June 18, 2008

Hello Kitty Modernizes Yet Still Clings To Her Roots

Japan's most famous feline Hello Kitty, is rediscovering her roots.

New up and coming products of the feline include digital cameras shaped like a cat's head, to stationery featuring the bubble-headed feline in Kabuki outfits, which is all going to emphasize the feline mascot's "Japanese-ness", says Sanrio Co, the maker of Hello Kitty products and license holder of her image.

According to Sanrio, which recorded nearly 94 billion yen ($870 million) in annual sales, Hello Kitty is starting to get popular in relatively new markets like Russia, China and India.

Much of the growth is coming from abroad and tourist sales in Japan, the company stated in the showing of their new products to the media Wednesday.  A quarter of Sanrio's profits comes from overseas sales, up 15 percent from three years ago.

Posing as the Statue of Liberty as a souvenir figure for New Yorkers and getting a tan for products in Hawaiian stores, shows how 34 year old Hello Kitty has always catered to regional tastes.

According to Sanrio, tourists coming to Japan want Hello Kitty souvenirs that aren't available back home. 

A 5 megapixel digital camera for 26,000 yen ($240) shaped like Hello Kitty's face, Sparkling rhinestone 512 megabyte USB memory card for 5,000 yen ($46) and a humidifier in Hello Kitty's image for 5,000 yen ($46) are just some of the products that will bring the feline into the famous Japanese world of technology.

Hello Kitty is still keeping some more traditional products like wallets of deer hide and chinaware mugs made by craftsmen - all with Hello Kitty motifs.

Next month, sales will go on for official postage stamps of Hello Kitty and her boyfriend Daniel wearing flowing "The Tale of Genji" samurai and princess robes.  The stamp set will sell for 6,090 yen ($56) and includes several plastic "netsuke," or tiny figures that were historically carved, of the couple.

Boxer shorts with glittery cat designs and lingerie with cat-inspired lacing will come out to try and market young men and adult women. 

"We have to keep changing so people won't get bored," Sanrio manager Kazuo Tohmatsu said.  "Ideas we would have thought out of the question 20 years ago are perfectly fine today."

Sanrio officials acknowledge that they aren't sure why Hello Kitty has proved to be so popular.  But the absence of the cat's mouth, a key feature for reading emotions, is believed to be one reason, letting consumers add their own interpretation to the character.

In the growing global push, Hello Kitty is expanding collaborations with foreign companies.  The latest is with Courreges, which includes sandals and bags with the French fashion house's logo.  Another is with a South Korean designer named Han Ahn Soon, which includes a 380,000 yen ($3,500) sequin minidress.

Japanese automaker Mitsubishi Motors Corp. and Taiwan carrier EVA Airways Corp. have licensing agreements with Hello Kitty in which there are two cafes in her name in Japan and also TV commercial appearances.

At a time when overall Japan retail sales are stagnent, Sanrio sales are up nationwide from the previous year, thanks to tourist buying, said President Shintaro Tsuji.

"The secret to success is foreigners," Tsuji told The Associated Press.


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