What do 12-year-old girls, young Japanese housewives and little raver kids have in common?
Hint: It’s small, white, disgustingly cute, with a red bow and a head that’s shockingly huge, but has no mouth.
Welcome to Hello Kitty’s world, a dangerous place to tread if you’re a cynic, an old humbugger, or completely lacking a sense of humor and mirth.
Move over, Disney. Japan-based Sanrio Company Ltd. has been cranking out the cute stuff since its inception in 1960. Early success came with Strawberry, a character of a little girl with a giant strawberry on her head, about two years before Hello Kitty first appeared in 1974 on a change purse.
Since then, an endless stream of fat-headed, two-dimensional characters have come bouncing down the rainbow path, including Saru no Monkichi, the leader of a band of playful monkeys, and Little Twin Stars — the most darling brother-and-sister combo since the Osmonds — an angelic team who live on Compassion Planet in Dream Galaxy.
Are you gagging yet? There are more, such as Winki Pinki, Picke Bicke and Spottie Dottie.
The marketing behind these products is strategic and complex. Everything is about display, collection, consumption and communication. Character’s faces, slogans, and still life moments of the characters "in action" (i.e. drinking tea or smelling flowers) emblazon absolutely every household product you can think of, from clothing and notepads to electronics, kitchen appliances and bone china. There are even theme parks and restaurants on a list that grows larger than Sanrio’s bank account (which, from 1996 figures and the current yen-to-dollar exchange rate, grosses over $5 billion annually).
"But what do they do?" ask puzzled friends and noncollectors.
They don’t do anything. The substance of these characters is as blank and as vacant as the look in Hello Kitty’s black dot eyes. They’re not from a movie, they don’t sing on TV, and Sanrio has no pretense about selling its products on anything other than brand recognition.
If you ask Sanrio representatives, they aren’t in the business of moving merchandise. They are in the business of spiritual retail and "social communication."
Shintaro Tsuji, president and CEO of Sanrio, writes, "Our business puts importance on the spiritual side of things. We make things which will help foster communication ... and we seek to help friendships flourish. That is why all of us at Sanrio shall continue, with one heart and mind, to offer the very best social communication business possible, and to help build a bridge between the hearts and minds of people all over the world."
Why is Sanrio’s fleet of characters so successful? What need do they fulfill in Japan and in 10 other countries throughout Asia, Europe and North America?
One fan ponders: "What is it about Hello Kitty that makes everyone love her? ... Perhaps it’s her silent kindness that intrigues us so. Or maybe it’s just a clever marketing ploy that’s been brought on by Sanrio: Create a character that both kids and adults go nuts over, and make it available only through certain retail stores, making it nearly impossible to acquire if you don’t live near one of the above stores. I’m beginning to think it’s that she’s not sold just anywhere that makes us want her so bad."
And Kitty would never slum with the common toys on a cold shelf in Toys ‘R’ Us. A trip to an official Sanrio store is like a minivacation, a dreamy wonderland, or a freakish nightmare, depending on your perspective. Golden turrets of castles, festive balloons, rainbows with their mandatory pot of gold and oversized toy planes transport you into their world. Neatly stacked and arranged little knickknacks, sorted by color, character and design amuse and entertain.
Who’s buying into the myth?
"Oh, everyone," says Sarah Aldana, assistant manager of one Sanrio store. "Everyone from ages 3-40, tourists, regulars. It used to be predominantly girls, but ever since Bad Batz Maru came out, we have teenage boys coming in, too."
Wide-eyed packs of overwhelmed young girls shrill, "Mom! Can I have this??!!"
Sometimes it’s a request for candy or gum, other times a heartfelt wish for the pink Hitachi Hello Kitty toaster oven tauntingly on display and only available in Japan.
"I’m just buying some stupid little things," remarks Amanda DeHaan, age 23, of her purchase of some Bad Batz Maru barrettes and a My Melody contact lens case.
"Everything else is too perky, too pink" she continues, despite the fact that she’s shopping in the perkiest and pinkest store on earth.
The Japanese are known worldwide for being voracious consumers who buy new products before the old ones wear out, and for giving numerous small, token gifts. Their culture also loves fantastical childish escapes from the tight pressures and high expectations of their hard-working lives. Thus, a company offering tiny, affordable gifts of fantasy can only thrive in such a cultural breeding ground.
And its success in the states and beyond? Westerners have long been fascinated by the seemingly quirky, misunderstood nature of the Japanese. Kids and college hipsters are attracted to Sanrio’s infantile appeal, its kitsch, and its nostalgic resonance back to Sanrio’s first wave of releases in the United States in the late ’70s and early ’80’s.
Seasonal product lines, ever-changing characters and varying inventory based on region and individual stores all beckon for collectors to start getting itchy, and it’s worked.
As demand for popular culture items (lunch boxes, etc.) begins to skyrocket in the collector’s marketplace, so does the value of classic, no-longer-produced Sanrio artifacts.
A quick search on Ebay, one of the Internet’s most popular trading and collecting sites, revealed about 20 Sanrio items for sale, ranging from a Hello Kitty lunch box ($35), a My Melody stuffed toy ($20), and a rare English-language Hello Kitty magazine ($20), among other items.
The future of Sanrio can only get brighter. Small retail stores are popping up in malls all over the country, and the company is actively expanding its video production, CD-ROM development, software programs and multimedia products. The official company logo, composed of its best-known celebrities, has recently inflated from two to three dimensions, showing Sanrio’s stylistic strategy to keep up with the times. And in this third, added dimension of its characters, in that intangible vastness of social communication, is the reason for the success of this family of products we could all easily live without.
The Sanrio collector’s blue book has yet to roll off the presses, but it likely will soon. Just look for the pink book with Hello Kitty on the cover.