The Economics of Hello Kitty, or what will save the brand of the world’s master of cute overload?


Hello Kitty seems to be falling on tough economic times — at least according to the New York Times. This is despite her appointment in 2008 as the Japanese official ambassador for tourism. Unlike many other brands, as The Learned Fangirl, stated at the time of her ambassadorship,

One of the oddly interesting elements about Hello Kitty is that there isn’t a starting product; she is a brand of kitty cuteness, the epitome of kawaii.

Kawaii — the idea of ultimate cuteness and the acquiring of this status — is what has propelled Hello Kitty and her business overlord (Sanrio) into a Japanese brand phenomenon, worth $5 billion a year. Perhaps Japanese and worldwide audiences are tiring of the need for sweet after 36 years, but that isn’t the entire story.

At least according to Steven Colbert’s reportage on the new Hello Kitty wine, demonstrates that Kitty is being marketed to all, not just as a childrens’ character (though the Hello Kitty licensed vespa and MAC cosmetics should have made that clear!).

Firstly,  there are two large corrections that have been added to this story, including the overall financial status of the company, and dates of product launches. Based on these corrections, is this reported change an actual trend? Considering how easy it would be to check on the dates of the introductions of other Sanrio products, what does this say for the overall newsworthyness of the article. Traditional newsreporting still has not gotten its head around the idea that if they decide to no longer have fact checkers, especially for articles that focus aspects of culture with large communities, there will be corrections — and I write this as someone who has sent corrections to the New York Times on a variety of odd elements, including Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley and Pokemon regarding easily fact-checked items.

Secondly, both the advantage (and perhaps growing disadvantage) of Hello Kitty is her brand-clear sameness. As shown in Sanrio’s Design History video above, regardless of the era she is in, Kitty always looks the same. And this allows for both recognition by buyers and fans, but also allows for it to be easier for knockoffs to be made. Whether on the high-end products, like guitars, wedding dresses, computers, or mobile phones — or on low-end products, like stickers and key chains, she is always the same. And that has saved Kitty from being “reimagined” — as has been done with many American-based girls products, such as Strawberry Shortcake. Considering the changes made to others, the comfortableness of Hello Kitty’s image likely will continue to have an overall continuity of fanbase.

However, her general ubiquity has led to several strange official branded products, including the recently launched wine, and a massager (the licensing history discussed on Hello Kitty Hell), but not guns.

Thirdly, the new less-kid centered but nonetheless kawaii products produced by others, both from Japan and other locales have been making inroads with those that don’t want to own the same items as the five-year olds in their lives. For example, San-X’s Beer-chan, the discontinued Afro Ken, and Kogepan (a very depressed and frequently drunk bread bun) are cute without being cloying.

And if you still haven’t read enough about the economics of Hello Kitty, there is Hello Kitty: the remarkable story of Sanrio and the billion dollar feline phenomenon by Ken Belson and Brian Bremner. Or you can watch this video by Ken Belson about Hello Kitty from the Asian Art Society and the Japan-America Society of Indiana.

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