How Hello Kitty became cat's pyjamas across globe
Turning a cute cat into a cash cow was simple as milk, writes Gillian Wee
Tanya Stanich, a 43-year-old lawyer, clutched a handful of pink and black Hello Kitty notebooks at Sanrio's store in Manhattan's Times Square and touched a sequined bag adorned with the face of a cartoon cat.
As a child, Stanich was introduced to the white feline, which sports a red bow and no mouth, by an aunt in California, who sent her a Hello Kitty lunchbox, stickers, hair clips and pencils. Now a resident of New York's West Village neighbourhood, Stanich says she still buys the stationery to brighten up her life.
"It's nice to have something a little girly and flashy and fun," said Stanich, who keeps her iPhone in a Hello Kitty case. "I could go nuts in here."
Loyal fans like Stanich have helped make Shintaro Tsuji, the 85-year-old founder of Tokyo-based Sanrio, a billionaire. Since introducing Hello Kitty in 1974, Tsuji has captured the hearts and wallets of girls, women and celebrities such as Lady Gaga by licensing the character, which appears as stuffed toys, as well as on airplanes, golf bags and even vibrators.
"It must be way up there in terms of the most recognised franchises in the world," said Ted Bestor, director of the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "It's very hard to see any diminution for the Japanese fondness for cuteness."
Tsuji is president and chief executive officer of Sanrio, while his son Kunihiko, 61, is the company's chief operating officer and senior executive vice-president. The billionaire, who has never appeared on an international wealth ranking, controls 1.8 million shares of Sanrio directly and 18.1 million more through Kunihiko and trusts held by his wife, Yasuko.
The billionaire, who has written company newsletters under the pen name Strawberry King, was born into a wealthy family that ran restaurants and inns in Yamanashi Prefecture, a rural region about 63 miles from Tokyo.
Tsuji had a lonely, difficult childhood. His mother died when he was 13 and left him with bullying relatives, the book said. He became a bureaucrat, a role he quit at age 33 to become an entrepreneur.
In 1960, Tsuji started the Yamanashi Silk Centre with one million yen in capital, selling silk goods and rubber beach sandals. He introduced his first character, Strawberry, in 1962, pioneering the use of character copyrights.
The cartoon cat boomed after Tsuji sold his first Hello Kitty product, a coin purse, in 1975, before adults lost interest. It then had a resurgence in the 1990s. In 2000, fist-fighting mobs thronged McDonald's fast-food outlets in Singapore to buy dolls of Hello Kitty and her companion, Dear Daniel, dressed in wedding outfits.
Tsuji has reoriented the company toward licensing its intellectual property to companies that make different items based on Sanrio characters, instead of solely focusing on product sales. The strategy has helped the company's operating profit margin double to 27 per cent over the past four years, according to a July 31 company presentation.
Continuing to create buzz will allow Hello Kitty, now almost 40 years old, to stay relevant, according to Christine Yano, chairwoman of the department of anthropology at the University of Hawaii.
"Part of it is making cute into cool," says Yano, author of Pink Globalisation: Hello Kitty's Trek Across the Pacific said. "Every time you see the picture of a wrestler wearing a pink Hello Kitty thong, you have to laugh."