Since she was created in 1974, Hello Kitty, with her signature red bow, has developed such a global reputation that – if Facebook “likes” are any indication of popularity – she outranks that of Marilyn Monroe. Hello Kitty has more than 8.7 million Facebook fans to Monroe’s 2.9 million.

As the global icon and flagship character of the 50-year-old Sanrio brand, Hello Kitty has helped the company make good on its theme of “small gift, big smile.” Sanrio’s diverse product line is manufactured through third-party vendors and sold in Sanrio boutiques as well as major department, specialty, and chain stores nationwide that include everything from stationery and school supplies to apparel and accessories to electronics and appliances.

“The theme ‘small gift, big smile’ actually was inspired by the tradition of Japanese gift giving,” COO Janet Hsu explains. “When you see people, it’s a sincere expression to present a small gift. It makes people happy and brings about a very positive mood and ‘small gift, big smile’ was inspired by that.”

And it seems the brand was solely inspired by that sentiment. Hello Kitty and the entire line of Sanrio characters are complete originals, started by founder Shintaro Tsuji. No movie, television show, book or major event prompted Tsuji to develop Hello Kitty; instead, Hsu describes it as a lifestyle brand, something that was created to stand on its own, which has proven to be the best foundation for the brand.

“Within the Sanrio portfolio, the brands are very evergreen,” Hsu says. “They weren’t created for some specific purpose or usage. They were simply inspired to make people happy. Our brands have been around for a very long time, and the reason is because we have kept them very relevant. They change as the world changes, although that inherent quality of who they are and making people smile does not change.”

Those qualities appeal to a wide consumer base, which has prompted Hello Kitty to adopt a host of hobbies over the years. Whether girly-girl, girl next door,  glam, punk-rock or sporty, Hsu says Hello Kitty’s purposefully created Zen-like attitude allows her to fit in with any crowd. “Our consumer base is very diverse for Hello Kitty as well as our other Sanrio characters,” Hsu says. “Because they are so diverse, you’ll see her in many different formats and environments. You’ll see her as punk rock and then show up very girly or riding a bicycle.”

The Hello Kitty appeal is impossible to ignore. Her A-list friends in the highly photographed entertainment industry include Lady Gaga, who once posed in a ball gown made of Hello Kitty plush and recently showed off a bouquet of miniature Hello Kitty “roses,” and Heidi Klum has been seen publicly preening in front of a compact Hello Kitty mirror. While being adored by others who are still young at heart such as Nicki Minaj, Victoria Beckham and Mariah Carey, she’s also adored by the actual young, including celebrity kids Suri Cruise and Zahara Jolie-Pitt.

In Sync With Sanrio

With that kind of fan base, many retailers have seen the value in partnering with Hello Kitty to create co-branded product lines across a variety of categories.

2009 marked Hello Kitty’s 35th anniversary and in 2010, Sanrio turned 50. Sanrio marked its 50-year anniversary with announcements of a number of Sanrio character collaborations. True to its love of diversity, the global icon teamed up with companies that each appeal to different markets.

Dr. Martens, a classic brand in its own right that has evolved from a workforce shoe into alternative footwear, developed a limited-edition collection of Dr. Martens’ 1460 8-eye boots and Mary Jane strap shoes.  The partnership came to fruition as Dr. Martens was celebrating its own 50th anniversary. The cult-classic shoe brand noted the dynamic yin yang effect reflected in the collection, explaining that Hello Kitty adds a playful side to the tough, durable and timeless 1460 boot while Dr. Martens brings an edge to the beloved animated icon. The collection featured white and black Mary Janes and boots with the identifying Hello Kitty bow, as well as a boot patterned with Hello Kitty and other well-known  characters in the Sanrio crew – Little Twin Stars, My Melody, Chococat, Keroppi and Patty & Jimmy.

Sanrio also teamed with Demeter Fragrance Library, which describes itself as the “company that creates the most unique, unusual and wearable fragrances in the world,” such as baby powder, dirt and Jelly Belly Blueberry Muffin. Instead of drumming up its own scent concoctions, Demeter specializes in isolating and bottling scents found in everyday life. Sanrio and Demeter launched the Hello Kitty scent featuring one of Hello Kitty’s favorite foods and something that pops up often in her designs – a combination of freshly picked red, green and yellow apples.

For My Melody, the fragrance house whipped up an almond pound cake scent, while the Little Twin Stars scent is characterized as a “light and bright combination of citrus fruits.” For the Sanrio scent, Demeter trapped the brand’s essence, literally. The fragrance is a combination of the Japanese fruit-flavored gum and scented erasers that sit in the middle of nearly every Sanrio store and wafts through the air as customers walk in. 

Scent was not the only one of the five senses that Hello Kitty targeted that year. Aerial7, the lifestyle headphone brand known for its superior acoustic technology and preferred by DJs and avid music listeners, worked with Sanrio to create Hello Kitty headphones in an eye-catching red, black and white pattern with a picture of Hello Kitty on the hard exterior of the ear cup and “HELLO KITTY” printed across the adjustable reinforced headband. 

Though these limited-edition collections served disparate product groups, they all had one thing in common. Sanrio chose best-in-class yet totally unique companies within their respective industry groups – things that Hsu says are key determinates of which brands Hello Kitty will partner with.

“With our collaborations, we like to provide

a very unique and exciting experience to our fans,” Hsu says. “We take a brand that’s relevant and one that when you combine it with Hello Kitty and other characters it produces a very special experience.”

Hello Kitty Happenings

That’s the driving force between more recent partnerships Sanrio has created for Hello Kitty. In January 2011, the international beauty retailer Sephora partnered with Hello Kitty to create a product line of makeup, fragrance and cosmetic tools still available in Sephora stores today. Speaking to the strength of this partnership, in May, Hello Kitty and Sephora showed continuing solidarity with a new fragrance – the Hello Kitty Big Pink Bow Fragrance, which is described as a blend of juicy pineapple, pink honeysuckle, tantalizing gardenia, fresh coconut and warm vanilla. The entire Sephora line, Hsu says, is exclusive to its partner’s stores.

“Some collaborations go into our own stores and the partner’s venue where consumers can have multiple touch points but some collaborations do not,” she explains. “For example with Sephora, you really have to have that Sephora experience. If we took that and sold it within a third-party retailer where there was no Sephora environment, it would disrupt that experience.”

Some of Hello Kitty’s partnerships are one-off, special edition events. However this June, Hello Kitty will “anniversary” its successful partnership with the skateboarding lifestyle shoe and apparel brand Vans. A new line of back-to-school shoes, apparel, backpacks and accessories will feature an array of Hello Kitty designs on signature Van silhouettes such as its original classic, no-lace, low-top shoe.

 “Some of our partnerships that are recent like Sephora and Vans have been very strong,” Hsu says. “It was a powerful execution that through their products, it could still inspire a nostalgic sense of what the Hello Kitty brand is built on.”

Closing the Age Gap

The Hello Kitty team is working to recreate that magic with another partnership formed with Hanky Panky to create a line of Hello Kitty lingerie that will hit retailers this summer.  The signature lace collection is embellished with eye-catching Hello Kitty graphics.

“We did just announce recently our Hanky Panky collaboration,” Hsu says. “The line will take the more sophisticated side of Hanky Panky’s lingerie and put it together with the cuteness of Hello Kitty. It’s pretty exciting for us and very relevant but it also reinforces the lifestyle part of the brand.”

The collaboration between Hanky Panky and Hello Kitty also reinforces that this character is not just kid’s stuff. From the outside, the cutesiness of Hello Kitty printed on child-friendly products such as backpacks and school accessories might lead one to think that this is a brand for little girls only. Many Hello Kitty fans have indeed started when they were little girls, but as they have grown up, so has Hello Kitty, hence the lingerie.

Alongside the play cell phones are covers for actual cell phones, laptops and tablets, and in addition to plastic play jewelry, there are Hello Kitty diamond necklaces and rings made by Simmons Jewelry. Swarovski, too, has a line of Hello Kitty accessories that start at around $60, average between $100 and $200 and go upward to more than $600.

Even some of its children’s apparel is an appeal to adults who want to pass the Hello Kitty love to their children. The Misha Lulu for Hello Kitty designer fashion line for young girls features dresses, coats, specially-designed t-shirts, leggings and jumpers ranging in price from $40 to $100 – options that only a working audience could afford.

Misha Lulu designed two distinct sets for the line. Homespun Hello Kitty has a hand-sewn feel and features a soft floral print and a Japanese-inspired “sketch” print atop a neutral palette. The line is dotted with details such as patches on leggings and rick-rack dresses, and crochet and applique embellishments. The Retro-Modern Hello Kitty set is a ‘60s mod-inspired line. With that era and Hello Kitty as its inspiration, Misha Lulu made items such as a red romper, a houndstooth coat with a faux fur collar, and a plaid baby doll dress. Many pieces featured brushed gold button details and Hello Kitty appliques.

Misha Lulu for Hello Kitty marked Sanrio’s entry into designer co-branded apparel for girls. “The debut collection was inspired by nostalgia with vintage prints, silhouettes, accents and infused modern fabrics and textures to perfectly capture the classic appeal of Hello Kitty,” Hsu states. “Moms that grew up with Hello Kitty will love this unique collection.”

Then there are partnerships the entire family can enjoy, such as the one formed last year with Yogurtland, the fastest-growing self-serve frozen yogurt brand in the nation. “Sanrio and Yogurtland are both customer-driven brands that deliver unique experiences to the fans,” Hsu states. “Sanrio’s legions of multigenerational brand loyalists will enjoy Yogurtland's premium frozen yogurt and family friendly atmosphere as well as the super-cute, limited-edition products created especially for this collaboration.”

Co-branded items including a Hello Kitty plush donning a Yogurtland uniform, key chains, and t-shirts featuring Hello Kitty and three other Sanrio characters were available for purchase at Yogurtland locations in summer 2011. Yogurtland cups and biodegradable spoons also received a Sanrio-style makeover with characters appearing on the collectable cup and spoons. Sanrio and Yogurtland will team up again for another promotion in 2012.

“We are thrilled to be working with such an iconic brand as Sanrio,” says Alexis Eldridge, Yogurtland vice president of marketing. “We think the Yogurtland philosophy of ‘You Rule’ and Sanrio’s philosophy of ‘small gift, big smile’ speaks to the same core intention – the little things in life can provide the biggest delight.”

Appreciation Through Art

Perhaps the biggest proof of Hello Kitty’s ability to deliver “small gift, big smile” to its strong adult fan base was shown on her 35th anniversary in 2009 when mature Hello Kitty fans expressed just what the character means to them through original artwork.

That year, from Oct. 23 to Nov. 15, the 10,000-square-foot Royal/T venue – a visually stunning and playful, Japanese-inspired art exhibition space in Culver City, Calif. – hosted Three Apples, a multi-dimensional exhibition and celebration of all things Hello Kitty. Along with L.A. Works, the event’s charitable partner, Sanrio collaborated on a number of art-appreciation events for children and teens from more than 250 community agencies.

The youngsters participated in hands-on workshops to create their own artworks and were given a special Hello Kitty-theme lunch, gift bag and greeted by Hello Kitty herself. And, of course, each group was treated to a docent-led tour of the main attraction.

Three Apples – so named as a nod to Hello Kitty’s weight as listed in her official biography – drew in a variety of celebrity artists. These included the pink-loving Buff Monster who has been featured in the New York Times; Tara McPherson, a New York City-based artist who got her start working on “Futurama” created by Matt Groening; and Gary Baseman, a three-time Emmy award-winning executive producer who was once named by Entertainment Weekly magazine as one of the 100 Most Creative People in Entertainment.

Others among the line-up of esteemed contemporary artists included Ron English, Natalia Fabia, Amanda Visell, Colin Christian, Huck Gee, Luke Chueh and Frank Kozik.

“They had different ways of translating Hello Kitty through art,” Hsu explains. “They had to be one-of-a-kind pieces, whether a painting or 3-D sculpture or whatever the format was, but they had to be one-of-a-kind and our only prerequisite – because we got so many artists who were interested – our one prerequisite was that you had to love the brand. We wanted her 35th anniversary to be very much from the heart.”