Happy birthday Hello Kitty! Superstar cat celebrates 40th anniversary
Sanrio reveals that with no mouth, fans are free to interpret her emotions
Forty years ago, Japanese product-design and licensing company Sanrio was looking for its first animal character.
There were already too many bears in the market and a world-famous dog called Snoopy. So Hello Kitty was born.
Now, the cute cat with six whiskers and no mouth is a global superstar, consistently the most popular of Sanrio's cartoon characters, which together earned 74.2 billion yen (HK$5.68 billion) for the company last year.
"Hello Kitty has become a part of life," Caroline Tsang Shui-kwan, Sanrio Hong Kong's chief operating officer for Asia, said, adding that handling Hello Kitty was like managing a human star.
"What I do is similar to what a manager does for a star," Tsang said. "We need to be selective about her jobs, and be innovative from time to time to keep fans interested."
Hello Kitty debuted in Japan in 1974, wearing a navy blue jumpsuit and sitting upright in a coin purse. Two years later, in 1976, she stood on her paws for the first time. Four years later, she started collecting more clothes in her wardrobe and adopting different looks.
Since then, she has become more trendy and fashion-conscious. She sported a tan and wore a big flower on her head when the alternative Ganguro trend hit Japan in the 1990s.
Then she got a boyfriend, Dear Daniel, coinciding with the announcement of a high-profile celebrity marriage in Japan.
But Tsang says one of the biggest secrets of Hello Kitty's success lies in the design. Hello Kitty doesn't have a mouth, which means people can interpret the cat's emotions based on their own, Tsang said. "They find the cat to be happy when they are happy, or sad when they are sad."
That allows the cat to appear anywhere - from 2-D designs on stationery and Eva Air jets, to 3-D Hello Kitty impersonators in commercials and events. There is only one rule: Hello Kitty will not do anything that might upset mothers and wives, such as holding a gun or drinking spirits.
While Sanrio specialises in the kawaii (cute) side of Japanese culture, Tsang said Hello Kitty sometimes transcends that, such as by spinning discs in a club.
"Apart from the cute side, people have no problem appreciating a cool Kitty DJ," she said.
Still, technological advances have brought challenges. Previously popular products such as letterheads and photo albums are no longer popular, and people increasingly tend to buy things online instead of visiting physical stores.
But Sanrio upholds the idea that gifts form a part of friendships or relationships, and that the best way to get them is by browsing in a shop.
"When Shintaro Tsuji founded Sanrio 55 years ago, he believed people needed communication … and that their affection could be expressed through small gifts," Tsang said.
With overseas markets sluggish for the time being, the mainland will be the focus for Sanrio's development. The company entered the mainland market in 2003, and the brand is still relatively young there. Consumer preferences on the mainland are also different, Tsang said.
"Local office ladies look for something cute, cool or glam. Those across the border tend to buy Hello Kitty products for their children, and quality tops their list," she said.
In Hong Kong, Sanrio has this month put together a Hello Kitty "volunteer team" of 50 local fans who will celebrate the character's 40th anniversary with a range of activities.