The average cat lives for about 16 years, but Hello Kitty is anything but ordinary. This week, Hello Kitty turns 40, and the internationally loved mascot that has spanned generations is being showered with attention. Business owners without a particular interest in toys may consider the rise of Hello Kitty as little more than interesting trivia, but they'd be wrong. There is much to be learned from any successful business, and Hello Kitty is no exception. In celebration of its 40th anniversary, consider four lessons business owners can learn from Hello Kitty's effort to modernize.
Lesson 1: Successful Businesses Must Proactively Expand and Improve the Brand
Although she used to be at the top, Hello Kitty is currently the third-top-grossing character in Japan, behind Mickey Mouse and a recent anime creation. Nonetheless, the reason that Sanrio--the company that makes Hello Kitty--wants to modernize isn't that things are bad. Sanrio's attempts to modernize the brand aren't a last-ditch effort to save a dying brand but rather a proactive choice that shows the company acknowledges its future survival depends on its ability to draw in new fans and not depend solely on nostalgia.
Lesson 2: Don't Be Afraid to Experiment
One advantage of proactively trying to improve a brand is that there is more money available for experiments. Businesses that refuse to try something new will eventually find their products viewed as stale and boring by consumers. Hello Kitty's plan to modernize the brand includes several ideas that will expand the brand into bold new territory. For example, next year, Sanrio plans to launch a Hello Kitty Men line, its licensed stores in the U.S. will get a makeover, and there's a planned café in Southern California. The company is still trying to create new characters and use Hello Kitty in other ways that support their traditional strategy, but these experimental tactics give them a chance to break into entirely new markets. And as was mentioned before, since the company is starting these experiments in good times instead of bad, they have more flexibility to keep trying if the new products have a slow start and a greater cushion of reserve cash if these new projects are not well received.
Lesson 3: Never Forget Current Fans
Businesses trying to modernize or rebrand often make the mistake of alienating the original fans of the product. This is what makes the effort a dangerous balancing act for businesses trying to evolve. Hello Kitty has used several tactics to appeal to the old fans of the product at the same time as it looks for ways to bring in new people. For example, every so often, Sanrio puts together conventions, museum displays, or exhibitions that appeal to fans of the brand. Right now, to mark the 40th anniversary, items from four decades of merchandising, plus Hello Kitty-inspired art, are being used in a Hello Kitty retrospective at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. Similarly, the company doesn't seem to be doing anything during the modernization process that would directly change any of the things that made Hello Kitty so popular in the first place. For example, no one is suggesting redesigning the iconic look of the character or giving the silent Hello Kitty a talkative in-your-face personality.
Lesson 4: Word-of-Mouth Advertising Is a Better Tool for Long-Term Sustainability
One interesting thing about the Hello Kitty marketing technique is that it relies more on word of mouth than traditional ads to build interest in the product. For example, the company gives a lot of product to celebrities. In 2009, the company worked with Lady Gaga by helping her with a gown made entirely of Hello Kitty plush toys for a photo shoot. Other stars, like Britney Spears and Mariah Carey, have been seen wearing Hello Kitty accessories in public. And there's even an Avril Lavigne song named after the character. Think of it this way: Most people are aware of who Hello Kitty is, so it makes sense to focus on efforts that make people realize that a product that's been around for so long is still popular with trendy celebrities, rather than wasting effort informing people of a product they already knew existed. Business owners who wish to accomplish the same thing should seek to use social media to connect with influencers who can spread the brand to new people.
For something so commonly found, there's nothing common about Hello Kitty. The icon has remained a top seller for decades due to the combination of a quality product and shrewd marketing. Clearly, there's no simple formula to follow to duplicate the results but, by following the brand's tactics, such as the four outlined in this article, marketers have a better chance of making their own products successful.
So Happy birthday, Hello Kitty. Here's another 40 years. If you can think of any other lessons marketers could glean from Hello Kitty, put them in the comments.