Hello Kitty grows up: How Japan's Sanrio has expanded the character's empire

Hello Kitty, the adorable little feline with no mouth but a great bottom line, has shown the business world how to take a brand and make it appealing across generations. Without question, the almost 36-year old character has developed a cult-like following that includes everyone from preschoolers to grandmas who find the fictional kitten simply irresistible. As parent company Sanrio likes to say, Hello Kitty appeals to "everyone from four to forever."

And for all of those people, there is a product. These days, the white Japanese bobtail cat with her trademark red bow can be found on everything from diamond jewelry and credit cards to plastic lunch boxes and stickers. All Hello Kitty products -- make that all 50,000 or so products -- are licensed by Sanrio. It's proven to be a lucrative venture for the Japanese company. Last year, Sanrio saw $5 billion in retail sales of Hello Kitty products globally, about $1 billion of which came from North America.
The key to Hello Kitty's vast success? "Simplicity," says Janet Hsu, President of Sanrio's Global Consumer Products division. "There is something zen-like about Hello Kitty. She can be anything to anyone."

It's a melon-head cat with no mouth, we point out. Hsu is nonplussed. "She has no mouth; but she speaks from the heart."

Hello Kitty has no strong political affiliations and she is perceived by fans as an adorable and sweet innocent -- a tricky line Sanrio will need to walk to preserve the brand while making further inroads into the adult market. Take, for example, what happened with the Hello Kitty shoulder massager, which at one point was banned when creative fans started announcing it made for a good vibrator. Sanrio protested loudly and the good kitty's reputation was restored.

While many of Hello Kitty's followers grew up carrying her little vinyl coin purse -- the first item ever produced bearing her image -- truth is, Sanrio has successfully attracted older females to the brand who didn't discover Hello Kitty until they were young adults. After all, those aren't six-year-olds buying $25,000 Hello Kitty diamond-studded necklaces or $3,450 Hello Kitty diamond and pink sapphire watches at Neiman Marcus. One of the latest additions: Hello Kitty wines produced in Lombardy Italy by the 100-year-old Torti family vineyards, which recently hit the U.S. market.

Sanrio's strength is its ability to pounce -- rather catlike -- on lucrative partnerships. It lured Kimora Lee Simmons, the former runway model, designer and owner of the Baby Phat clothing line, to bring her fashion industry influence to Hello Kitty with high-end jewelry and accessories.

Scott Rauch, CEO and president of Simmons Jewelry Co., said when the line launched in 2005 at 38 Neiman Marcus stores, he had never seen anything like it in his 16 years of sales: 900 watches retailing for $2,000 each were sold the first season. "It's a phenomenal brand. Hello Kitty is an iconic figure with heritage."

However, Hello Kitty's appeal is larger than any one designer's contributions. She is just plain kitsch. Hello Kitty is so saccharine sweet and tiresomely sentimental that it's become hip. The brand is so solidly embedded in worldwide social culture now that there are Hello Kitty fan forums and even an anti-Hello Kitty site, started by a guy who thinks his wife has gone into Hello Kitty overload and perhaps needs an intervention. The joke has even carried over to a police force in Thailand. Officers who were repeatedly late for work or parked in an unauthorized spot (like the boss's) were forced to wear Hello Kitty armbands as penance.

Love her or hate her, the Hello Kitty product line truly boggles the imagination. There are Hello Kitty toasters that sear her image onto your bread, a Hello Kitty Stratocaster guitar by Fender and a Taiwanese EVA Airbus A330-200 that was redone in Hello Kitty motif. The flight attendants wear pink Hello Kitty aprons, there are Hello Kitty headrest protectors and the airline serves food and beverages from the special Hello Kitty menu. Heck, at least they still serve you food.

You can find Hello Kitty Uggs, take out a Hello Kitty credit card and play a Hello Kitty version of the Milton Bradley classic board game, Twister. Automaker Diahatsu created two Hello Kitty hatchbacks in 1998 and 1999 that featured her image on the front grill, inside upholstery, side panels and keys. Need more? There's a Hello Kitty robot capable of carrying on a conversation with you for a mere $3,700.

There are also Hello Kitty Nintendo games, egg shapers and several books, including a collection of "candid" photos chronicling Hello Kitty's journeys as she surfs the waves in Hawaii, reflects in a Japanese garden, and hits Hollywood Boulevard. Each photo is accompanied by an original haiku written by, of course, Hello Kitty.

Hello Kitty's "back story" is that she lives in London with her parents and twin sister, Mimmy (Mimmy wears a yellow bow.) Just wondering what the official Hello Kitty shrink hears from Mimmy about her overachieving twin sister who seems to be adored by almost everyone. Poor Mimmy, we know how that goes.

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