Tanya Stanich, a 43-year-old lawyer, clutched a handful of pink-and-black Hello Kitty notebooks at Sanrio Co.’s store in Manhattan’s Times Square and touched a sequined bag adorned with the face of a cartoon cat.
Growing up in Wisconsin, Stanich was introduced to the white feline, which sports a red bow and no mouth, by a California aunt, who sent her a Hello Kitty lunchbox, stickers, hair clips and pencils.
Now a resident of New York’s West Village neighborhood, Stanich says she still buys the stationery to brighten up her life.
"It’s nice to have something a little girlie and flashy and fun," said Stanich, who keeps her iPhone in a Hello Kitty case. "I could go nuts in here."
Loyal fans like Stanich have helped make Shintaro Tsuji, the 85-year-old founder of Tokyo-based Sanrio, a billionaire. Since introducing Hello Kitty in 1974, 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, as well as on airplanes, golf bags and even vibrators.
Continuing to create and maintain buzz will allow Hello Kitty, now almost 40 years old, to stay relevant, according to Christine Yano, chairwoman of the department of anthropology at the University of Hawaii. The cartoon has inspired artists such as Tom Sachs, whose Hello Kitty sculpture stood near Manhattan’s Park Avenue in 2008, and detractors, such as the author of the satirical kittyhell.com blog.
"Part of it is making cute into cool," said Yano, the author of "Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific." "Every time you see the outrageous picture of an MMA wrestler wearing a pink Hello Kitty thong, you have to laugh."
Tsuji is president and CEO of Sanrio, while his son Kunihiko, 61, is chief operating officer and senior executive vice president. The billionaire controls 1.8 million shares of Sanrio directly and 18.1 million more through Kunihiko and trusts held by his wife, Yasuko.
Sanrio’s shares have more than doubled this year. The company, which sells gift cards featuring cartoon characters, operates theme parks, and produces and distributes movies, had $898.6 million in sales its last fiscal year ending in March.
"It must be way up there in terms of the most recognized franchises in the world," said Ted Bestor, director of the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "It’s very hard to see any diminution for the Japanese fondness for cuteness."