She has no mouth, yet Hello Kitty speaks to generation after generation.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of this fiercely cute and fabulous feline. Right on time, a new shop in the City Market in Kansas City, Mo., is stuffed with Hello Kitty. A major art exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles will open in October. And there’s an explosion of limited-edition products to celebrate the big 4-0: moccasins by Minnetonka, hats by New Era, exclusive makeup kits by Sephora, Swarovski creations, a McDonald’s Happy Meal lineup and most recently, an entire collection of Vans shoes.
For the rest of the year, you can expect to see a Hello Kitty hail in retail.
As I look at the collection on my desk – a porcelain bank, a Hawaiian Hello Kitty, a tissue box and a Pez dispenser – I can still remember my earliest memories of the kitty.
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I was about 5 years old when I made my first purchase. I liked her red bow and I liked her face. She didn’t need a smile to radiate happiness. And the price was right. In the ’80s, even a kindergartner like me could afford her. My mom would give me a couple of quarters and I had plenty to choose from: candy, pens, pencils, notebooks were all less than $1. In 2014, that’s still the case. Sweet accessibility.
“She is not graphically portrayed with a visual mouth, and it lends to her appeal,” says David Marchi, senior manager of brand management and marketing at Sanrio, the company behind the kitten that keeps us smitten. “When you look at her she can be everything and anything. She can appeal to a little girl, an alternative teen, an executive. She can be for anyone.”
And that’s why the brand has always included affordable gifts alongside high-end designer partnerships. Founder Shintaro Tsuji started the company with the motto “small gift, big smile,” and it speaks to the sentimental value of Hello Kitty and friends.
“It’s about making people happy,” Marchi says by phone from Los Angeles. “You don’t have to spend $250 to give a gift. You can add something little and still spread happiness.”
Allison Crumley was in the third grade when she made her first Sanrio purchase. The Kansas City kitty enthusiast was in New York visiting family. With her own money, she bought a Spottie Dottie (Hello Kitty’s Dalmatian friend) toothbrush and stationery. Now, 27, Allison and her 8-year-old daughter, Nani, collect together.
“I’ve shared the love of Hello Kitty with Nani ever since she was born, and even before. I had a Hello Kitty diaper bag,” she says. “Nani has used a different Hello Kitty backpack of mine for each new school year.”
Her mom may have introduced her to the cute cat, but Nani has her own reasons for liking Hello Kitty. “She’s cute,” Nani says. “She’s always smiling, and that makes me happy.”
That kind of genuine sharing is Sanrio’s biggest promoter. Hello Kitty is not traditionally advertised. The brand itself doesn’t do that kind of in-your-face commercial advertising.
We’re talking about a $7 billion-a-year business with no catalogs or TV commercials, no movies or recent cartoons, just a whole lot of fans and more licenses than you can count. There are Hello Kitty airplanes in Taiwan. Last year Star Cruises brought “Hello Kitty at Sea” to its big ships in Singapore and Malaysia.
In 2012 Forbes called Hello Kitty one of the best-selling license entertainment products – KISS, Target, Kidrobot, Capcom, Fender and Uglydoll are just a few big brands that have collaborated with Sanrio. This cat has nine lives to appeal to people from all walks of life. There are even partnerships with the NFL and MLB. Yes, you can get a Kansas City Royals Hello Kitty.
Her official birthday is Nov. 1 (the first-ever Hello Kitty Con at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles will be that weekend), but Vans got the celebration started when its Hello Kitty kicks hit shelves in June. In Kansas City, you can buy them at the Bunker in Westport.
Known for its cool and classic skate shoes, Vans might seem like an unlikely partner, but it has been creating Hello Kitty kicks for a few years.
“She has such a loyal fan base and she is an iconic figure for women of all ages,” says Ashley Ahwah, Vans senior Classics footwear manager. “Hello Kitty’s persona plays into all aspects that are important to Vans, such as music, fashion and art.”
In March, when Donny Lo and Peng Her opened Yoki, a gift shop in the City Market, they counted on Hello Kitty’s universal appeal. Walk in the store and Hello Kitty and her friends take over one long wall and smaller displays throughout the store.
“We wanted to bring the best thing about the Japan Towns and Little Tokyos on the West Coast here – and that means you have to bring Hello Kitty,” says Lo, 32. “She represents so much of our community and she is a lot of fun. It’s been awesome to see how timeless she is. Of course we have kid fans, but we have a lot of adults. Our purses and pens are popular, and we’re getting requests for checkbooks.
“Sanrio has expanded so much since we were young. . . . It used to be one version of Hello Kitty and a limited amount of items. Now you can get every kind of Hello Kitty: a winking Kitty, Kitty in glasses, punk Kitty. I think it’s wonderful.”