Hello Kitty: The Iconic Japanese Brand

Martin Roll

Created by Sanrio Ltd and founded in 1960 by Shintaro Tsuji, Hello Kitty is one of the truly phenomenal brands to emerge from Japan. For over three decades, this simple mouth-less cat of sparse lines and a bow has mesmerized children, youngsters and grown ups alike across Asia, Europe and the Americas. In the United States alone, Hello Kitty has expanded into 4,000 stores nation wide with more than 200 Sanrio-specific shops. Created as a gift item to be exchanged between families, Hello Kitty now adorns more than 22,000 products across categories and contributes more than half of Sanrio's $1 billion annual sales.

Much has been discussed about the endurance of this iconic brand over the decades. So popular is Hello Kitty that Taiwan's second largest airlines, Eva Air, decided in October 2005 to use the Hello Kitty brand on flight routes between Taipei, Tokyo and Fukuoka. By paying Sanrio a franchisee fee, Eva Air has dedicated an entire Airbus A300-200 to the Hello Kitty brand and its cutie-like universe. Everything from the aircrafts exterior, boarding passes, flight crew uniforms and the interior are held in the Hello Kitty theme. The special Hello Kitty plane is booked more than 90 percent on average—a healthy occupancy rate for an airline. And a range of Hello Kitty duty-free goods are available and hugely popular with the fans of the brand. This demonstrates the enormous popularity that Hello Kitty enjoys even after decades of existence.

Hello, Iconic Brand!

There are many reasons for Hello Kitty's popularity. Unlike many of the Disney characters and other popular cartoons that emote and develop a distinct personality, Hello Kitty is a rather boring cartoon figure. It does not even have a mouth to talk. Hello Kitty's Zen-like calmness and faceless expression are the major reasons for its appeal across age groups and markets.

One of the important factors that differentiate Hello Kitty in the world of cartoons and characters is that Hello Kitty is not alive with stories, gimmicks and pre-determined personality before it reaches the people. By being a simple cartoon with very minimal characteristics, the Hello Kitty brand actually acts as a canvas upon which people can decorate with their own embellishments, thereby personalizing the cartoon, giving it a unique personality and internalizing the cartoon into their lives. This simple yet powerful differentiator set the Hello Kitty brand apart from competitors.

Another reason for Hello Kitty's consistent popularity over the decades has been its ability to change and keep up with the times. Instead of treading the path of consistency and standard design usage, a brand that constantly changes in response to the needs of the consumers and of the society at large, will have greater chances of becoming an icon. Hello Kitty has followed that path. Though the simple sparse lines and the bow is a constant, the cartoon has many versions, many colors, many characters that are related to Hello Kitty and a diverse set of products that carry the brand logo. These reinforce the excitement about the brand and allow people to develop a loyal collection of Hello Kitty branded items.

Asian consumers express almost fanatical devotions to the Hello Kitty cartoon character and brand. Hello Kitty has its own theme park in Tokyo, which is a huge success among the Japanese, Chinese and Taiwanese. Many Hello Kitty products also have become valuable collectibles—some items are valued at thousands of dollars and sold at eBay and other similar auctions. The marketing scarcity principle is employed strategically so every new item is only produced in smaller numbers and new Hello Kitty products are displayed regularly across all global stores luring consumers to add those items to the collection.

Avoiding Brand Fatigue

As with many iconic brands that have had long-term success only to fade away gradually, Hello Kitty too has shown some brand fatigue in its native Japan. With the emergence of electronic gadgets, games and Internet, children and teens are more lured by the visuals and sounds of these new channels than the simplicity and purity of a mouth-less cat. It would be a great challenge for Sanrio to maintain the brand popularity of Hello Kitty. Only time will tell whether the meow of this speechless though iconic Japanese cat will be heard in the coming decades—but the current brand equity of Hello Kitty serves as a solid business platform for the future.

Adapted from VentureRepublic.com.

the current brand equity of Hello Kitty serves as a solid business platform for the future