Hello Kitty is the name given to a simple cartoon character developed by the Japanese company Sanrio and which has developed into a global, political and cultural icon since its inception in 1974. The line-drawn Hello Kitty cat burst onto the scene in a line of greeting cards created by the company but soon spread like wildfire as Japanese consumers everywhere embraced the gently drawn feline art character. Soon a whole line of merchandise displaying Hello Kitty emerged, featuring dolls, shirts, toys, school supplies, vacuum cleaners, home appliances and much more. Within a few years the Hello Kitty icon was splashed all over Japan and then quickly entered the global marketplace.
Commercialization of the Hello Kitty concept expanded to major product lines and franchises. Taiwan-based Eva Air emblazoned Hello Kitty on their airlines and their ticketing materials. In the year 2000 McDonald’s in Singapore began giving away Hello Kitty dolls with their Value meals, and generated such a mad dash of customers eager to get their hands on the product that riots ensued, a wildly successful product craze not seen since the early days of the Cabbage Patch phenomenon here in the United States. Sanrio expanded on the commercial success of the Hello Kitty product line by creating the Sanrio Puroland theme park based in Tama New Town, Tokyo Japan. Like a Japanese version of Disney World, the theme park features all of the usual attractions, restaurants, rides that one would expect, except with Hello Kitty replacing Mickey Mouse.
As with all mass market concept product crazes, some people might be left wondering how such a simple character as the Hello Kitty character could hold such an appeal to so many people. There is nothing spectacular about the story line of the Helly Kitty character. Here complete name is Kitty White, and she dwells with her parents and her sister Mimmy in London, England. However, the story line does not seem to be the real appeal-it’s the abstraction of the character. Hello Kitty is not an embellished character in any way, and so people of all cultures and age group can effectively read into her whatever they want.
Japanese fascination with cartoons extends into adult life, and so it’s not uncommon for a magical character to hold a spell over an entire population of people regardless of their age. The Japanese are a highly visual culture, and the Hello Kitty character plays into that aspect of their society quite well. Because Kitty is such a simple visual expression of an idea, she catches on quickly with people of all educational and ethnic backgrounds.
It is this aspect of the Hello Kitty phenomenon that lends itself easily to transforming it into an icon or a mascot representing a group’s values or ideals. In this sense, it is no surprise that non-profit organizations have adopted Hello Kitty as the emblem of their organization’s culture and philosophy. For example, Hello Kitty earned the award UNICEF Special Friend of Children and in Hello Kitty in 2008 was named ambassador of Japanese tourism in Hong Kong and China.
Hello Kitty has commercial admirers as well. The pop singer Mariah Carey famously decorated the rooms of her house with Hello Kitty curtains. Ms. Carey also collects the Hello Kitty products, a fascination that she shares with Drew Barrymore and the Hello Kitty picture has appeared on the album cover of Lisa Loeb.
Commercial fads seem to come and go, but there is a reason for Hello Kitty’s enduring success. The charming, simple smile and the positive optimism radiated by this cartoon character seems to reach into the psyche of a critical mass of people, who in their own way interpret her subjectively in the light of their own culture and values. Because of this, it is not likely that the Hello Kitty phenomenon will disappear anytime soon, and Sanrio will continue to do well selling this commercial concept.