Who is Hello Kitty?
Hello Kitty first appeared on this coin purse in 1975. ©SANRIO
Who is only five apples high and has no mouth — yet is one of the country’s biggest cultural ambassadors? None other than the reigning feline queen of kawaii (cute) herself, Hello Kitty.
With the creators of Hello Kitty celebrating the iconic cat’s 40th anniversary on 1st Nov. 2014, it seems an appropriate time to examine the evolution of a feline who started out life known only as “the white kitten with no name” (“namae no nai shiroi koneko“) and has since gone on to establish an international following that is as red-hot as the bow on her left ear.
Although the country’s pop culture is garnering interest worldwide through the increasing popularity of manga and cosplay, Hello Kitty is one icon that trumps all in terms of visibility.
Loved by a long list of celebrities such as Lady Gaga, Avril Lavigne (who has a single named “Hello Kitty”) and Lisa Loeb (who has an entire album called “Hello Lisa”), her fan base borders on the cultish.
A number of couples tie the knot in ceremonies held at Puroland, Sanrio’s Tokyo theme park, without fail every year. In January 2000, meanwhile, seven people were injured in Singapore as crowds jostled to procure a Hello Kitty promotional toy at a McDonald’s outlet.
Her recognition is such that Hello Kitty was appointed the children’s ambassador for UNICEF in the United States in 1983 and in Japan 10 years later.
In May 2008, Japan appointed the lovable feline its ambassador of tourism in China and Hong Kong, a move that was criticized by some in mainstream media for having little substance given the troubled state of relations between Beijing and Tokyo at the time.
Hello Kitty was first developed by Sanrio in 1974, a company that creates products focusing on pop culture.
Looking to add cute characters to its merchandise in an attempt to increase sales, Sanrio conducted a survey and found that dogs, cats and bears (in no particular order) were the most popular.
By the late ’80s, Hello Kitty had become increasingly popular with children in kindergartens in Japan. While some of the original fans remained loyal through high school, the younger fan base represented a significant proportion of the children’s consumer market.
This perspective changed around 1996, as high school students increasingly purchased Hello Kitty items. In the mid-’90s, Sanrio had shifted tack and started to manufacture goods that were specifically aimed at adults (cellphone charms, keyrings, etc.). These caught on and it wasn’t long before salarymen could even be seen carrying mobile phones with cute Hello Kitty accessories dangling from them.
Meanwhile, adult fans in Asia started to show an interest in Sanrio’s regional targeted marketing strategy as well. Since the early 2000s, the number of adult fans worldwide has increased exponentially now that Hello Kitty is a household name in the West.
“Hello Kitty has become a beloved character and brand that connects with people of all ages (since its introduction to the U.S. in 1976),” says Dave Marchi, Sanrio’s director of brand management and marketing, even going so far as to suggest that Hello Kitty serves as a “bridge between U.S. and Japanese culture.”
Now, devotees in European countries and North America now hold the highest ratio of Hello Kitty fans worldwide.
Hello Kitty was introduced to Europe more than 30 years ago. The recognition has gradually risen and Sanrio Europe have hardly spent anything on television series or movie promotion costs.
Darth Vader Hello Kitty.
©JOSEPH SENIOR 2012
Kawaii culture is becoming more and more part of people’s lives globally. It’s because of a simple aesthetic: It’s extremely expressive, but also because it brings a positive, genuine feeling into it. Kawaii seems to touch the romantic core that’s within us and connects with the inner child most of us keep alive inside.