What do 12-year old girls, young Japanese housewives and little raver kids have in common? I'll give you a hint: it's small, white, diabetes-inducingly cute, and sports a red bow and a head that's shockingly huge, but has no mouth. Welcome to Hello Kitty's world, a dangerous place to tread if you're a cynic, an old humbugger, or completely lacking a sense of humor and mirth.
Move over, Disney. Japan-based Sanrio Company Ltd. has been cranking out the cute since their inception in 1960. Early success came with Strawberry, a character of a little girl with a giant strawberry on her head, about two years before Hello Kitty first appeared on the scene in 1974 on a small change purse. Since then, an endless stream of fat-headed, two-dimensional characters have come bouncing and flouncing down the rainbow path, including, but not limited to, Kero Kero Kerropi, Saru no Monkichi, the leader of a band of playful monkeys, and the most darling brother and sister combo since the Osmonds, Little Twin Stars, an angelic team who live on Compassion Planet in Dream Galaxy. Are you gagging on your own phlegm yet? There are still other alliteration-ridden players in this performance, such as Winki Pinki, Picke Bicke and Spottie Dottie.
The marketing behind these products is strategic and complex. Everything is about display, collection, consumption and communication. Character's faces, slogans, and still life moments of the characters "in action" (i.e. drinking tea or smelling flowers) emblazon absolutely any household product you can think of: furniture, clothing, notepads, stationary, electronics, bedding, kitchen appliances, school supplies, candy, stuffed animals, fashion accessories, bone china, theme parks, restaurants…the list grows larger than Sanrio's bank account which, from 1996 figures and the current exchange rate of 140 yen to the dollar, grosses over 5 billion dollars annually.
"But what do they do?" asks puzzled friends and non-collectors. They don't do anything. The substance of these characters is as blank and as vacant as the look in Hello Kitty's black dot eyes. They're not from a movie, they don't sing on television, and Sanrio has no pretense about selling their products on anything other than brand recognition. If you ask Sanrio, they aren't in the business of moving merchandise. They are in the business of spiritual retail and "social communication". Shintaro Tsuji, President and CEO of Sanrio, writes, "Our business puts importance on the spiritual side of things. We make things which will help foster communication,… and we seek to help friendships flourish. That is why all of us at Sanrio shall continue, with one heart and mind, to offer the very best social communication business possible, and to help build a bridge between the hearts and minds of people all over the world."
Why is Sanrio's fleet of characters so successful? What need do they fulfill in Japan and in ten other countries throughout Asia, Europe and North America? One fan ponders the following:
"What is it about Hello Kitty that makes everyone love Her?…Perhaps it's her silent kindness that intrigues us so. Or maybe it's just a clever marketing ploy that's been brought on by Sanrio: Create a character that both kids and adults go nuts over, and make it available only through certain retail stores, making it nearly impossible to acquire if you don't live near one of the above stores. I'm beginning to think it's that she's not sold just anywhere that makes us want her so bad."
And She would never slum with the simple and common toys on a cold shelf in Toys R Us. A trip to a Sanrio store is like a mini-vacation, a dreamy wonderland, or a freakish nightmare, depending on your perspective. Golden turrets of castles from long ago, festive balloons, rainbows with their mandatory pot of gold and oversized toy planes transport you into their world. Neatly stacked and arranged little knickknacks, sorted by color, character and design amuse and entertain. Who's buying into the myth? "Oh, everyone", says store Assistant Manager, Sarah Aldana. "Everyone from ages 3-40, tourists, regulars. It used to be predominantly girls, but ever since Bad Batz Maru came out, we have teenage boys coming in, too."
Wide-eyed packs of overwhelmed young girls shrill the battle cry of, "Mom! Can I have THIS??!!" throughout the store, sometimes a reasonable request for candy or gum, other times a heartfelt wish for the pink, Hitachi Hello Kitty toaster oven tauntingly on display and only available in Japan. "I'm just buying some stupid little things," remarks Amanda DeHaan, age 23, of her purchase of some Bad Batz Maru barrettes and a My Melody contact lens case. "Everything else is too perky,
too pink" she continues, despite the fact that she's shopping in the perkiest and pinkest store on earth.
The Japanese are known world-wide for being voracious consumers who buy new products before the old one's wear out, and for giving numerous small, token gifts. Their culture also loves fantastical childish escapes from the tight pressures and high expectations of their hard-working lives. Thus, a company offering tiny, affordable gifts of fantasy can only thrive in such a cultural breeding ground. And it's success in the States and beyond? Westerners have long been fascinated by the seemingly quirky, misunderstood nature of the Japanese, and kids and college hipsters are attracted to Sanrio's infantalistic appeal, its kitsch, and its nostalgic resonance back to Sanrio's first wave of release in the US in the late 1970's and early 1980's.
Seasonal product lines, a numerous pool of ever-changing characters, and varying inventory based on region and individual store, all beckon for collectors to start getting itchy, and it's worked. As demand for popular culture items (lunch boxes, etc.) begins to skyrocket in the collector's marketplace, so does the value of classic, no longer produced, Sanrio artifacts. A quick search on Ebay, one of the Internet's most popular trading and collecting sites, revealed about twenty Sanrio items for sale, ranging from a Hello Kitty lunchbox going for $35, a My Melody stuffed animal selling for $20, and a rare, English-language Hello Kitty magazine for around $20, amongst other items.
The future of Sanrio can only get brighter, as small retail stores are popping up in malls all over the country, and the company is actively expanding their video production, CD ROM development, software programs, and multimedia products. The official company logo composed of their best known celebrities has recently inflated from two to three dimensions, showing Sanrio's stylistic strategy to keep up with the times. And in this third, added dimension of its characters, in that intangible vastness of social communication, is the reason for the success of this family of products we could all easily live without. The Sanrio collector's blue book has yet to roll off the presses, but it's likely it will soon. Just look for the pink book with Hello Kitty on the cover.
Scary or sweet? What's your take on the Hello Kitty obsession?