She’s pretty. She’s pink. And she has no soul.
You know of whom I speak. The strange white cat with the empty eyes, button nose and absent mouth. She worms her way into your heart and never lets you go.
I fell victim to the Kitty at an impressionable young age. My grandparents, the well-meaning fools, exposed me to her in the gentlest of ways. I had scented erasers, pencil boxes, pouches of inexplicable purpose, playing cards – all before I could read or write. Back then Hello Kitty wasn’t yet cool, but years later she would storm through my junior high school like some mad, giggling hurricane, and I, laying some rare claim to partial Japanese heritage, was actually ahead of the fashion curve. Sure, I had Kitty stuff. Vintage Kitty stuff.
Despite my later rejection of all things feminine, the Kitty never really let me go. I was in college when the first Hello Kitty keyboard was introduced, and despite my earnest philosophy major, anti-materialism, anti-corporate, anti-the man attitude, the sight of it cast a searing lance of pure commercial lust through my very soul.
The power of the Kitty is undeniable. I knew I had to unlock its mystery if I was ever to truly escape.
Ex Nihilo, Lucrum Fit
The Sanrio Company, founded in 1960 by Shintaro Tsuji, did something most consumer businesses would sell their firstborn for: They created a brand out of nothing. In the ’60s Japan was still in the shadows of postwar economic and cultural depression, uneasy with its westernization. Tsuji, raised in this dark period, witnessed the success of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts characters and purchased the rights to market Snoopy in Japan. When he saw that brand’s success in the hungry-for-hope Japanese market, he set out to create a similarly happy brand and ride what would become Japan’s decades-long economic ascension straight to the top.
What started in Japan as a set of basic character designs intended for sale in gift shops – delicately decorated accessories the Japanese call “fancy goods” – broke into American markets in 1976 with a single store in San Jose, CA. And today, using those same characters, including Hello Kitty herself, Sanrio pulls in over $1 billion in annual revenue.
But Tsuji’s brilliance didn’t stop at simply creating Hello Kitty, oh no. He decided the difficult part of brand building was the tedious process of actually manufacturing product, distributing it, convincing people to buy it and developing ongoing creative material around it. You know, product development. So Tsuji decided he would let other companies do all of that. There were obviously lots of companies producing plain versions of the accessories Japanese women needed for their rapidly evolving everyday life, and he decided he would permit these manufacturers to use the brand that he had created to elevate those goods into the “fancy.” For a respectable fee, of course. Although Sanrio for years maintained it would not become a media property, Tsuji eventually allowed other companies to use the Hello Kitty brand to create stories, animated shows and videogames so that consumers would develop a deeper emotional attachment to his products and want to buy them even more.
In this way Sanrio went on to create a vast retail empire straight out of thin air. Because they were effectively outsourcing all of their production, they could out-compete every other “fancy good” manufacturer by ensuring that for every product a competitor created, they had three other companies distributing higher quality versions of that same item. Sanrio, out of what they will tell you is an egalitarian desire to “give the gift of giving” regardless of age, makes products targeted at a very atomic level toward young children, specifically girls. They priced small, cheerfully branded items so that a child with little pocket money could afford to buy them, and in doing so define her personality by choosing what adorns her accessories. By keeping a tight rein on quality control, the company ensured that Sanrio characters only appeared on well-made merchandise and focused the rest of their attention on convincing the world of just how happy, upbeat and hip a company they were.
And it worked. Today you can get a Hello Kitty credit card or fly to Asia on a Hello Kitty airplane. There’s the infamous Hello Kitty “personal massager,” and, for the truly dedicated copyright infringer, the Hello Kitty assault rifle. The less enterprising will have to settle for Hello Kitty tattoos or scarification. But a picture’s worth a thousand words; take a look at one YouTube user’s kitty collection, and you’ll see that Earth, it really is full of things. Hello Kitty things.
Sanrio cornered two sides of a growing market that even today continues to boom. By focusing on enhancing social experience, Sanrio was engaging in advanced community building long before the internet boom or the concept of viral marketing. Their commercialized social engineering captured two key concepts: self expression and exchanging social capital.
By deliberately keeping their brands as devoid of personality as possible (for decades very little was known about Hello Kitty, and her appearance changes from year to year), Sanrio deliberately leaves their products open to their customers’ interpretation. This intense diversity, and the diversity with which Hello Kitty herself can be presented and still remain an identifiable brand – whether she is UNICEF Ambassador Kitty, Angel Kitty or even Robo Kitty – is the heart of the self expression customers engage in when selecting Hello Kitty products, an activity that just so happens to cooperate perfectly with obsessive shopping.
This behavior is, on a commercial, social and economic level, exactly what gamers engage in when customizing avatars, exchanging online memes or quiz results, and even advancing on achievement ladders by obtaining rare goods. In a very basic way, all of these behaviors tap into our instinctive mechanisms for commodity gathering and self-differentiation. Sid Meier says that a game is defined as a series of interesting choices; Sanrio offers, as of today, over 22,000 positive, inexpensive, upbeat choices.
Despite Sanrio’s best efforts, the Hello Kitty phenomenon has not been without criticism. Within Japanese cultural studies themselves – which have focused on Hello Kitty as an Egyptologist would examine a sarcophagus – some suggest that the “kawaii culture” that arose in Japan’s heavily consumer-oriented post-occupation society acts as an emotional handicap on women, promoting a culture of “weak, submissive women who purposely act clueless and never want to grow up.”
Hello Kitty’s very femininity itself, suggested by her inoffensive colors, conservative dress and demure, mouthless politeness may in fact be why feminist “grrl” culture has so defiantly sought to reclaim her in recent years. The tattoo phenomenon is an echo of this; there is certainly nothing girly about slicing open your skin and injecting ink underneath it. Where earlier, more rigidly defined generations of feminism would have rejected Hello Kitty as an example of female oppression, some modern feminists embrace her and challenge society to deny their strength through this symbol of demure femininity.
So why did I experience that surge of terrifying desire when faced with the overwhelmingly pink Hello Kitty keyboard? I still don’t quite know. Did some part of me identify with this incarnation of the Kitty attached to my beloved technology? In my ascetic undergraduate pursuit of the cerebral, did I secretly yearn for the simplicity of childhood? Or is one quarter of me really just a squealing Japanese schoolgirl, written down to my DNA? It remains a mystery. But I do know that I still find it disturbingly hypnotic.
Oh yes. It will be mine.
Erin Hoffman is a professional game designer, freelance writer, and hobbyist troublemaker. She moderates Gamewatch.org and fights crime on the streets by night.