry in America is 20 years away. A company in Japan named Sanrio begins marketing items with the character graphic of a cute white cat. In 1976, Hello Kitty appears in the USA……. licensing you ask?? what’s that? Sanrio brings Hello Kitty here….. entirely on it’s own. Today, we’re taking it back to the old school, 30 years ago, when Sanrio in Japan (www.sanrio.com) first introduced the Hello Kitty character into it’s product merchandising line. The move marked the birth of a global character icon 30 years later which is synonymous with cute and cudley.
Sanrio itself was started in Japan in 1960 when President and CEO Shintaro Tsuji founded the company. Traditional Japanese greetings call for the common exchange of small gifts and the firm’s first products were stationary, little purses and other inexpensive items designed for exchange. In ’76 when the first Sanrio stores appeared in the U.S. city of San Jose a store devoted entirely to one line of character based prodcts was unheard of. Today, there are over 300 Sanrio boutiques in the western hemisphere, with 120 in malls across the USA. In addition, Sanrio products are available in department stores and retail outlets such as Target.
From the perspective of being introduced to Japanese characters via games and animation, what Sanrio has been able to do with Hello Kitty has always been a curiostiy for me. There’s definetly some relation there……. but it’s hard to qualify. Hello Kitty is almost in a league all it’s own. If you think of manga type characters as cars on a road, every so often one passes another in popularity, switching lanes and merging back into the traffic lane. To fit Hello Kitty into the analogy, it wouldn’t even be on that road, it would be a bullet train on a track next to the road doing about 200 mph. Part of the curiosty lies within how Hello Kitty is marketed. Unlike anime, manga or video game characters that spin off from media into product lines, Sanrio’s characters begin their own existence as retail products. Becuase they are not tied to a definitive story line the customers can – and do – project their own feelings and emotions onto the characters.
To help explore the fascination with Hello Kitty over 30 years we recently spoke to Sanrio’s marketing director Bill Hensley:
1. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Hello Kitty brand for Sanrio, could you tell us Sanrio’s brief thoughts on this milestone?
Hello Kitty’s 30th Anniversary offers us an opportunity to look back at 30 years of great Hello Kitty design that has led to her pop icon status. More importantly, to look forward to more great design in the future.
2. Across Sanrio’s Global Holdings how vital has the American market been to the Hello Kitty brand and ultimately Sanrio’s success?
The American market still represents a minority share of Sanrio’s global revenues, but it represents the fastest growing Sanrio market.
3. Can you give us an estimate of how many unique product offerings related to Hello Kitty have been marketed in the USA since the 1976 debut?
Just an educated guess – In Hello Kitty’s history, somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 unique products have been marketed in the US.
4. The Japanese character industry has been increasing in it’s popularity in the American market in recent years. This has come about in the form of Anime, Video Games and manga all being localized for the market and the underground movement of fans who directly import character goods into the country. It’s kind of funny, I’ve always seen Hello Kitty and Sanrio as existing outside of this sphere of influence that is commonly associated to Anime’s boom here which began growing in the 1990’s. Has Sanrio watched this phenomena and how has it affected your company’s approach to marketing Hello Kitty given it’s Japanese roots?
Sanrio is a character brand developer and designer. We’re happy that many fans of Anime are also fans of Hello Kitty or other Sanrio characters, but the Anime phenomenon has not affected the way we develop and market the Hello Kitty brand.
6. You have many special events planned over the coming months for the 30th anniversary of Hello Kitty, can you tell us if any special Japanese guests associated with the creation of the brand will be attending or coming to the USA?
We were pleased to have Ms. Yuko Yamaguchi, Sanrio’s chief designer for the Hello Kitty brand, join us at our official Anniversary Kick-Off event this past June at Rockefeller Center in New York.
7. Besides Hello Kitty, how are Sanrio’s other character brands performing in the USA market?
Hello Kitty is obviously the star, but other characters in the Sanrio family are showing their strength. Most notable is Chococat, who is red-hot is our boutique stores.
8. What’s coming up on the horizon for the next 6 months to 1 year for Sanrio?
At least 100 to 300 new items each month, plus new characters as well.