It’s probably second only to Garfield in being the world’s most easily recognized cat. But Hello Kitty leaves its fat orange, lasagna-loving competitor far behind when it comes to the sheer range of products it has appeared on—aircraft, maternity hospitals and high-end jewellery to more mundane items such as T-shirts and lunchboxes. All of which have made Hello Kitty a brand that’s worth $5 billion (around Rs24,350 crore) today. Japan’s Sanrio Co. Ltd and local partner Space Toons, which launched the brand in India last week, are hoping it will be able to replicate at least some of its global success in the Indian market.
For such a powerhouse of a brand, Hello Kitty has an almost absurdly simple back story—it appears to have developed by pure accident. According to Kunihiko Tsuji, chief operating officer, Sanrio, “We were manufacturing simple sandals in black and white. But at some point, we began printing pictures of flowers and animals and Hello Kitty happened to be one of them.”
New entry: Japan’s Sanrio Co. Ltd and local partner Space Toons launched the brand in India last week.
Introduced in 1974, Hello Kitty first made its mark with young school and college girls in Japan, on the lookout for something cute.
Its popularity would soon expand and engulf older, more affluent consumers. Sanrio relentlessly licensed the character to almost anyone who wanted it. With licenses and products typically staying in the market for short spans of time, many items of Hello Kitty gear soon acquired the status of a highly prized collectible. Today, Japan remains Hello Kitty’s largest market accounting for 40% of its revenue. The US and Europe together account for the bigger 50% share.
Licensing continues to play a huge part in Hello Kitty’s global popularity. Of the thousands of offers it gets, Sanrio accepts around 200 every year. The Hello Kitty range starts at lollipops at a dollar a piece and peaks with jewellery sets that can sell for up to $20,000. There’s no income or age segment that Sanrio considers unworthy of selling to—with products for infants, fashion crazy teenagers, expectant mothers and everyone in between. And strangely enough, this empire has been built with almost no mainstream advertising.
The publicity has been mostly word of mouth and via a whole bunch of unsolicited endorsements from celebrities such as Mariah Carey and Oprah Winfrey.
Sanrio claims that just slapping a Hello Kitty logo on a product increases its revenue potential by 30%. It’s something that local partner Space Toon is hoping Indian marketers and retailers will buy into. Of course, it does seem like Hello Kitty has a bit of an uphill task in India. Most other Japanese properties such as Pokemon and Beyblade are closely associated with fads; all the characters that have stood the test of time are American—from Disney, Marvel and Warner Brothers.
However Rajiv Sangari, managing director and chief executive officer, Space Toon, says, “I beg to differ. Hello Kitty is definitely quite popular among the girls here. Since it was not officially represented so far, there have been a lot of counterfeit and pirated products. Now that it is officially represented, in the next one to two years this product will be as big and as strong as any of the world’s biggest properties on ground.”
A billion dollar question that invariably crops up is when exactly are Indian consumers going to warm to a home grown equivalent of Hello Kitty? While India has accepted global merchandise brands, indigenous characters and programmes generally have less luck. The main reasons are the sheer time and effort it takes to conceive of and then popularise a property. Tagging merchandise on to already well developed characters with a global fan following is far easier. There are some signs of change, though. Space Toon launched a series of books around its characters Fafa and Juno in April this year. And M.A.D or Music Arts and Dance, a programme on POGO, is moving beyond the medium it was originally created for.
Says Monica Tata, vice-president and deputy general manager, Turner International India Pvt. Ltd, “Music Art and Dance clearly has been one big success story. You’ve got DIY (do it yourself) kits, publishing, and lot of gifts and novelties.”
It’s early days but with a lots of patience and even more luck, perhaps India will have its own success story; the equal of a billionaire cat with a bow in its ribbon.
Storyboard will be aired tonight at 7.30pm on CNBC-TV18.