The art of making cute Kitty cool
LAWYER Tanya Stanich, 43, clutched a handful of pink and black Hello Kitty notebooks at Sanrio's store in Manhattan's Times Square and touched a sequined bag adorned with the face of the cartoon cat.
Growing up in Wisconsin, she was introduced to the cartoon feline by an aunt, who sent her a Hello Kitty lunchbox, stickers, hair clips and pencils.
Now a resident of New York's West Village neighbourhood, Ms Stanich said she still buys the stationery to brighten up her life.
"It's nice to have something a little girly and flashy and fun," said the slender brunette, who keeps her iPhone in a Hello Kitty case.
Loyal fans like her have helped make Mr Shintaro Tsuji, the 85-year-old founder of Tokyo-based Sanrio, a billionaire.
Since introducing Hello Kitty in 1974, Mr Tsuji has captured the hearts and wallets of girls, women and celebrities, such as Lady Gaga, by licensing the character, which appears as stuffed toys and on airplanes and golf bags.
Sanrio's shares have doubled this year, more than the 39 per cent gain in Japan's benchmark Nikkei 225 Stock Average, and reached a 52-week high on Wednesday. The firm, which also operates theme parks and produces and distributes movies, had 74.25 billion yen (S$946 million) in sales in its last fiscal year ending in March.
Mr Tsuji, who has written company newsletters under the pen name Strawberry King, was born into a wealthy family that ran restaurants and inns in Yamanashi prefecture, a rural region about 100km from Tokyo.
Continuing to create and maintain buzz will allow Hello Kitty, now almost 40 years old, to stay relevant, according to Ms Christine Yano, chairman of the department of anthropology at the University of Hawaii.
Ms Yano, the author of Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty's Trek Across The Pacific, said: "Part of it is making cute into cool.
"Every time you see an outrageous picture of a mixed martial arts wrestler wearing a pink Hello Kitty thong, you have to laugh."
Sanrio is attempting to diversify beyond Hello Kitty. Two years ago, it bought the rights to the Mr Men cartoon from Chorion, the first character the company has not developed internally.