As a gift-giving society, manufacturers in Japan have evolved to cater to this cultural regime. In the 1970’s, a Japanese company called Sanrio decided to produce a small, cheap ($1-$2) merchandise mascot that would appeal to the pre-teen girl demographic so young girls could participate in gift-giving occasions. The company produced a line of character merchandise around gift-giving occasions. They commissioned artist Yuko Shimizu to work on the project and she came up with a drawing of a white Japanese Bobtail cat wearing blue overalls with a red bow in her hair.
Hello Kitty was added to the lineup of early Sanrio characters in 1974 and the first related merchandise was released the following year with the original Hello Kitty concept appearing on a small coin purse. Realizing that they needed to cater for different ages, Sanrio expanded the range of Hello Kitty products and the rest, as they say is history.
Hello Kitty is a ‘gijnka’, an anthropomorphism or personification of a cat, not dissimilar in concept to Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse. No one would mistake the Disney character for a human, but at the same time he’s not quite a mouse. Just like Hello Kitty isn’t a human, she’s not quite a cat either. Shimizu got the name Kitty from Lewis Carroll’s book Through the Looking-Glass, where in a scene early in the book Alice plays with a cat she calls Kitty.
There are some characteristics of Hello Kitty that are quite clever and in some ways very Japanese. She’s simple yet seductive and she’s very unthreatening to children. Her eyes are set wide apart which is generally deemed to be safer for kids. She has no mouth, she has no teeth and she has a very blank expression.
How did she become so popular? Why was she such an instant success?
- She was Part of the Animal Boom
Sanrio has the license to produce Snoopy goods in Japan and they knew that Miffy (the bunny) was popular too so from this Mr Tsuji knew that animal goods sell.
- Cute (Kawaii) Culture
This was inspired by a generation of post-war kids (mainly girls) rebelling against the expectations of their parents who had lived through the war and believed their children should get a good education, get married, have kids and maybe work for a year or two in between. The ’Cute Culture’ evolved as a means of maintaining their youth/childhood and really annoyed parents and teachers alike. The cute culture was expressed in the way they spoke, the way they wrote and the ‘cute’ outfits they adopted. So when Hello Kitty came out at this time, she was adopted as the ‘Icon of Cute’. These kids (and their kids) grow up to have children of their own and that’s why the Hello Kitty brand keeps getting bigger and bigger.
Every year Kitty is modified or re-shaped in some way and the designers come up with a new theme/stance for her (eg changing the colour of her bow or replacing it with a flower or strawberry).
She’s seasonal, she’s regional, she comes out in Limited Editions, she’s become collectible and she’s increasingly becoming a Luxury Brand. Hello Kitty is now seen in the form of high end jewellery ($1000 necklaces) and adorning high-end makeup brands , etc).
The simplicity of Hello Kitty’s design, which is a simple flat line drawing, is probably one of the most intriguing aspects of her character. Yet she now appears on over 50,000 products that are sold in over 70 countries and is a brand worth $7bn. Roughly two thirds of Hello Kitty products are licenced and the rest are made by the company. Every month about 600 products are taken off the market and 600 new products are added. Sanrio holds the copyright and makes around $759m in annual revenue off Kitty alone.