Could you make 8 billion dollars a year being cute?
The Kawaii Kitty
This week’s #famousfeline is 44 years old, lives in London England, has no mouth and perpetually repeats the third grade. Any idea who she might be?
I was first introduced to the Japanese culture of cuteness 'kawaii' and its aesthetic while writing a cultural anthropology paper for my undergraduate degree in Calgary. The kawaii aesthetic has become a prominent aspect of Japanese popular culture, entertainment, clothing, food, toys, personal appearance and mannerisms. If you look up kawaii on Wikipedia, this week’s #famousfeline is so intertwined with the way that western cultures have interacted with and embraced Japanese kawaii culture that she appears in the first paragraph as an overt and defining point of reference.
It is safe to say that just about everyone is aware of this famous feline’s existence. You may not love her kawaii aesthetic, but you would probably recognise her anywhere. The reason for such a statement is that my Grandmother knows who Hello Kitty is and since this is the case so should you.
Full name, White Kitty, Haro Kiti is said to have been based on Alice’s cat from Lewis Carol’s Through the Looking Glass. She came into existence when designer Yuko Shimizo was commissioned by the company Sanrio to create cute characters to adorn simple shoes and accessories to help them sell faster and at a higher price. Perhaps ironically, the reason for Hello Kitty's conception was a direct reaction to the high costs associated with licensing an existing character or brand. Sanrio founder, Shintaro Tsuji’s cost cutting decision to create the adorable mouthless character led to the creation of one of the world’s most frequently licensed, consumed and widely identifiable characters.
The character's first appearance on an item was a vinyl coin purse in Japan in 1974 where she was pictured sitting between a bottle of milk and a goldfish bowl (see image above). Sanrio, the company responsible for Hello Kitty’s effervescent and worldly success first brought Hello Kitty to North America in 1976 where she was and remains to this day a success and is currently responsible for half of the company’s annual earnings (approx. 8 billion per annum).
But why is Hello Kitty so popular?
It would be easy to offer a feminist on anti-consumer cultural critique on the absence of Hello Kitty’s mouth, but I found the spokesperson for Sanrio’s explanation to be much more supportive of the cat’s innocent and intoxicatingly cute reputation, “Hello Kitty does not have a mouth because we want people to "project their feelings onto the character" and "be happy or sad together with Hello Kitty." Another explanation Sanrio has given for her lack of a mouth is that she "speaks from the heart". What’s not to love right? Maybe it is her unopinionated and friendly persona that helps Hello Kitty transcend the marketing niches felt by other cutesy brands.
Initially, Hello Kitty was marketed towards pre-teens but in the late 90s Sanrio realised Hello Kitty’s vintage status power and started marketing towards teens and adults. What I find so interesting about Hello Kitty is that she has been successfully marketed to people around the world on objects and experiences that range from everyday objects and consumables like tissue paper, nail clippers and toasters to high-end bespoke diamond jewellery. I personally have been drawn in by the marketing power of Hello Kitty as a child, as a teenager and occasionally even now as a mother and aunt. The staying power of the Hello Kitty brand is if nothing else admirable. The brand continuously tapped into consumer behaviour despite age and cultural barriers.
Don’t believe me that Hello Kitty has infiltrated her soft little paws into all aspects of our daily household culture? Try this little game, think of any household implement or accessory and then Google it plus Hello Kitty, unless you have picked something like a soldering iron chances are there is a Hello Kitty version of whatever you thought up. Her face can be found on just about everything from kitchen blenders, fully automatic weapons (image below) and A330-200 commercial passenger jets. There are also Hello Kitty restaurants, theme parks, theme park rides, books, comics, tv shows…. You get the point.
I first became aware of Hello Kitty when I was in the 5th grade. I was obsessed with pastel glitter gel pens and pretty pencil cases and there was an amazing, girlie and well stoked Japanese store walking distance from my house. Needless to say that little shop got all of my allowance money (and the vast majority of my friends’ ) for the entire 2001 financial year and half of 2002. Back then, I could rarely afford the Hello Kitty branded items which were enticingly displayed each week, but still to this day Japanese stationary and speciality shops fascinate me and there is something undeniably appealing about the aesthetic.
Do you remember you first Hello Kitty object or was there an item that you dreamed about owning as a kid but your parents wouldn’t buy you? Comment below, I would love to hear what it was.
If you are curious to learn more about Hello Kitty I highly recommend reading this article in Vanity Fair about Hello Kitty Super Fandom and the 40th anniversary of the iconic kitty.