Sanrio crisis? The New York Times analysis

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Last month, the famous American newspaper New York Times had a long and interesting article analyzing the not exactly rosy situation of Sanrio. The reporter asked designers and industry experts to find out whether the boom of Hello Kitty is going to last and for how much time. We propose you a translated and summarized version the article (which you can read in full version on this page), hoping that it might interest you as it has interested us.

In Search of Adorable, as Hello Kitty Gets Closer to Goodbye

Despite Hello Kitty enormous popularity in the world, Sanrio starts seeing the first signs of crisis. In fact, sales of brand products are in constant decline since a decade, despite Hello Kitty branded gadgets, thanks to foreign licenses, increased by 9% during the last year.

Interviewed on the subject, Yuko Yamaguchi, the designer of Hello Kitty, says: “We badly need something new. The characters take a long time for development and introduction in different markets, but Kitty was so popular that it has obscured all our other efforts”.

In a market survey, published annually and updated just last month, it was showed that Hello Kitty is only third in popularity (a situation that has been going since 2002), while in the two highest positions of the podium there are Anpanman, a character produced by Nippon Television, and Pokemons. In addition, the research shows that Sanrio is going to be overtaken even by “smaller” companies, like San-x, whose character Rilakkuma classified in fifth position.

Sanrio in crisi? La classifica dei personaggi più amati.

Despite the sales drop in Japan, the situation on the foreign market is rosy, thanks to the many licenses related to the celebrations of the 35th Anniversary of Hello Kitty. Currently, the profit of Sanrio is linked to foreign sales for the 30%. However, Susumu Emori, the company executive director, believes a fabulous year, as the previous one, cannot happen again and that the sales are destined to fall significantly. In parallel, a Sanrio theme park, Harmonyland, has recorded a sharp drop in visitors that has caused to the company debts for 4.5 million Euros.

According to analysts, the Sanrio “crisis” is partly due to the overexposure Hello Kitty, now present in every type of product. “Sanrio was initially very careful in making sure that Hello Kitty phenomenon didn’t get out of hand,” said Naohiro Shichijo, professor at Waseda University Institute in Tokyo, who thinks that one of the business rules under is to not to allow a character to become too popular, if you want to bet on longevity.

Sanrio in crisi? Hello Kitty Colors e altre licenze
Hello Kitty Colors line was launched worldwide to celebrate Hello Kitty 35th anniversary of. Sanrio turnover is largely related to foreign licenses: (from top left, clockwise) Tokidoki, Sanrio.com, Loungefly, Camomilla.

In the case of Hello Kitty, since 1974, the year of its creation, the character immediately became a huge success, so much that even the president and founder of Sanrio, Shintaro Tsuji, feared that such popularity could be harmful in the long run. Tsuji’s doubts proved to be well founded, at least until 2000, when Hello Kitty exploded as an international trend. However, as stated by Prof. Shichijo, after the boom in popularity people are begin to be tired of the product.

Sanrio’s Hello Kitty tried to renew. In recent years, the look of the cat has changed from “kawaii” to “cool” (darker colors, more aggressive designs). However, they are simultaneously trying to create a new character that can break the market. In the creative offices of Sanrio, Yuko Yamaguchi is in charge of leading the team of 30 designers who periodically meets together to introduce new characters. At each meeting, each artist has about 20 proposals, but only a dozen of them will be chosen by Yamaguchi to be tested in stores.

Sanrio in crisi? Nuovi design di Hello Kitty.
Some more “aggressive” designs for the American market.

One of the main aspects to consider during this process is the ability to use the character in different media (for example, television). Hello Kitty, in this case, is a negative example: in spite the production of many animes dedicated to her, the public struggles to accept the fact that the cat could actually talk without a mouth. In addition, the analysis point to the fact that Sanrio characters lack a strong personality, typical of Disney characters, which conversely are having a huge success in Japan.

Sanrio in crisi? In Giappone spopola la Disney
Stitch debuted in Japan as the protagonist of an anime, while Tokyo Disneyland is recording even more and more visitors.

Finally, the designers of Sanrio characters are forced to develop for a target that consists primarily of children and pre-adolescents, although the bulk of the market, especially in Japan, is represented by adult consumers. In this regard, Miyuki Okumura, designer of the Jewelpet series, says: “If a character captures the heart of a child, she will still love it at least until adolescence. Then, when she will have children, she will buy them the same character. And that’s what we are aiming for”. Jewelpet can be considered just a symptom of Sanrio crisis: to bet on a group of 33 animals different from each other is a like to hope that at least one of them could hit the public.


Hiroko Tabuchi’s article confronts the reality that very often we as consumers tend to forget: kawaii characters are part of a complex mechanism of marketing and they are, essentially, a source of income for companies. In any case, there is no doubt that Hello Kitty is undergoing a strong overexposure, especially in the West, where the character is relatively “new”. Kitty days are numbered for real? Is the “crisis” is not only economic, but above all, creative? What do you think?

By Alessandra 0
By Alessandra
Copywriter by chance and graphic designer by passion. She deals with all aspects of the blog: content, design, technical side, social media managing.
Last update: 7 October 2012
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