The soft, sparse outline of Hello Kitty was first sketched by Yuko Shimizu in 1974. Having just graduated from Tokyo’s Musashino Art University, the young designer was working for Japanese toy giant Sanrio when she came up with Kitty's design. In the same year, the anthropomorphic, mouthless creation made her debut on a vinyl coin purse with a star-etched snap closure.
Fast forward 43 years and Hello Kitty is a brand worth an estimated $7bn for its parent company. The feline-like character’s curious, but broad appeal means Kitty’s image has been stamped (officially and unofficially) on everything from airlines to breast pumps, motor oil to microwaves, wedding dresses to Avril Lavigne videos. There’s even a Hello Kitty hospital in Taiwan, and she has her own TV show and YouTube channel.
At the last count, there were 50,000 Hello Kitty product lines available in over 130 countries. In recent years, Sanrio, which owns the rights to hundreds of other characters like the Mr Men and Little Miss collective, as well as egg-turned mascot, Gudetama, has inked deals with fashion brands like Puma and Asos to drum up interest in Hello Kitty in adult markets with a view to offsetting declining group turnover.
Sanrio’s own founding story is also unique and compelling. Its founder Shintaro Tsuji is affectionately known as ‘Mr Cute’ in Japan. He started the company – which originally sold silk products – in 1960 post-war Japan with the mission of building a business that would popularise gift giving in the country and “promote friendship”.
Hello Kitty’s global fame has been achieved with little investment in traditional advertising – her marketing machine instead powered by brand tie-ups and licensing deals, which have helped the character transcended its beginnings as a niche stationery design to become a globally recognised symbol.
Martina Longueira, EMEA and Australia marketing lead for Hello Kitty at Sanrio, joined from Pentland Brands last year and tells The Drum that it’s important the Kitty evolves over time, while continuing to appeal to nostalgia.
“This isn’t tricky to balance because the fanbase is so diverse. People who grew up with her in the 70s and 80s are now in their 30s and 40s. This goes right through to younger adults, babies and children who love her today,” she says.
Adding that the brand sees Kitty’s appeal as “timeless”, she notes it’s important for the Japanese firm to adapt to different trends and technology to stay relevant.
“Experiential marketing, for example, is huge for Sanrio in Asia and has been for a long time. There is so much to be done in this space in Europe – people want to immerse themselves in unique experiences and Hello Kitty ones are up there,” she says.
Keeping Kitty ‘kawaii’
Hello Kitty’s history is as kawaii (a Japanese term best translated as cute) and colourful as you’d expect.
In 1978, Sanrio began to distribute Hello Kitty products more widely across Europe and the US, later teaming up with brands like Polaroid and debuting the first digital watch featuring the motif – which sold over 1m units. The character has been a Unicef ambassador to the US since 1983, and to Japan since 1994.
In the 90s Sanrio opened up Puroland, an indoor funfair complete with rides, musicals and restaurants, and Hello Kitty was the star draw. Every year it’s estimated to attract around 1.5 million visitors through its gates.
To mark Hello Kitty’s 40th anniversary, the first official Hello Kitty Con opened its doors in California in 2014, giving over 25,000 fans the chance to experience exhibits, attractions, merchandise and activities to “celebrate” the occasion.