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Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Pawing in enough to be a fat cat
Famed feline has parlayed cute into mega-yen empire leaving fans purring for more
The world's most coveted kitty wears just a bow, doesn't have a mouth to feed and has never been in trouble.
Mickey Mouse, make way for Hello Kitty, Japan's iconic character that has wooed the world by storm. Nobody can explain why the simply drawn feline has become a global darling, the epitome of the cul ture of "kawaii" (cute).
But one thing's for sure. Hello Kitty is not just for kids. Adults, particularly women, have expanded the fan base.
Sanrio Co.'s 1974 creation has also won over celebrities, including Mariah Carey, Britney Spears and the Hilton sisters, becoming a fashion statement along the way.
Following are questions and answers about Hello Kitty and her global paw print:
Why did Sanrio come up with Hello Kitty?
More than three decades ago, Sanrio sought a new character to adorn its greeting cards, and in the animal world, the top three are dogs, cats and bears. The firm already had a bear and a license for its products to sport Snoopy. So designers came up with the signature cat in 1974.
The first Kitty product — a small coin purse — hit the stores in March 1975 initially without a name for the character. But when the product proved a hit, Sanrio coined Hello Kitty and sunk the cat's claws into other products.
The designer, a big fan of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass" by Lewis Carroll, named the cat based on a feline in the latter novel.
Because the Hello Kitty character lacks a mouth, it is believed people more easily project their moods on the cat.
What other elements are there in Hello Kitty's fictional world?
Supposedly, the cat's real name is Kitty White, she's as tall as a stack of five apples and weighs about as much as three. She was born Nov. 1 on the outskirts of London in a two-story, red-roofed house that she shares with her parents and twin sister Mimmy. She also has a boyfriend named Daniel.
Has the design changed over the years?
Yes, but not significantly.
At first, she was only a sitting feline facing forward. Two years later, designers had her stand up, allowing for more diversity.
In 1982, designer Yuko Yamaguchi dropped the black outline, making the cat look more like a stuffed animal. The most recognizable change for fans may be when Kitty's signature ribbon was replaced with a flower in 1993.
Other than that, new designs come out every season in terms of the cat's clothes and ribbons to sport the latest fashions, according to Sanrio.
For instance, when tartan plaids are in vogue, Hello Kitty goes Scottish. Sanrio will dress her in black and white whenever those colors are hip.
Why did Hello Kitty become popular with adults?
The simple answer may be she's cute. Sanrio says she started selling with higher age groups in the late 1980s.
One day, the company received a letter from a high school student who said her parents told her to "graduate" from Hello Kitty goods because she was no longer a child. So she asked Sanrio to make products for her age group. In 1985, Sanrio complied.
Over the years, adults would write in saying they were still Hello Kitty fans and wanted products catering to them.
Sanrio started selling Hello Kitty bed linen and consumer electronics, targeting working women living on their own. When they marry and have children, the consumer cycle starting with kids' products will be repeated.
How much money does Hello Kitty products fetch annually, and is there a way to measure her popularity?
According to Character Databank Ltd., a character business consultancy, character goods racked up ¥1.59 trillion in sales in Japan last year. Of that amount, Hello Kitty ranked second, with a 6.57 percent market share, which translates into ¥104.7 billion in sales.
But this is only the domestic market figure.
Sanrio does not disclose how big a chunk of its global sales and profit are made up of Hello Kitty products. But it said Hello Kitty has been its best-selling character since 1985, generating about 60,000 new products yearly.
What fascinates Kazuo Rikukawa, president of Character Databank, the most is that Hello Kitty, unlike other characters, does not originate from animation, a picture book, comic or video game.
"Hello Kitty was made exclusively as a character to sell products," Rikukawa said. "It is amazing such a character will sell for 35 years" without the help of TV broadcasting or comic books pitching its name.
Normally, character products only sell about four years at the most, he said.
About how much would Hello Kitty's copyright be worth?
In business magazine Weekly Diamond's September 2000 edition, Sanrio President Shintaro Tsuji said in an interview that the company estimated Hello Kitty to be worth about ¥1.5 trillion.
Tsuji revealed in the interview that Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates had wanted to purchase Hello Kitty's digital copyrights for ¥600 billion in the mid-1990s.
"It was not a formal offer. I have heard from people around him that Mr. Gates wants to buy Kitty," Tsuji said. "What I've heard is that he doesn't want a licensing contract. He wants to buy it and he would pay ¥600 billion for it."
Has Hello Kitty's star ever dimmed?
Hello Kitty sold big at first in the 1970s, but her popularity declined in the 1980s. She suddenly retook center stage in the mid-1990s.
Some say it was because pop star Tomomi Kahara declared herself a fan, but there are probably many reasons behind Hello Kitty's renewed celebrity.
Sanrio spokeswoman Kyoko Obata believes the cat's charm is based on the continued pursuit of new fashions in keeping with the times.
"If the design doesn't change, people will get bored. But if it changes too much, that's not good either," Obata said. "I think we were able to balance between the two."
Rikukawa of Character Databank agrees, saying being a Sanrio original character, not based on a comic book or animation, makes it easier for designers to tweak Hello Kitty's diversity. "With animation, there is a story line and image. It's not easy to break that image," he said. "Designers can design without restriction."